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The threat of ‘fake news’ isn’t fake, but nor is it new

Credit: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Credit: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

March 5, 2018   3 mins

Fake news is old news. That should be obvious to anyone with more than a glimmer of historical knowledge.

As a phrase it’s been used against – and then by – Donald Trump and his supporters. Allegations of Russian interference in the US Presidential election have added fuel to the fire.

But is legitimate concern tipping over into hysteria – a ‘red scare’ for the 21st century?

Someone who thinks so is the economist Branko Milanovic – (and no, he isn’t Russian in case you were wondering). On his globalinequality blog he advances an explanation for the current climate of paranoia:

“The reason why the hysteria has spread, and especially so in the United States, is because this is (to some extent understandable) reaction to the loss of global monopoly power exercised by the Anglo-American media especially since 1989, but practically from 1945 onwards.”

His argument is that for decades after the Second World War, US and UK news networks were so far ahead in their international reach that they were effectively alone in shaping the global news narrative:

“Not only were Western media totally able to influence what (say) people in Zambia thought of Argentina or the reverse (because there was probably next to zero local coverage available to somebody living in Zambia regarding what is happening in Argentina; and the reverse); more importantly, because of Western media’s greater openness and better quality, they were able to influence even the narrative within Zambia or within Argentina.”

He describes competing efforts from the Communist bloc as “laughable”. As a school boy in the 1980s I can remember listening to Radio Moscow on a friend’s shortwave radio – not because we were teenage communists, but because it was unintentionally funny: “And now, Music from Moldavia!”

Has the arrival of foreign-run news networks in western nations provoked the attacks on fake news?

Broadcasts from West to East were taken more seriously. Communist governments tried to jam them, but for ordinary people they were a rare source of reliable news. When the Berlin Wall came down, that credibility appeared to cement the Western media’s global domination. But it wasn’t to last:

“…that honeymoon of global Western monopoly began to change when the ‘others’ realized that they too could try to become global in a single media space that was created thanks to globalization and internet. Spread of the internet insured that you could produce Spanish- or Arabic-language shows and news and be watched anywhere in the world.”

The real turning point, though, is more recent – with the move of non-Western news networks into Western media markets:

“And this is why we are now going through a phase of hysterical reaction to the ‘fake news’: because it is the first time that non-Western foreign media are not only creating their own global narratives but are also trying to create narratives of America.

“…for many people in the US and the UK this comes as a total shock: how dare foreigners tell them what is the narrative of their own countries?”

There’s lot in what Milanovic says. But if his own narrative has a flaw it’s the implication that this is about aggrieved feelings of Western superiority. If that were true then one might expect fake news hysteria to afflict conservatives more than liberals. However, I’d say it’s the other way around – and no wonder, because non-western news narratives are also non-liberal (and sometimes downright anti-liberal).

It doesn’t help that western liberals have suffered reverses on the home front too. Indeed, the coincidence of liberal set-backs (Trump, Brexit, etc) with the advance of the non-western media is too convenient not to make too much of. No need ask if you might be the author of your own misfortune when external forces can be blamed instead.

Of course, there’s little doubt that foreign powers are trying to influence western opinion through the new media (as in the economic sphere, they’ve learned a trick or two from us). Moreover, if that influence crosses a line and becomes interference, then it must be dealt with.

That said, the idea that our political divisions are anything other than home-grown is ridiculous – and it’s disappointing to see people pretending otherwise. But then, like ‘fake news’, there’s nothing new about blaming foreigners for the trouble we make for ourselves.




Listen to our audio documentary on the impact the news industry and its bias to the ‘new’ might be behaving on the democratic west.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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