The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has heard it argued. Many respected experts, local and foreign, subscribe to the idea and it is rapidly infiltrating academic discussion and newsrooms. Fake news, they tell us, does not exist.
In fairness, the arguments are more nuanced than that. One approach is that “fake news” is such a contradiction in terms that it is meaningless: news can never be fake, and fake can never be news. Another slightly different approach is that using the term undermines public faith in all news by design, and the likes of United States President Donald Trump should not be allowed to play such dangerous games.
But both arguments and their kin come down to the same thing, and both are wrong.
Fake news exists. It isn’t news because it is fake in exactly the way old news isn’t news because it is old. We could call old news something like “stuff we already know” but that is a palpably poor definition. Old news is a very specific subset of stuff we already know, best described as what it is not.
It just so happens that the dichotomy also serves as an implicit compliment. “Old news” is a derogatory term exactly because what it describes is not news. If the ideological aim is to promote news as a good thing, then that is not achieved by avoiding talking about “old news” but rather by differentiating between old news and news.
Ditto fake news.
Although fake news is misinformation, it is also something much more specific within the universe of misinformation. Calling it by its true name gives us power over it, while denying that power to those who may otherwise harness it to their own dastardly agenda.
Towards the end of 2016, I believed that fake news could tear South Africa apart if not addressed. In 2017, South Africa did little to nothing to address it. But the country is still here, and my own research now suggests fake news is a minor problem at best, one rapidly being overtaken by a tide of plagiarism of real celebrity news. It turns out that, for the ethically unencumbered, it is easier to make money from plain old theft than to put in the effort to invent lies.
That there is a trickle rather than an avalanche, however, is no reason to ignore it because public policy does not always care for scale.
The idea of a media appeals tribunal is rising from the grave again, and Cabinet ministers are talking about the dangers of “information pedlars”, also again. Fake news is a tremendous excuse for censorship.
Taking that excuse off the table starts with a proper definition of fake news, rather than banning the term and leaving it free for political misuse by not-so-civil not-quite servants.
Frustrated by the lack of a proper definition for academic use, I created my own four-part test for fake news in individual articles. To qualify as fake news, an article:
- Must pretend to be news;
- Its central assertion must be provably false;
- The presumed intent of the creator must be negative; and
- The probable effect of the article must be negative.
The first part excludes propaganda and undisguised political speech. The second excludes opinion and vague assertions that do not draw on fact. The third excludes genuine mistakes. The fourth excludes satire, no matter how biting and mean.
Between them, these four parts of the test serve as a sort of reverse purification, refining for dross.
With all the good stuff left behind there is only pure fake news: something that pretends to be news about things purported to be true, designed to deceive and bad for everybody.
We cannot fight lies. We should not fight political speech. We should forgive mistakes. We must never discourage the satire that humbles the mighty.
But acting against pure fake news is not only desirable and possible, it could also be good fun, presenting as it does a legitimate target without the risk of collateral damage.
Fake news is actionable, in the sense that individuals and companies lied about have civil (and occasionally criminal) remedies open to them. If you defame a person or seek to influence a share price, you face the wrath of a judicial machinery built to extract vengeance on behalf of society, and increasingly capable of cross-border action to deal with online threats.
But there are more direct and personally satisfying courses of action available. Advertisers associated with fake news websites and advertising networks that act as agents should be made aware that they are dealing commercially with evil. That goes double for the internet service providers who host such sites and the anonymising services that enable them. Letter writing, boycotts, take-down demands and nuisance actions of every kind are warranted.
We can fight fake news, channelling into the fight all the impotent anger we feel towards those who are trying to drown us in misinformation.
Just as long as we don’t try to pretend fake news does not exist.