There is a remote, isolated tribe, somewhere in Africa, which gathers once a month to vent its anger at the full Moon. The women shake their fists and the men fire volleys of arrows at the great silver disc with a human face. The purpose is to warn off the Moon, which they regard as a sentient and threatening being, from coming down to Earth. The tribe believe that their monthly ritual has saved the world from disaster.
Do you believe this story? How would it stand up to fact-checking ? This fact-checking is done using best journalistic practices. It is not far removed from the methodology used by the military to convert information into military intelligence. The first question to be asked is about the source of the information and what is the ‘agency’ that is communicating the story. My credibility as the ‘agency’ telling the story may seem ok at the beginning of this analysis. My track record on other stories is supposedly reliable, while I have no personal experience supporting the truth of the story itself. But what about my source? The problem is I can’t remember where I read the story, in some article or other, many years ago. Not good, not good at all.
The second question to be asked is about the story itself. Is it feasible? The vagueness of the story undermines its credibility. Africa is truly a big place. It may well have many isolated tribes, but without more precise information of this tribe’s location it is impossible to fact check. However, if, instead of Africa, I were to suggest that the ritual takes place in Kilkenny, Ireland, fact checking would be able to establish the truth or otherwise of the story. The known remote isolated tribes in Kilkenny could quickly be identified. Also, if they do turn out with hurleys – a wooden stick used by Kilkenny tribesmen engaged in a ritualistic sport called ‘hurling’ – on the night of the full Moon, this fact could easily be verified. The key point here is that vagueness is a useful tool in creating fake news and, consequently, a barrier to effective fact-checking.
Fake news and public opinion
The purpose in creating fake news is to influence opinion, initially of the individual, and ultimately of the target audience. Separating fact from fiction is an essential part of establishing the truth. When relying solely on people’s memory there is an additional problem. Memory is not fully based on fact. It is a mixture of fact and imagination.
The public at large have multiple sources of information to help them form their opinions. There was a time when print media was the main source. Indeed, the older generation remembers well the status held by their paper of choice. Often times a story was accepted simply because it was in print. “It must be true, I read it in the newspaper,” sealed many a narrative as confirmed truth.
We pitied the poor people living behind the Iron Curtain, whose opinion was formed by State controlled media. However, simplistic views such as these were rapidly dispelled, while attending a course at the Irish Military College, back at the height of the Cold War. The instructor, a fluent Russian speaker, turned to the blackboard and quickly wrote two words in the Cyrillic Alphabet:” PRAVDA” meaning Truth and “IZVESTIA” meaning News. These we knew were the two main State controlled outlets for print information available in the USSR.
“Every Muscovite knows,” he said, “there is no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” He added that the papers were read primarily for the readership to know the Communist Party’s take on current events, rather than as the mainstay of opinion forming. One paradox of the post-Soviet period is that people in Russia believe State media more readily, now, than they did back in the Cold war years, even though the state controlled media is still, essentially, carrying out the same functions.
For example, in the aftermath of the ten-day, August 2008, Russo-Georgian War, propaganda reached new heights, on both sides, and continued long after the conflict was over. Leaving aside the question of who started the war, Russia easily won. However, such was the influence of Russian State controlled media that, in an opinion poll taken the following year, (in the Moscow area), a majority still listed Georgia as the greatest threat to Russia, not the US or NATO.
Fake news promotes conspiracy theories
Fake news now promotes conspiracy theories which are often aimed at destabilising public opinion and undermining public confidence in its leadership. People, despite advancements in education, the explosion of social media and the internet, can be as gullible as ever. While they should be free to believe what they want, they should not be given free rein to endanger human life by spreading lies about the current pandemic. The ‘right’ of free speech in never absolute.
In the meantime, fact checking and exposing fake news, is essential, to counter misinformation from anarchists and anti-vaccers hell-bent on undermining our public health systems.