PUBLICATIONS
Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication, and Fantasy in Journalism (book review)

Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication, and Fantasy in Journalism (book review)

Book review by Lungani Hlongwa.

Abstract: It is increasingly becoming difficult to separate facts from fiction in the digital age. This is one of the core arguments of Brian McNair’s book as he takes the reader through the world of fake news, which is dominated by falsehood, fabrication, and fantasy. McNair’s book is a timely contribution on the subject of fake news as this term constantly bombards us. What is fake news? What is not fake news? What does the emergence of fake news tell us about our cultural present? These are just some of the questions addressed by McNair in his book. With more than thirty years working in journalism, McNair does a commendable job answering these questions while avoiding scholarly and specialist jargon. The book is highly recommended to anyone interested in media studies, journalism, or those who want to understand the fake news phenomenon.

Keywords: media, journalism, fake news, global public sphere, cultural chaos

Header Image “Seminário sobre Fake News com a jornalista Tais Seibit – Foto Michel Corvello” by Prefeitura de Pelotas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

INTRODUCTION

Brian McNair [10 December 1959–5 September 2020] was a well-known researcher in the fields of sociology, media studies, political communication, cultural studies, media studies, and journalism (Lugo-Ocando, 2020). He was a Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology. His book Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication, and Fantasy in Journalism was published on September 30, 2021 by Routledge. 

CHAPTER 1. Fake News

This chapter begins with the role of former American President Donald Trump in the rise of the concept of fake news. The author notes how Trump regularly referred to media organizations as ‘fake news’ when they published news with which he disagreed during his presidential campaign. According to the author, Trump used the term ‘fake news’ even more after he was elected president, thus contributing significantly to the ‘memeification’ of the term in 2016. McNair’s understanding of memes is based on Richard Dawkins’ definition, who defines them as cultural units that can replicate exponentially in and across societies causing ‘cultural contagion.’ Donald Trump is not the only one who has used the term ‘fake news’ to deflect media criticism. The author also points out how Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, regularly used the term to brush off western media’s criticism of his death squads. The death squads are vigilante groups hired to exterminate illegal drug use in the Philippines.

The author also reflects on the cultural and political significance of the rise of fake news. According to McNair, the rise of fake news is part of a broader public distrust in the media’s legitimacy. It is also symptomatic of a crisis in liberal democracy. This crisis, writes McNair, has led to the rise of populist politicians such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. However, McNair points out that fake news is not just a weapon of those on the ‘right.’ Both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ use the term to marginalize one another. McNair also points out that fake news has a global dimension. There is a struggle between states to define what is objective truth. For McNair, this struggle is fundamental to information warfare. McNair ends the chapter by expressing the need to restore trust in journalism. He believes that failure to do so will ultimately lead to a ‘discursive anarchy’ unseen before in a democratic world.

CHAPTER 2. Faking it in journalism: not really new, not exactly news 

In this chapter, the author provides a historical context of our current understanding of fake news. He starts by referring to several journalists who fabricated stories that were widely disseminated and widely read. One notable example is that of Stephen Glass, who wrote and published numerous fake stories from 1995 to 1998. According to McNair, these fake stories by Glass and other ‘fake journalists’ led to a ‘shattering of journalistic objectivity.’ However, in many of these cases, such journalists were publicly shamed, and their organizations apologized to the public. Journalistic honor was restored. McNair laments the lack of such attempts to restore journalistic honor in the current paradigm of fake news. He believes that ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ are now merely taken as elite fabrications. He associates the difficulty in stamping out fake news today partly to the rise of digital media. Information flows more rapidly today than it did 20 years ago. 

McNair delves deeper still into the origins of fake news. He believes that the old left critique of the media as an elite tool to dominate the masses has been co-opted by the populist movement. One of the more prominent scholars of this leftist critique of the media is Noam Chomsky, who co-published, among others, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In this new media critique, journalism is seen by the wealthy (e.g., Donald Trump) as an anti-democratic apparatus that acts against the people’s interests. For McNair, this kind of critique is strikingly similar to that of Chomsky’s propaganda apparatus. This apparatus is what the ‘right’ refers to as the ‘deep state.’ 

McNair also explains what fake news is not. Conspiracy theories of all kinds are not fake news. They are merely a reflection of a tendency by others to believe the unbelievable. Neither are stories where journalists inadvertently missed crucial facts in the stories they covered. Fake news, for McNair, is strictly when news writers are driven by political or commercial intent to mislead by purposefully falsifying information. 

Figure 1: Word cloud generated by author based on most frequent words in article.

CHAPTER 3. The Decline of Trust in Journalism – post-truth, post-factuality and the digisphere 

In this chapter, McNair discusses the conditions that make fake news so culturally disruptive. He discusses three such conditions: long-standing philosophical and cultural trends, digital and communications technology, and the rise of online and social media networks. On a philosophical level, McNair explains that the rise of fake news can be linked to the growing influence of relativism on the social sciences. The theory of relativity, as espoused by physicists Albert Einstein, proposes that a particle can be in two states at once. In other words, there can be more than one truthful account, making it impossible to capture one fixed reality. If this cannot be done in physics, laments McNair, how much more difficult will it be in complex human societies? He refers to this situation where there is no single absolute truth as ‘cultural relativity.’ What is real and truthful is determined by the perspective of the observer. Since 1995, the emergence of the internet, digital media, and social media have enabled the rapid spread of fake news across the globe. McNair refers to this global audience as the ‘global public sphere’ (GPS). The GPS also sometimes spreads fake news through their digital channels, making it even more challenging to filter out fake content.

