I don’t want governments or corporations curating my news feed. Here’s why.

April 3, 2019

This week, Facebook and the government of Singapore announced new plans to combat the spread of fake news and disinformation. However, why would we give up our freedom to allow corporations or governments to control the news media.

Are we in the middle of a fake news pandemic? The issue has certainly got the attention of people who care about, or who claim to care about, such issues.

The President of the United States certainly thinks fake news is a huge problem. He tweets about it constantly and has even called the American news media the “real enemy of the people”.

For Americans who believe passionately in the First Amendment, this is horrifying and scary rhetoric; particularly when it butts up so closely the Second Amendment. (That’s the one about carrying a locked and loaded machine gun slung casually over one camo-covered shoulder while strolling around the shopping mall on the lookout for a bad guy with a gun.)

Journalism and media academics are also taking the fake news threat seriously judging by my recent trawl through the journal articles on the subject. According to the EBSCO Complete database, of 268 academic pieces written on fake news since 2002, 210 were written in the two-and-a-half years.

I am left wondering though if the news-consuming public is really all that concerned about fake news and sorting out news-truth from news-fiction. We are consuming mountains of fake news on a daily basis. Perhaps overall we are intellectually poorer as a result, but it is actually hard to tell. Maybe, our BS filters are now highly attuned to fakery and we weed it out without thinking. Or, in a darker vein, have we just given up even trying?

It would be a shame if we just cynically give up on truth and lean into fake news with a defeated shrug of the shoulders. Sometimes this must seem like a tempting option to some people. How can we stem the tidal flow of junk and fake news? How can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed? Read the rest of this entry »


Full Nuremburg: Trump versus the Press

June 24, 2018

This week, after a quick stopover in Singapore, Donald Trump was keen to return to his favourite topic (beside his own greatness): his feud with the American news media. Political editor, Dr Martin Hirst, argues that journalists need to continue pushing back, or risk being swamped by Trump’s aggression.

[First published on Independent Australia]

ANYONE WHO’S HALF-AWAKE would know that Donald J. Trump has a very conflicted relationship with the American news media.

He loves Fox & Friends and is more than willing to sit down to be interviewed by his good friends on the Murdoch-owned network.

On his way back from the “tremendous” tete-a-tete with mass murderer Kim Jong-un, Trump did a one-on-one with Fox News. He hasn’t done a sit down interview with any other media outlet for over a year.

Despite the very controlled access, many U.S. (and Australian) news outlets were initially quite excited by the Trump-Kim PDA in Singapore. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the lipstick to wear off and the true piggishness of Trump to re-emerge.

Within 24 hours of touching down in the ever-deepening Washington swamp, Trump was up to his old trick of lambasting serious and critical journalism as “fake news”. Luckily, we have former journalist and current conscience-pricker Dan Gillmor to remind the shell-shocked American news media of their true purpose.

In fact, I was so drawn to this Trump tweet, I actually also retweeted it myself, with the appropriate commentary.

Yes, we’re all used to the Tangerine Fascist’s unhinged tweeting but, as I argued in July last year, we need to take Trump’s tweets seriously.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Supporters of the “ignore the tweeting” camp say that Trump is deliberately pumping out the outrage and confected offence in order to keep the media occupied and away from the more serious and nefarious plans he has to turn the United States of America into the Principality of Trumpistan.

On the other hand, there’s an argument that Trump’s tweets represent the “thoughts” of the United States President and should be taken seriously. His own staff are now also running with this line, arguing that President Trump is taking his message straight to the American people and needs to do this because the news media distorts his words and does not report the great things he’s doing to “Make America Great Again”.

As Trump himself wrote, nearly a year ago, his tweeting is “modern day presidential”.

Convinced yet?

Just take a look again at the last sentence in this week’s “fake news” broadside:

‘Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!’

Does this remind you of anything?

It is a not-so-subtle reference to a rallying call of his neo-Nazi supporters, who have adopted Trump as their Great White Hope.

