MAINSTREAM MEDIA DISSEMINATION OF FAKE NEWS :
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES – A CRITICAL ANALYSIS
BY; MAREN DE KLERK
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
This is an excellent definition of the “Big lie”, however, there seems to be no evidence that it was used by Nazi propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels, though it is often attributed to him.
The original description of the big lie appeared in Mein Kampf. Adolf Hitler applied it to the behaviour of Jews rather than as a tactic he advocated. Hitler accused Viennese Jews of trying to discredit the Germans’ activities during World War I. Hitler wrote of the Jews’ “unqualified capacity of falsehood” and “that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victim to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the trust so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation… From time immemorial, however, the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited.”
To further support this idea of Hitler, a recent study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, indicated that contrary to accepted knowledge, belief in all statements, whether they be true or not, increases with repetition.
The implications of the above study for normal people in their daily lives, are that where consumers of news and products are often repeatedly exposed to both implausible and plausible falsehoods, even obvious lies may slowly become more credible, provided there is enough repetition. Considering this vulnerability, it becomes crucially important not to report falsehoods even when attempting to debunk them. This is actually such a sad state of affairs, given modern humanity is living and making important decisions based on lies!
The issues of politicians spreading misleading information are well-known and researched. As far as the role of the traditional News Media is concerned; they are supposed to
be the bearers of truth and actual facts, but they play a somewhat paradoxical role in respect of fake news and its dissemination and therefore Mainstream media actually forms part of the problem (Tsfati, et al.,2020).
Whilst this information has been prevalent throughout Media since its inception, scholars and academics have argued that recent years have marked the rise of the ‘Misinformation Society’ (Pica 2016, Page 119), as well as the era of “Alternative Facts and Post Truths” (Benkler et al., 2018).
Graves & Wells (2019, Page 42) say that factual accountability has weakened because information which is spread directly to the public, bypassing the Media’s usual gate keeping and editorial scrutiny, have increased with Social Media. In addition, Egelhofer & Lecheler (2019) argue that a further cause of the disinformation lies with the risk of the ‘fake news genre’ which describes the intentional spread of false information and marked as traditional news in order to advance political views.
Tsfati et al, (2020) argue that traditional News Media is in fact part of the problem in spreading false information and to a certain extent, playing a paradoxical role in respect of fake news and its dissemination. In order to correct this situation, News Media often have to repeat it and in repeating the lies, often make it more difficult to correct those lies (Lewandowsky et al., 2012). A conclusion to be drawn from this is the paradox that the Mainstream Media covering this information also helps in its dissemination albeit for purposes to correct this false information.
As an example of the dissemination of false information according to Wikipedia 2021 ‘Big Lie’ states as follows:
“To support his attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election, President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly and falsely claimed that there had been massive election fraud and that Trump was the true winner of the election. U.S. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz subsequently contested the election results in the Senate. Their effort was characterized as “the big lie” by then President-elect Joe Biden: “I think the senators Mitt Romney and Pat Toomey, scholars of fascism Timothy Snyder and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Russian affairs expert Fiona Hill, and others also used the term “big lie” to refer to Trump’s false claims about massive election fraud. By May 2021, many Republicans had come to embrace the false narrative and use it as justification to impose new voting restrictions, while Republicans who opposed the narrative faced backlash.”
Information for Political purposes is not limited to such as The United States as referred to above. Even in small countries like Namibia, various News Papers and specifically, The Namibian, spread numerous articles containing serious disinformation regarding the Fishrot matter, no doubt fuelled by political motives because the ruling Swapo party was implicated by the disclosures made by whistle blowers in this matter.
In South Africa, enormous amounts of mainstream media articles were published, especially by the Sunday Times, regarding the so called ‘the Cato Manor death squad’ as well as the so called ‘SARS rogue unit’, most of which were later proven to be fake news, and even based on blatant falsehoods(Harber,2020). In the SARS case, the South African Press Council ruled that the reporting by the journalists of the Sunday Times was ‘inaccurate, misleading and unfair’. The Sunday Times had not given subjects reasonable time to respond, obtained information illegally, dishonestly or unfairly. ( Harber, 2020).