CHAPTER 4. Fakers, Makers, Sharers  

In this chapter, McNair explores numerous examples of fake news, ranging from teenage pranksters to politically motivated conspiracy theorists. He also points out that many fake news propagators do so for commercial purposes. Examples of such commercially motivated fake news, or ‘clickbait,’ involve drawing viewers’ attention to a story only to bombard them with commercial ads. McNair refers to numerous other examples to show how and why fake news is published. He reiterates some of his earlier points of how fake news spread today compared to 20 years ago. Today, social media has provided a globalized GPS where information flows in a network. In the pre-digital age, however, information flowed from top to bottom. This structure made it easier to trace the source of fake news, its fakers, and makers.

CHAPTER 5. Fake news and democratic political culture: the challenges, and how to address them 

In this chapter, McNair argues that beyond the short-term impacts of news, there is also great concern about its corrosive effect on the public sphere at all levels – globally, transnationally, nationally, and locally. If the corrosive impact of fake news is not addressed, McNair believes that this could take us back to when people like Galileo Galilei were punished for pointing out that the earth was not the center of the universe. In other words, McNair believes that, if left unaddressed, fake news will lead to the rejection of truth. For McNair, such a development spells danger for democracy. 

McNair points out that fake news undermines democracy. He states that citizens in democratic societies require accurate, honest, and truthful information. For democratic citizens to have access to such information, journalists and their organizations must be trusted. Even in cases where we disagree with journalists, the stories they publish must fundamentally be objective. However, McNair rightfully points out that objective news does not preclude news with strong opinions or bias. Such news should not be labeled as fake news. 

In this chapter, McNair also thinks through multiple ways of countering fake news. Some observers have suggested that governments should play a role in regulating fake news. This would be akin to how some governments around the world regulate hate speech and the incitement of violence online. McNair argues that such an approach cannot be used to police fake news because state officials are sometimes the ones spreading fake news. Hence, authorities may not be entrusted with the task of suppressing fake news. Such a situation, argues McNair, would lead to political censorship. For this reason, McNair believes the problem of fake news should not be left to governments to solve.   

A preferable solution for McNair lies within the media organizations themselves. He argues that pressure must be placed on media organizations to improve their fact-checking processes. For McNair, media organizations are better positioned to deal with fake news than social media organizations. He points out that social media platforms operate on algorithms designed to promote certain content and suppress other content. Social media platforms are thus fertile ground for the spread of fake news, although many have taken steps to address its spread through their platforms. 

McNair further states that we cannot leave fact-checking to media organizations alone. He believes that civil society must also play a role. Potential solutions that could be developed are those that use big data analytics to trace the origins of fake news, how it flows, and what impact it is having. McNair stresses that democracy depends on weeding out fake news.

CHAPTER 6. Afterword

In the afterword, McNair succinctly summarises his main arguments. His central thesis is that fake news in our cultural present is symptomatic of a crisis of trust. This crisis of trust is rooted in 20th century post-modern and cultural relativist philosophies and the shattering of journalistic objectivity due to the publication of fake stories such as those of Stephen Glass and others. He contends that, in our present time, fake news lies at the intersection of long-standing cultural trends and development in digital technologies that have enabled its spread. He further stresses the importance of identifying fake news from not fake news. Only when we know and understand what fake news is can it be weeded out from the GPS.

CRITIQUE BY THE REVIEWER

With the publication of this book, Brian McNair has not only defined what was to the reviewer a rather vague term but has also provided its historical and cultural context. McNair also went to great lengths to offer examples of fake news from around the world and how the term has been utilized as a weapon in political circles. The book lived up to the author’s promise of using non-academic and specialized language, making it easy to read. Be that as it may, the author challenges the reader to think of ways to weed out fake news. The solutions he proposes are both thought-provoking and relevant given our technological abilities.

 However, for the reviewer, the book does not adequately equip the reader with the tools to identify fake news. In many cases, the author simply referred to instances of fake news without explaining how he came to that conclusion. A detailed explanation of how to assess the integrity of a news story would have made the book more balanced. Furthermore, the reviewer found the book to delve too deep into American politics, making it challenging for some readers to follow. Understandably, the book was written from an American perspective – a country whose politicians and journalists, according to the author, have occupied center stage in the rise of the fake news meme. Despite these minor issues, the reviewer recommends the book to anyone interested in learning more about the phenomenon of fake news. 

REFERENCES

Lugo-Ocando, J.A. (2020). Remembering Brian McNair: 10 December 1959–5 September 2020. Porn Studies 7(4), 474–475.

 

(Visited 20 times, 1 visits today)