This is very inflammatory language from the President, but it is also very deliberate. Trump is on record as saying he uses Twitter to make an end-run around a hostile media and to speak directly to his base in language that they will easily understand.

This is also clearly the reasoning behind his almost-daily tweeting about the Russia investigation being a “witch hunt”.

Nobody outside of his inner circle and his welded-on supporters actually believe any of this. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to just ignore Trumpers — they are heavily-armed, overwhelming angry white, and disenfranchised, and still capable of electing more Trump-like politicians to Congress and the Senate.

Trump’s base is increasingly limited to the hardcore – and quite ignorant – racist and conservative rump of the Republican Party, and a few Republican members of Congress, who are rightfully scared of decimation in the upcoming “mid-term” elections.

Trump needs the woke Nazis and the small but tight coterie of ordinary Americans who think that Mexicans are stealing their jobs, and that the European Union is most likely a George Soros-funded conspiracy to weaken America before it can become “great again”.

The Nazis are just cynical thugs with vague hopes that Trump would deliver them a racially pure homeland.

Trump has a history of appeasing them. Remember his disgusting support for the white supremacist cause following the Charlottesville murder of civil rights activist Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi fringe-dweller, who weaponised his American-made car in August last year.

Fake News is the new “Lügenpresse”

Trump supporters began calling the critical mainstream news media “lügenpresse” during the 2016 election campaign. It became a feature of his campaign rallies to direct the anger of his supporters towards journalists in the venue, leading to exchanges like this from October 2016.

Rosie Gray is a White House correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, which will certainly be a target of the Trumper’s hatred — it carries some good journalism and has taken a consistently anti-Trump line editorially.

Gray interviewed Trump supporter and avowed white supremacist Richard Spencer following the incident she tweeted out from the Cleveland rally and he gleefully told her that lügenpresse had become a buzz word among the so-called “Alt-Right”.

The term has a long history in Germany, where it emerged in a government propaganda booklet during the dying days of World War One. The Nazis appropriated it after their ascension to power in the mid-1930s. It was a powerful weapon used to mobilise the Nazi party supporters behind anti-Jewish pogroms.

It is regarded as a taboo word in Germany today, but it is still used there by the hard-right nationalist parties. Trump has cleverly adapted it by using the term “fake news”.

He thinks this gives him plausible separation from the neo-Nazis, while dog-whistling them and gaslighting the more gullible members of his base.

He’s fooling nobody. The links between Trump’s use of “fake news” and the neo-Nazi chants of lügenpresse are blindingly obvious. Or at least they should be.

However, it seems that, to some extent, Trump’s constant attacks on the news media are working for him.

The strategy is designed to raise doubts in the public mind about the credibility of the news media. Trump knows that most of the critical reporting about him is based on extensive research and – often – interviews with some of his closest advisors. He is also a proven leaker in his own right, often creating the narrative thread that he then denounces as fake.

But Trump doesn’t have to disprove the facts; by simply throwing chump bait into the water, the feeding frenzy takes over, amplified by Trump-friendly outlets like Fox and the other conservative outlets, who either support him or see value in exploiting his presidency for their own white nationalist ends — think Breitbart and so forth.

These are indeed difficult times for the news media trying to cover Trump. However, there are lessons to be learned and past mistakes not to be repeated.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the news media needs to be aggressive in its coverage of the Trump White House and the many Trump surrogates – such as Rudy Giuliani – who do the rounds of the talk shows blowing smoke and covering for their master’s gaffes.

If journalists try to treat the Trump presidency as anything but abnormal, they risk giving him the control he craves. We saw the normalising of Trump begin to take hold during and just after the Singapore summit.

Headline-hungry reporters were offering their praise and hot-takes about peace on the Korean Peninsula; I was one of the few who held out against this by carefully parsing his media conference and pointing out the obvious anomalies.

The 60 per cent of Americans who instinctively know that Trump is a monster and underserving of his elevated position need to know they can rely on journalists to continue to pursue the stories of corruption, nepotism, cronyism and sheer idiocy that emanate from the Washington swamp under Trump’s watch.

