Fake News and Fake Facts

Getting to the Heart of “Misinformation”

The war on so-called “misinformation” has been ramped up lately with the (mercifully short-lived) introduction of what has been dubbed the Biden Administration’s “Ministry of Truth”. Across the pond, the UK’s Online Safety Bill – which would require social media firms to police “legal but harmful content” – recently received its second reading in the House of Commons, while the EU’s Digital Service’s Act is also threatening to break out of its chrysalis. The big irony, of course, is that the state itself is the biggest purveyor of falsehoods. The only reason it needs to curb the free dissemination of ideas is not to crush lies but to crush inconvenient truths.

Many readers are likely to be under the impression that the essence of fake news is the misreporting of facts. Such a view is amplified by the beavering of so-called “fact checkers”, whose purpose seems to be to smother any statement that the regime happens not to like.

Facts can, of course, be disputed. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that outright lies are the most insidious sources of false impressions. If uncomfortable, undeniable facts happen to crop up, the state and its big tech minions are just as likely to ignore and censor them rather than to lie about them. What matters more is the fostering of false narratives. Such an endeavour depends not on the accuracy of facts themselves but on how those facts are selected, presented, ordered and described. Indeed, the same set of agreed facts can be used to tell completely different stories.

To take a simple, fictitious example, say that US President Joe Biden – for a reason that cannot be established – is unable to accept a phone call from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now consider the following, possible headlines with which media outlets could report this occurrence:

  • “Communication Difficulties Hamper Biden and Boris Talks.”
  • “Biden Hangs Up on Boris.”
  • “Has BoJo been Snubbed?”
  • “White House Falls Out with Downing Street?”
  • “Bumbling Biden Latest: Can President not Even Pick up a Phone?”

Each of these hypothetical headlines is reporting essentially the same fact, yet they are each designed to convey an entirely different impression.

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