As another example, Tsfati (2020) refers to the 2019 Israeli elections where 20.5% of adult respondents in the online module of the Israeli National Election Study were “absolutely sure” or “pretty sure” that the wife of the positioned Prime Minister Ministerial candidate Benny Gantz was active in “checkpoint watch” whereas only 22% of the respondents were sure that the story was not true. Observers called this story the most widely circulated online fake new story of the Israeli Election Campaign. Even where no data is available on public belief in fake news, Tsfati (2020) argues that one can still deduce from reports on real world consequences that fake news is believed and he also goes on to prove that convincing evidence shows that in Social Media circles, exposures to fake news is heavily concentrated.
Tsfati (2020) goes on to argue that in a similar ‘fact’ study, 300 Italian and French websites were identified by independent fact checkers as publishers of false news (Fletcher et al., 2018). Tsfati et al (2020) concludes that this strongly suggests that Social Media is not the primary driver of spreading fake news among the general population.
Notwithstanding, the very limited exposure, scientific data constantly demonstrate that at least some fake news stories receive widespread attention and are widely believed. Even if evidence is circumstantial, the mere fact that people hear about fake news stories, but do not see the original publication, by necessary implication, means that the Mainstream Media is indeed responsible for much of the fake news stories that receive public attention. Put differently, while estimates of exposure to fake news stories on Mainstream Media are not available, Al-rawi (2018) argues that it is probable that given the vast attention dedicated to fake news stories on Mainstream outlets, larger proportions of the public are exposed to the more visible and newsworthy fake news stories through the coverage that these stories garner in Mainstream News Media than directly through Social Media.
(Vargo et al., 2017) also provides compelling evidence indicating that fake news websites have a direct influence on the Mainstream News agenda for some of the topics such as International News and according to their study, partisan media, is specifically guilty of the aforesaid.
FAKE NEWS AS NEWS FOR MAINSTREAM MEDIA
Tsfati et al (2020) identifies four important reasons why mainstream News Media covers fake news. These are the following:-
- Journalists’ role perceptions;
- Traditional news values;
- Psychology of news decisions;
- The infrastructure for covering what is going on in the online world.
Some journalists see part of their role as needing to seek the truth and to expose what is not true, (Donsbach, 2004). Surveys among journalists across political contexts, show that providing ordinary citizens with the information that they require to make political decisions, is sometimes the most highly prized of professional values (Hanitzsch et al., 2018). According to Bennet and Livingstone (2018), the prominence of truth and correcting false information in the professional journalistic culture, has increased in recent years as arguments about ‘alternative facts’ are mounting under the ‘ information disorder of the post- truth era’, and in light of a more complex set of issues covered by journalists has led to a social climate of polarisation and controversy, even when it comes to scientific facts and the increasingly manipulable character of the Media in an environment that constantly challenges journalists ability to discern truth and correct lies (Reich and Barnoy, 2017).
According to Patterson (2013) the prominence of truth and facts in Journalists professional culture is reflected in the Journalists’ self-criticism on the role of the News Media in the disinformation order and with the concomitant result that Journalists complain that reporting has become increasingly sloppy and that bottom line pressure is hurting journalism. This again indicates the high incidence of sloppy, untruthful and inaccurate reporting.
According to studies, it is evident that the targets of fake news stories tend to be political actors (Humprecht., 2018), and that the content of the false information tends to be counter intuitive, negative and emotional (Bakir and McStay, 2018). The relevance criteria are also met when the object of the fake news is a prominent figure, sometimes Political, or that the fake news could otherwise have a direct impact on public opinion, alternatively, the results of an upcoming election or referendum.
Tsfati (2020) concludes that overall fake news stories tick many of the boxes of news worthiness, and that because fake news reports are almost by definition news worthy, the content thereof often satisfies additional news criteria, further increasing the news value thereof.
According to Humprecht (2018), the reason that the content of fake news stories varies across national contexts in manners that match and reflect National Journalistic styles and their respective news agendas, also implies that the content creators of fake news intuitively or deliberately write their stories in such a way as to match mainstream journalists’ news values.
A third reason why fake news is reported by Mainstream News, concerns the psychology of news decisions. In this regard, Donsbach (2004) argues that beyond seeking the truth, a major factor that shapes journalists’ decisions is social validation, i.e. journalists are extremely attentive to what other journalists are saying and doing when making their own news decisions.