The Mandarin Maniac is yet to go “full Nuremberg” (though we have seen the tiki torch rallies), but we might see something of it when he makes the inevitable rhetoric-heavy speech during the planned $30 million military parade that is being prepared for him on Veterans’ Day in November.

If “chaos is the new normal” then the news media has to cut through, stand tough, take Trump’s hits and keep asking the difficult questions.

Fortunately, there are a handful of brave journalists and correspondents who are willing to stand up for what’s right and show no fear.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.


What’s wrong with journalism today: Part 1 – Fake News

December 21, 2016

The sudden global interest in “fake news” sparked by the US elections and allegations of Russian interference to support Trump’s campaign has led several IA readers to contact me asking why both the mainstream media and the alternative social journalism sphere both seem to lie with impunity, or at least are prepared to promote unverified rumour as actual news.

I’ve attempted to provide some answers in recent weeks in terms of the so-called “post-truth” media landscape, the widespread dissemination of propaganda in the guise of independent reporting and the deliberate misinformation spread by both the Clinton and the Trump camps during the election season.

But it seems that these are only partial explanations that deal with the surface issues and practicalities, without delving deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the problem. This week I thought I might attempt to answer some of these more puzzling questions.

It must be true, it’s on Facebook

A good example of the confusing feedback loop between journalism and social media is this illustration, which was sent to me by a friend on Facebook. How do we account for this deliberate attempt to tailor perspectives and expectations when it is done by a so-called “respectable” publication, the Wall Street Journal?

The ‘Trump softens his tone’ headline was for the New York market, which is more soft-l liberal and therefore inclined not to like the idea of Trump’s wall. The ‘Trump talks tough on wall’ headline was for the Texas edition of the WSJ. In Texas there is likely to be more support for the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico. This manipulation might be simply about pandering to a particular demographic and, given the headline is always bait to hook the casual reader, in this case it’s straightforward: a “gung-ho” headline for the rednecks and a softer tone for the liberals of New York.

However, it’s not true. The meme circulating on social media with the photograph shown here was itself faked. The WSJ copies in question are from 31 August this year and, according to the myth-busting website Snopes, they represent and early (on the left) and late edition (on the right).

So, who is fooling whom? It is difficult to tell. We trust our friends and when they circulate material into our newsfeed on Facebook, we want to believe them, we assume the information they present to us is true.

But what if they don’t check? The original tweet alleging the WSJ scam was retweeted more than 2000 times.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays”>@ScottAdamsSays</a&gt; Same paper, same day, same article. Different areas = different title <a href=”https://t.co/5lD9o4KN3S”>pic.twitter.com/5lD9o4KN3S</a></p>&mdash; John Ryder (@KHyperborea) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KHyperborea/status/771715650033029120″>September 2, 2016</a></blockquote>

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As you can see from the comment thread this tweet generated, plenty of people – and especially Trump supporters – were inclined to believe it. The belief comes because the prejudice of conservatives (Of course, the WSJ is lying, it supports Hillary) are confirmed and they are more than happy to accept it as gospel, without checking. But Hillary supporters also want to believe that the WSJ was secretly aiding the Trump campaign. Both lies can’t be true.

wsj-changes-headline-in-different-markets-screenshot-www-facebook-com-2016-12-14-11-11-01

Figure 1: We believe what we want to, but is it true?

What really happened is that Trump was presenting two different messages on the same day, which was a hallmark of his campaign. The original headline referred to a meeting Trump had with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto in which he took ‘a remarkably subdued and cooperative tone’, according to reports. The WSJ story was updated following a speech by Trump, later the same day, in which he made the yet-to-be-tested promise/threat that he would make Mexico pay for the infamous “wall” he pledged to build on the USA’s southern border. The speech was after, but close on the heels of his visit to Mexico.

In this example, the problem was not the Wall Street Journal, it was (and is) Donald J Trump. In this case the WSJ was legitimately updating its coverage of Trump’s campaign and quite rightly highlighted the shift in his rhetoric – a softer tone for the Mexican president and a belligerent outburst for his domestic supporters. Both Trump and Clinton supporters were prepared to believe that the WSJ had doctored its coverage, and social media helped both sides to spread misinformation to their own supporters and followers. However, there are clear cases where, for whatever reason, journalists get it wrong.

