"Fake news" is not a joke

in news •  last year

It seems that the dust has started to settle around Google Memo case. Further discussions still go on, as there seems to be no turning point for underlying social and ideological trends that lead into this sequence of events. However, now we are able to take a retrospective look at the way how news headlines on the subject treated original information and truth. I am not about to write a comprehensive timeline here. I would rather like to discuss about trustworthiness and lacking self-correction of established medias. In order to show the universal nature of so called "fake news", I will use Finnish Google Memo media coverage as an example.

Credibility of the mainstream media across cultures

Misleading headlines, click baits, ideological biases and propaganda are not very new phenomena. In the western world they have usually been associated with amateurs, interest groups and marginal political agitation. In turn, credibility of the big media companies and qualified journalists have not been questioned. Political connections or tendencies are merely obvious or at least transparent. As a result, left and right have used to favor specific channels. Even these "politicized" news agencies have been regarded as credible and in any case higher tier than alternative medias. The latter as an alternative for establishment has also suffered from lack of legitimacy.

In Finland, as a result of multi-party democracy, there is no clear division between left and right. From American or even European point of view, all Finnish political parties could be seen as leftist variations, all more or less derived from the welfare state ideology. There is a strong national broadcasting company that used to have a radio monopoly until 1980s and control on television channels until the 1990s. Despite the late evolution of private media, the landscape is still homogeneous what comes to mentality and ideological interests. There are no political blocks. A very common belief holds that this media landscape would be wide, credible and able to provide objective, balanced information. It would be long story to comprehensively describe the Finnish institutional culture. Briefly, it is bureaucratic and consensus-driven, far from intellectual diversity and competition. Thus, the risk of maintaining an echo chamber is high.

What is common for both of these cultures is that people place high credibility and trust towards certain news agencies. Furthermore, there also exists a lower tier that fills the category of a media that is likely to generate faulty material that the other is avoiding at all costs. Even if mainstream journalists were to make mistakes, there would be pressure and initiatives for self-correction. This bias has started to shatter just recently. "Fake news" became a popular word as Donald Trump refused to give a question to a CNN reporter by saying "you are fake news" in the first press conference as president. According to Google Trends, the use of the term was relatively non-existent until the late 2016. More importantly and partly with the power of humor and memes, "fake news" has made more people reassess the purity of respected media.

Fake news about Google Memo

The biggest Finnish news about firing of Google engineer James Damore were generally derived from the international reports with a broken telephone effect. Headlines and further discussion showed little signs of journalists studying the original manifesto and reporting its core message objectively. Especially the headlines could nearly simultaneously fill the characteristics of click baits, misleading and even obviously fraudulent information. All this could happen by major mainstream news agencies despite the original document was publicly available already before Damore was fired.

The Finnish national broadcasting company YLE had a headline "Harvard PhD sent a message that defamed women - Google fired him"

First of all, the headline contains a subjective view that cannot not even be fact checked. It is a matter of taste, whether something is defaming or not. A moderate use of subjective expressions could be understandable in extreme cases when people do not have diverging views or differing tastes of an issue. Otherwise personal preferences in headlines are mistakes that should not happen even in lower tier medias. Second, the article in question could not justify its headline. The content did not present evidence of "defaming" language, normative discriminating ideas or even any morally distinctive position.

Another example comes from the biggest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Its additional tabloid had a headline
"The manifesto that was distributed inside Google leaked outside, writer got fired - blamed the company for being in leftie bubble, because it hires women who are not suitable for engineers at all."

The news headline is free from value judgments. If the previous one leaves a guess, this writer has clearly learned something in high school. However, the headline does not pass fact checking. It is true that Damore blamed Google for embracing a monoculture with left leanings. He did not claim that women in general could not be suitable for engineering. Neither did he claim that hiring women in general would represent leftist monoculture. The manifesto merely pointed statistical gender differences and diversity targets that focused on gender. Several psychologists even supported the scientific points. They were not challenged or even discussed further in this media. In fact, Damore wished people to be treated as individuals. However, more focus was laid on feelings and antagonistic interpretations. Again, the headline was aggressively against the original sources.

Conclusions

After a week, these faulty headlines remain to exist on the websites of the Finnish media houses. Despite the common beliefs of self-correction and quality control of the established media, there have been no signs of pressure for correction. In fact, many people do not even recognize additional fiction and subjective perceptions from the parts that represent original facts.

I am not propagating for or against any media channels. The point is merely that people should not adopt a polarized black-or-white view and assume credibility and good intentions from some prestige organizations by default. Lower tier medias and political agitators may have their own niche audiences. The public usually takes them with a pinch of salt while remaining close to established giants. That is why a little more sophisticated smooth criminal style of aforementioned mainstream fake news is so effective and mobile. People do not acknowledge the extent to which different biases, falsehoods and indirect associations can be easily sold when mixed together with some truthful news reporting.

Fake news is not just a funny meme. The phenomenon is real and it takes place both in alternative and mainstream contexts. It often gets replicated and reinforced as something good and real without even knowing. The major difference is that mainstream fake news rarely get caught. Rather, they can be bought by larger and educated audiences. Its existence is something that people would only seldom like to admit. It is not the alternative medias or trolls, but the mainstream media that really puts media literacy to a test.

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Excellent commentary

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Thanks, you seem to have posted interesting stuff too!

Thanks for sharing, you have some good insights