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False profits from fake news
Publication Date : 20-08-2012
"Comment is free, but facts are sacred," remarked C.P. Scott, one of Britain's greatest newspapermen more than a century ago. He was merely summarising a fundamental tenet of journalism: that, while everyone is entitled to his opinions, the factual basis of a story is beyond dispute and cannot be tampered with.
No longer, however, for there is a growing trend to publish utterly fake stories, pretending to report events which never happened. The motives for this phenomenon vary, but the outcome is the same: an erosion in the credibility of established news outlets, an unnecessary strain on diplomats and the grave potential of bloodshed.
Initially, the Internet was the main source for fake news, for obvious reasons. The resources required for an online presence are negligible. And, while in the printed world the feel of a publication, its graphic layout and its distribution network give potential readers clues to distinguish between reputable and crackpot titles, such distinctions are meaningless online. So the website of someone claiming to have just seen Princess Diana having lunch with Elvis Presley may look just as authoritative as the front page of a long-established newspaper. The Internet is a great democratiser, but also a merciless leveller of news sources, a boon for mischief makers.
Social networking sites such as Twitter only compound the problem. Just last week, someone claiming to be Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the Russian Interior Minister, tweeted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been killed. Oil prices immediately jumped, as the fake story moved from Twitter to e-mail: "I heard it not so much in the Twitterverse as in the big-mouth-verse," says Mr Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst of the Oil Price Information Service. Needless to say, it was all a hoax.
The circulation of "news" about the death of senior leaders - usually accompanied by some spoof explanation as to why the information is being "withheld" by the relevant government - is now almost routine. But recently, there was a refinement: an attempt to piggyback fake news on credible websites. The blogging platform of the Reuters news agency was repeatedly hacked, and on each occasion, fake stories alleging the defeat of rebel forces in Syria or the death of senior princes in Saudi Arabia were published.
For a while, these episodes were mostly dismissed as just individual pranks. But the habit of deliberately inventing stories is now spreading, from the Internet to established news agencies and TV stations, particularly in the politically fraught Middle East.
Fars, an Iranian news agency affiliated to the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps, published last month an interview in which the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said that he was looking forward to a strategic alliance with Iran. Since relations between Iran and Egypt are notoriously bad, the interview generated a political sensation. Only that it never happened; one can understand why Fars News is jokingly referred to inside Iran as "False News".
Press TV, Iran's state-controlled satellite channel, is also a source of much invented news. On the day the Olympic Games opened in London last month, it broadcast a story claiming that a mass terrorist attack on sports facilities was imminent, apparently ordered by a property owner who wants to collect the insurance compensation money. The alleged owner was, needless to say, Jewish, and the report was accompanied by still pictures of simulated flames pouring out of the Olympic stadium.
Over the past two years, Press TV has also run four separate stories about the purported outbreak of revolutions in Saudi Arabia, and thrice about alleged military coups in Qatar. It also "buried" most of the Saudi royal family, twice over.
And, if this is not enough, Press TV once announced that the United States is grappling with a secessionist movement. In case you did not know it, the states of Texas and Vermont apparently want independence. Ironically, when Press TV was launched in 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged its journalists to stand "beside the oppressed nations of the world but not make up news in their favour".
Yet these shenanigans are nothing compared to what goes on in the Arabic-language channels of the Middle East. Again, Al Alam and Al Manar, two Arab-language TV channels owned by Iran and its regional allies, frequently lead with fictitious stories.
Although Al Jazeera, the Qatari-financed satellite channel, has revolutionised the Arab media with its vivid and frequently accurate reporting, the station has also succumbed to the temptation of running stories which are clearly manufactured by opponents of the Syrian regime. Coverage of the previous revolution in Egypt "made Al Jazeera", says Sultan Al Qassemi, a noted political commentator based in the Gulf. But "Syria's destroying it", he warns.
Middle East media outlets are not the only ones guilty of blurring the line between truth and fiction. There is, for instance, the downright farcical example of NBC, the American TV giant, which would never dream of inventing or falsifying news. But it has recently gone to great lengths to make some real events appear as though they took place at a different time.
NBC is the Olympic movement's single biggest financial supporter. It had a problem with the London Games since, due to different time zones, most of the events were held before peak evening viewing times in the United States, when NBC makes most of its money from advertising.
So the network simply taped and broadcast the events later, but pretended that they were taking place live. The US swimmers "must have a great chance tonight", chirped an excited NBC commentator one evening. Actually, the result was already known and, on that occasion, America's swimmers didn't do well.
Does all this matter? After all, the Iranian TV channels are already discredited, and spoof stories and fake websites are as old as the Internet. The danger is that, if left unchallenged, the fashion for inventing news can be corrosive. And it ultimately degrades the quality of all journalism.
One example of this is the story of Amina Abdallah, a Syrian blogger who captured the attention of The Guardian newspaper in Britain because she seemed custom-made for the left-leaning daily: She was a vulnerable female, gay and a fighter in the current revolution in her country. The only snag is that "Amina" turned out to have been a middle-aged man from Scotland.
Lapses of judgment happen, but the wave of fake news encourages a culture of cynicism as the public loses trust and gets used to the concept that almost everything is part of some conspiracy. The truth becomes hard to discern in this sort of environment. Once the disease sets in, it is almost incurable.
Fake news can also generate political tensions: the invented interview with President Mursi resulted in a Middle Eastern diplomatic storm as countries such as Saudi Arabia immediately demanded explanations. This is why invented news is often part of broader psychological warfare campaigns: the torrent of Iranian-generated false information about demonstrators allegedly being killed in neighbouring Bahrain has precluded any possible political compromise inside that kingdom.
And the potential for trouble can extend beyond diplomatic spats to blood on the streets. Given the inflamed reactions to the burning of the Quran by Western soldiers in Afghanistan earlier this year, one can easily imagine the possibility of violent eruptions whipped up by fake reports of a similar nature.
The scourge of fake news cannot be eliminated, but its effects can be mitigated. Governments have to be much quicker with rebuttals in order to quash false stories.
Networks which persistently invent stories or otherwise break the minimum requirements of decency should be made to suffer the consequences: Britain's recent decision to ban Press TV from its soil is a case in point.
But ultimately, it is up to the established and trusted media networks which uphold journalistic standards to fight back and do their best, while the fantasists continue to do their worst. For the alternative is too awful to contemplate: a media in which the truth becomes a relative, elastic concept, and where only those who shout loudest are heard.