Read the rest of this story at Independent Australia.


#Pizzagate and post-truth journalism

December 16, 2016

I have started writing my next book, a ‘how to’ manual people outside the mainstream keen to work in the news media. I’m hopeful that Navigating Social Journalism will be a ‘best-seller’ and that it will help mobilise a new army of motivated and politically-savvy citizen journalists to fill the information void left by the declining mainstream media.

In my humble opinion, the timing for this tome couldn’t be better, because this year we have seen the news media caught with its collective pants around its ankles as a tide of fake news washes over the planet. As 2016 winds down, it’s a good time to take stock of what has been, to say the least, an interesting year in the field of journalism.

Is it time to say “bye-bye” to the traditional newsroom?

Newsrooms right around the world are shrinking, and this is an opportunity for the social journalists out there to start making (or making up) their own versions of the news. Australia is not immune and this week we heard about the loss of 42 journalists’ positions at News Corp Australia as the company tries to retrieve $40 million in ‘savings’, which is a euphemism for putting more money in Rupert’s pocket at the expense of employees and customers.

Things are no better over at Fairfax Media where jobs are being shed faster than CEO Greg Hywood’s few remaining hairs. In the broadcast media, it’s the same sad story. The ABC is bleeding to death and the commercials are down-sizing in proportion to their shrinking ad revenues.

By my quick count, which I admit is unscientific, there has been in excess of 500 jobs in the Australian news industry disappear in 2016, including 120 at Fairfax, 300 at Australian Regional Media, 20 or more at the ABC and now another 50 or so at News. It’s only going to get worse, with Fairfax reportedly looking at shedding another 1900 jobs over the next three years, and job losses at The Australian will be catastrophic once Rupert dies and his children shut down the rabid vanity publication.

Things are not great on the other side of the ideological media fence. The beacon of progressive journalism (in so far as it goes), The Guardian is losing a reported $AU 89.4 million per year globally and is looking to cut more than 20 per cent of its budget annually to rein in costs. This cut translates to 250 jobs across the paper’s global operations. The Guardian is now asking people to become ‘supporters’ because the Scott Trust, which funds it, is expected to burn its £758m investment in less than a decade. When a once-proud journal puts out the begging bowl to support itself, the end is nigh.

The problem, for all of these media giants is that the rate of profit attached to news is declining as advertisers abandon legacy platforms in favour of digital media – the Internet and mobile Apps. IN a capitalist economy, if there is no return on investment, there is no investment. Unprofitable commodities are no longer produced, and journalism is becoming an unsellable commodity. So where does this leave us, the intelligent citizens desperate for solid, accurate news to inform our world view and animate us to change the world before it’s too late?

If we’re not careful, it could leave us drowning in a giant puddle of media poo. This is such a dire consequence that the Pope has felt compelled to warn us about it.

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Are we in danger of eating our own shit?

When the Pontiff starts comparing the consumption of ‘fake news’ to coprophagy you know we’re in deep shit (pardon to Papal punning).

Pope Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.

The imagery is rather revolting, my lips are pursed just writing about it, let alone having the taste in my mouth. What we really need to do, and the Pope is incapable of thinking beyond the toilet bowl as plate metaphor, is ask ourselves ‘Why has it come to this?’

To find the answer to this question, read the rest of this article at Independent Australia.


Fake news: did it help Trump get to Washington, and The Oz bash the ABC?

November 19, 2016

Did fake news help the deplorable Mr Trump get to Washington?

[First published on Independent Australia 17 November]

Much has been made of the argument that fake pro-Donald news sourced from Ukraine overwhelmed American voters leading them to put a billionaire reality TV ‘star’ in the White House.

But is it actually true? And what is ‘fake news’ anyhow?

There are two, maybe even three, main types of so-called ‘fake news’.