A further psychological factor according to Donsbach (2004) is the power of existing attitudes and pre-dispositions of journalists, because as all human beings, journalists pay more attention to attitude confirming information than disconfirming information. As such, and when processing information, journalists regard attitude confirming information as much more important that attitude disconfirming information (Kepplinger, 1991). As a result, journalists’ news decisions tend to be influenced by their own subjective beliefs. (Patterson & Donsbach, 1996). This also explains quite clearly, when dealing with parties in Media, they are more heavily influenced by fake news because some journalists cover fake news not only because it is newsworthy, but also fits their role perception and because other journalists cover it, also because the content of the fake news fits their ideological tendencies and Political narratives.
Another reason why Mainstream Media reports about fake news, have to do with the fact that the story must first be noticed by journalists and editors and, as a result, journalists have started to regularly follow what is going on in Social Media in areas that are part of their beats and perceive this as an important part of their jobs (Jordaan., 2013). According to Paulussen & Harder (2014), various content analyses also show that News Media increasingly and routinely covers Social Media, and in their study, Social Media was used as a news source in 70% of the News Reports referring to either of these platforms.
It therefore follows that given the infrastructure developed by Mainstream News organisations for monitoring the online world, it is plausible to assume that when this information is spread on Social Media and receive some traction, they are likely to be discerned by journalists who will examine the veracity and report them, using the procedures that they as journalists have developed (Schifferes et al., 2014).
THE DANGER OF POOR FACT CHECKING BY JOURNALISTS
Journalists are generally not required to disclose their source. They only have to take reasonable steps to verify their story, and provide some (hopefully) credible evidence to substantiate it and have a so called public-interest reason to publish the story. Even if they only present the story as an allegation, it shifts the burden of proof to the target person of the story, instead of the source of the information. ( Harber, 2020)
It follows that the media can publish information, which is supposedly in the public interest, fairly quickly. The problem arises when the journalist does not conduct proper fact checking, verifying the evidence, critically analysing where the story emanates from and what it signifies, putting it into the correct context, and most importantly, offering a genuine and substantive right of reply. If they do not do the aforesaid, they can be used by those who leak disinformation to them for personal, political or financial gains.(Harber, 2020)
This danger becomes even more pronounced when a newspaper is under financial pressure; so much so that the need for a big front page story often clouds their judgement and is published unfiltered and unchecked (Harber, 2020).
In South Africa, a non-fictional book titled The Lost Boys of Bird Island (2018), written by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn, ‘exposed’ an alleged paedophile ring that operated within the last Apartheid government of South Africa. It quickly became clear that the book was based on dangerous fake and uncorroborated sources. The Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, The Rapport’s journalist independently followed up on several of the wild accusations made in the book and concluded: “ But none of the damaging accusations could be independently verified and our reporters could find no concrete evidence thereof”.
To add insult to injury, Mark Minnie wrote an email to Maryna Lamprecht of Tafelberg publishers , approximately two weeks before he ( Minnie) committed suicide and four days before the publication of the book and said: “ We have no concrete evidence that any of the three Ministers sexually assaulted any of the victims [ mentioned in the book]. Notwithstanding , Tafelberg went ahead with the publication.
After much furore the book was withdrawn by the Publishers in 2020 and they issued a public apology to the only (implicated) Minister still alive at the time.(Sowetan 03 March 2020). The holding company of Tafelberg publishers , Media 24 offered a R3 million settlement offer to the ex-Minister, Barend du Plessis and had withdrawn all unsold copies of the book. ( News 24, 28 April 2020).
DAMAGED DONE BY FAKE NEWS
Social psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated that retractions often fail to completely eliminate the influence of this information (Lewandowsky, 2012). As an example and according to Walter and Tukachinsky (2019), a recent meta-analysis aggregating
32 studies found evidence for the continued influence of disinformation and misinformation, meaning that it continued to shape people’s belief even in the face of correction. These findings suggest that once people are exposed to misinformation, corrective messages cannot fully revert people’s belief to the baseline, i.e. people will continue to believe the initial misinformation.
