The war against free speech that has been going on ever since our ancestors started making meaningful grunts is hotting up. In many Western countries, expressing “hateful” views can already get you fined, sent to jail or, at the very least, make you the target of a rabid mob determined to shout you down. That is why the current furore about “fake news” is ominous. Some powerful individuals want to stop it from spreading. To do so they would have to impose, with the help of the Google-Facebook duopoly, a form of censorship that would surely have met with the approval of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the Japanese militarists who hunted miscreants guilty of harbouring “dangerous thoughts.”
The pretext they use is that “fake news” threatens democracy. Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, top people at the BBC and a great many others have taken to warning us that truth is being replaced by a tidal wave of lies that surge through the electronic media and seep into millions of minds. Pope Francis has chimed in too; he says “fakenews is the devil’s work”. They all think something should be done to counter it. From a slightly different angle, Donald Trump agrees: he hands his critics what he calls “fake news awards.” British Prime Minister Theresa May is also worried by what, like the rest of them, she assumes is a new phenomenon, and has just set up a “fake news unit” to stop the Russians from flooding the UK with “weaponised information”. Perhaps she should pay more attention to those Macedonian kids who, in the run up to the latest US presidential elections, made 30,000 euros a month posting tall tales on Facebook for advertising money. Thanks to them, their home town, a place called Veles, enjoyed what for it was a big consumer boom.
If the results of a quick Google search are anything to go by, the “fake news” stories that are currently upsetting so many worthy men and women are not that sinister. On the eve of election day in the US, it was reported – presumably by the Macedonians – that the Pope backed Trump and that Islamic State Jihadists supported for Hillary for financial reasons. A few weeks later, it was reported that Melania Trump had banned White House employees from taking flu shots. In addition to stuff like that, there was plenty of more traditional fare about scientists getting baffled by children with canine features or, as the Sunday Sport once informed readers, about aliens turning humble folk into fish fingers. Nasty rumours designed to hurt politicians when they are trying to ingratiate themselves with voters have been making the rounds since fifth-century-BC Athens. As for the tabloid nonsense that also deserves to be called “fake news”, it has been with us for even longer, along with alleged revelations about the private lives of celebrities.
The only people who are liable to be taken in by “fake news”, which is not the same thing as a slanted interpretation of a verifiable fact, are the credulous devotees of conspiracy theories who will believe almost anything that fits in with what they want to believe, but perhaps May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the others who want “social media” to be censored are not thinking about such individuals, let alone the poor souls who fear aliens are waiting to carry them off and subject them to medical experiments. What they are after is a plausible excuse that will allow them to prevent, on behalf of the common good, people from getting acquainted with facts they find inconvenient. In Germany, Sweden and some other European countries, anything that throws a bad light on immigrants or their offspring gets systematically overlooked by respectable news outlets because, officialdom says, it could stir up bad feelings. Such policies have proved counterproductive. By undermining trust in the political establishment, they have helped give rise to “right-wing” protest movements.
Forcing all social media to toe the same line as the local government and the similarly minded “mainstream press” would be even more harmful. In any event, “fake news,” that is outright lies, is for amateurs. Real professionals, among them politicised journalists, know how to take advantage of virtually anything that actually happens by presenting in a way that suits their agenda. A good example of this came in September 2015 when the body of a drowned boy was found washed up on a Turkish beach. Without wasting a single minute, those in favour of open borders blamed “Europe” for what had happened even though it was soon found out that the child’s Syrian father was in the people-smuggling business and wanted to leave his everyday job in Turkey, where he had lived for three years, because he thought he could get better dental treatment elsewhere.
That episode and others like it were interpreted in a manner designed to make Europeans thoroughly ashamed of themselves for not taking in even more would-be immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and further afield. The ploy worked. Merkel certainly got the message; almost immediately, she flung open the doors of Germany and invited the world to come in, thereby setting off a huge population movement that would change her country forever and, as was predicted at the time, would lead to the deaths of thousands of the people who scrambled to take advantage of her offer before the doors slammed shut again, as they soon did. People who feared uncontrolled immigration on a massive scale would have unpleasant consequences were slow to react by putting a different spin on what was an undeniable fact. When they finally did, they pointed out that the boy had died in Asia and that, in any case, his fate showed that the millions who had begun pouring into Europe were coming from lands in which the cultural and social mores were radically different from those prevalent in Western democracies and it would therefore make sense to keep out the many who would never manage to fit in.
Before too long, that old-fashioned approach was adopted by all European governments, including Germany’s and Sweden’s, but by then it was too late to do much more than pray that somehow or other everything would turn out well.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).