The first, but not necessarily the easiest to spot, is the sort of fake news supplied by The Onion, or The Chaser. This is spoof news and it is usually only the really dumb and gullible who get taken in by it.

The second is the ‘fake news’ produced during the 2016 US presidential race, allegedly on Ukranian websites and allegedly to help Donald Trump. This is a hard story to crack, but the gist of it is that Ukraine and Russia are at loggerheads and there is an undeclared shooting war going on between Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) and Moscow. The US election has been collateral damage in the media war between these Ukraine and Russia.

Trump is seen to be pro-Russian and has praised Vladimir Putin several times for his strong nationalist rhetoric. It seems that pro-Russian websites hosted in the eastern (Russian-dominated) part of Ukraine have been helping the Trump campaign. But just how successful they have been is hard to gauge.

Read the rest of this entry »


Flying Air New Zealand? Bollocks!

May 15, 2010

Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe is signing a giant chuckle all the way to the check-in counter.

Now that several media organisations have piled on to ‘report’ the airline’s new marketing campaign as is if was really ‘news’, Fyfe can have his crumby little biscuit and eat it too.

How is it newsworthy that an executive (advised by an agency creative) launches an advert taking aim at a magazine editor for criticising his business? And really, the criticism reads more like the whinging of a woman accustomed to travelling first or business class, most probably at someone else’s expense; suddenly thrust in among the plebs at the back of the plane:

The public can rightly ask: is Air New Zealand on a path to become a mostly budget airline, and will that come at the expense of the quality service, superior food and wine, safety and courtesy that it offers at the high-margin non-budget end of its business?

[Turbulence ahead, The Listener 15 May, 2010]

Superior food and wine? Please, most airline food is totally unpalatable and the drink offerings from the budget bin.

How many people even read Pamela Stirling’s editorials in The Listener anyway? I gave up  recently after reading one that was an ugly riff on the “I’m not a racist, but…” theme. You know, Chinese are stealing “our” dairy industry and that sort of thing.

In this debate, New Zealanders must ensure their objections are not simply racism in another guise. Would we have the same reaction if the entrepreneurs were Australians? Well, quite possibly, yes, if the proposal was identical.

[Selling the farm: Should we tell the Chinese to get off the grass?, The Listener, 10 April, 2010]

Who cares what Ms Stirling thinks about anything really.

I bet Rob Fyfe doesn’t give a flying proverbial. Air New Zealand just saw a marketing opportunity; pitched a clever little viral campaign and are now quite happy that it has been legitimised as a news story by TV One and the NZ Herald.

Fyfe's loony grimace scares babies

And look at Fyfe in the video, he’s roaring mad (in the insane way).

Let’s just recap some journalism 101 principles here:

News has to have a ‘Who cares’ factor. So really who cares about Air New Zealand having a pretend bust-up with The Listener?

News has to be something of interest to the public. Where’s the public interest in this story; it’s fake news. It’s a media advertising campaign dressed up as a spat between the company and the editor.

There is no public interest here.

News needs to have news values. Conflict’s a good one, so I guess the manufactured conflict (the theme of the Air New Zealand advertising spot) fooled some journos and news editors into thinking they were dealing with a real issue here.

The only thing this whole farce has got going for it is that once again we get to see Rob Fyfe acting badly, showing off and grimacing like a hyena on acid.

Not pretty, not funny, not news.

Bollocks, anyone?


By George – I don’t believe you

April 7, 2008

Seems that George Clooney’s girlfriend is totally wild.

Well, at least according to her very eloquent ex-boyfriend who speaks in totally weird syntax and very structured language, not like a real person. Seriously, check these quotes allegedly given by “Tommy” to the News of the World newspaper:

Tommy recalled: “She made up special love potions and rubbed them into every part of my body. I was powerless to resist. I know George will be no different. He’ll be totally entranced,” he told News of the World.

“Sarah’s a total hippy at heart, heavily into all the spiritual, mystic stuff – crystals, tarot cards, healing.

“And along with her witch-like charms she’s a brilliant fun girl with no inhibitions. She loves nothing more than getting naked in a forest. Read the rest of this entry »