This is so, because in order to comprehend a statement, any person must at least temporarily accept the statement as true (Gilbert et al, 1993). From this viewpoint, even believing false information is part of processing it. Therefore, if the fake news item is supported with an explanation as why the fake news might be true or if the disinformation is consistent with an explanation that is already stored with other mental nodes, the Psychological Literature on misinformation suggest that eliminating the original mental model will be particularly difficult (Anderson et al, 1980).
The data further suggests that notwithstanding Media refutations, sizeable shares of the audience deduce that there is a chance that fake information might be correct with the consequent effect that doubt may be the undesirable consequence of mainstream news coverage of fake news.
Another problematic issue is the fact that in order to report about fake news stories, Mainstream Journalists often have to repeat the fake information and this repetition poses a severe stumbling block in any attempts to correct this information (Lewandowsky, 2012). This is as a result of what is called the “mere exposure” effect (Zajonc, 2001), and the “truth effect” (Dasheen et al., 2010) who states that the mere exposure and repetition of statements increase the likelihood that those statements are perceived as being true. One of the main explanations is that repetition breaches familiarity and people tend to perceive familiar information as correct and trustworthy, giving the sense of ease and processing fluency that accompanies familiar information (Swartz et al., 2007).
Swartz et al., (2016) convincingly argue further that when thoughts flow smoothly people nod along. Further studies have also found that people infer accuracy and consensus of an opinion from the number of times it has been repeated, even when the repeated expression is associated with only one person (Weaver et al., 2007; Dasheen et al., 2010).
There are also other reasons to believe that some audiences will retain the disinformation, notwithstanding the fact that some news is merely reported as fake news. In this regard and on the research on Psychology of Truth, assessment has, for example found that people tend to believe not only familiar, but also simple and coherent statements (Levandosky., 2012). It therefore follows that the more complex the correction, the less fluent the processing will be and less likely to be affective (Schwati et al., 2020). According to Walter and Tukachinsky (2019), congruence between misinformation and audiences’ prior attitudes, beliefs and opinions also shape audience retention of the misinformation from mere reports about fake news, giving findings demonstrating that the ability or inability to correct misinformation is strengthened by audiences’ pre-existing beliefs.
According to research by Hanitzsch et al (2018), audience trust in the Mainstream Media is very low in many countries and in about half of the countries studied in the World Values Surveys and European Values Surveys, it is in fact decreasing. Even in societies where the media trust is normally high, such as the Philippines and Japan, about 25% of adults or more distrust the media implicitly.
From the above one can deduce that mainstream news media in fact play a significant and major role in the dissemination of fake news. While no empirical studies of exposure to fake news stories to mainstream news media currently exist, based on research documents, a very concentrated and relatively limited exposure to fake news on Social Media and as well as the fact that certain of the stories are remembered, recognised and even believed by large segments of the audience, strongly suggest that at least when it comes to the most heavily covered stories, more people learn about these stories from Mainstream News Media than Social Media (Greenberg et al., 2019; Francovich, 2016).
One of the reasons that Mainstream News Media covers fake news stories is because some of these stories carry enormous value and given their role perceptions. As the guardians of truth, they feel compelled to cover fake news stories because other News Media also cover them. As for partisan Media, it matters even more that some of the fake news stories fit their ideological narratives. In fact, research has demonstrated that partisan media are more influenced by fake news (Vargo et al., 2017).
Many fake news stories are specifically designed to fit important criteria of news worthiness regardless of whether these are shaped by journalistic consideration only or by partisan considerations as well.
Reflecting on how a false media narrative can destroy an individual’s career, Harber (2020) describes the impact of the nefarious media articles by the Sunday Times on the “SARS rogue unit” impact on Johan van Loggerenberg as follows:
“ This singular man’s life and career had been turned upside down in the long battle in which he’d been treated with gross unfairness by SARS and the media. He’d been humiliated in public, repeatedly and relentlessly. He’d been accused of the vilest things, and when he’d spoken out about it, he’d often been ignored. He had to rebuild his life, his career and his reputation from scratch.” ( Harber, 2020).
It is submitted that Journalists and people who pedal untruths should be held personally accountable and that the test for accountability should be lowered in that journalist should be more easily held personally accountable for spreading disinformation because apart from the obvious negative repercussions it may have, it also destroys people’s lives and livelihoods.
People should think carefully before putting pen to paper; the pen is indeed mightier than the sword and not always in a good way.