Fake News: Déjà vu all over again

December 10, 2016

Image by Jon S/Flickr/Creative Commons

Image by Jon S/Flickr/Creative Commons

We’ve been here before you know.  Overwhelmed by fake news. Making important political and social decisions based on lies, half-truths and deliberate manipulation of facts, shaping them into something quite hideous. Perhaps even ignoring them all together. Denying they exist.

There really is nothing new.  Just different ways to twist and turn the facts.

A few reminders:

Remember the USS Maine? Sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898 allegedly by unknown assailants. It was the real dawn of “yellow journalism” when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) used their papers to print false stories of atrocities to whip up anger against the Spanish masters of Cuba. Thus, the Spanish-American war was created. Three months later the US had the Philippines, Guantanamo Bay and more or less control of Cuba. In 1976 a US naval commission ruled that the Maine’s sinking was a result of a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not a Spanish mine.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident. On August 2, 1964,  the USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by three North Vietnamese gunboats. The US claimed the Vietnamese fired first, but it was later disclosed that it was the US that fired first. Another incident was reported by the National Security Agency to have taken place on August 4. Both incidents were widely reported by the national media. But that second incident never happened. Yet Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution which gave President Lyndon G. Johnson the authority to intervene on the behalf of any southeast Asian nation threatened by “communist aggression.”

The babies in the incubators.  In 1991, the US was debating a resolution to go to war against Iraq for invading Kuwait. There were emotional statements on both sides. The outcome was unsure … until a young woman spoke at a US Congressional hearing, about watching Kuwaiti babies taken out of incubators so they could be sent to Baghdad for Iraqi babies. Politicians and the media were incensed, the debate swung in favor of war, and you know the rest. What only became known later was the young woman was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, that she hadn’t been in Kuwait in months, and the entire incident was a plan by the US PR firm Hill-Knowlton (who had been hired by the Kuwaiti government) to convince Congress to go to war. Not a single politician or media member had ever asked the young girl who she was or if she had indeed seen the incubator incident.

Niger yellow cake uranium. The entire 2nd Gulf War was a complete fabrication by the President George W. Bush administration, bought and sold by the US mainstream media, hook, and sinker. And in some cases, the Mainstream Media was actual source of the fake news (that’s you, New York Times).

Now here’s the thing about the fake news in these situations. These weren’t some teenagers in Macedonia pumping out fake news to conservatives trying to activate their confirmation bias and give them another reason to vote for Donald Trump, as happened in the 2016 election. Almost all of these fake news stories were promoted by the mainstream corporate media. In most of the above cases, after it was shown that the media had been manipulated by the government, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, deep soul-searching, seminars held in journalism schools, and promises that such failures would never happen again. But they did. Repeatedly.

The examples above are only four, but they are four important ones because the media’s role in promoting these fake news stories helped lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Iraqis.

So when I hear the mainstream media tut-tutting and wagging their fingers about the dangers of fake news, I find it a bit ironic.

One reason that this new strain of fake news is so effective, particularly with conservatives, is that over the years the media has helped promote fake news and sensationalism. This is partly why so many people distrust the media. Add in the speed of the Internet age, the reach of social media, and the determination of people who only want to hear news that confirms what they already mistakenly believe, and you have where we are now.

In the end the responsibility is not with the media but with us. It’s why we must do whatever we can to promote media literacy. On a personal level, my wife and I talk with our children about news stories, documentaries, even television ads, to help them understand how news is put together, and how that can be used to try to manipulate emotions (either by the government, politicians, talking heads, or even the reporters), and how advertising strives even harder to achieve the same effect.

We may be engaged in the most important social and political struggle of our time, in North America and globally. We are entering an age in which politicians have shown themselves more than willing to lie, and manipulate, and openly mock the truth. Their lies are quickly seized upon by fake news sites that promote the falsehoods, and the situation is often made even worse by the way the mainstream media also reports on the lies.

Finally, there is a need to hold both the mainstream corporate media and these fly-by-night fake news websites to task. Even if people don’t want to believe the truth, it’s important to keep putting the real facts out there, about issues like climate change, abortion, scientific inquiry, immigration, the loss of civil rights, police brutality, misogyny, the conflicts of interests of the president of the United States, regardless of the often virulent opposition from those on the Alt-Reich (or as the Associated Press prefers you would call them Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, and racists).

That’s the real job of the media. And also of the informed citizen. It’s pretty hard to have one without the other.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com


Propaganda of the Spanish American War: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_of_the_Spanish%E2%80%93American_War

Who lied to whom? New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/03/31/who-lied-to-whom

When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators: http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0906/p25s02-cogn.html

As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth, by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/us/fake-news-partisan-republican-democrat.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

Related on F&O:

Fake News and Our Happiness Disorder, by Deborah Jones

Fake news is so widespread today because real news can be depressing. We are a society that avoids sadness, suppresses reflection with distraction, and stocks an arsenal of drugs and therapy for depression. And, increasingly, we refuse to embrace facts delivered as news.~~~


Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 



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