Richard King in the Sydney Review of Books:
In 2017 the British Parliament established an official inquiry into fake news, or ‘the growing phenomenon of widespread dissemination, through social media and the internet, and acceptance as fact of stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy’ (it has recently returned from Washington, where it took evidence from tech and media bigwigs), while in January if this year the Italian government encouraged voters to report false stories through a dedicated internet portal set up ahead of last month’s elections. Facebook is now so worried about fake news – ostensibly, at any rate – that earlier this year it announced a plan to rank news sources for credibility based on feedback from users. Even the Vatican is getting in on the act, with Pope Francis using his 2018 World Communications Day address to compare fake news to the snake in the Garden of Eden – an odd choice, given that that slippery customer urged Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed, a cynic, or at least a sceptic, might question why the Catholic Church feels qualified to comment on fake news at all, given its record on issues ranging from the movement of the planets to creationism, not to mention its history of denial and cover-up regarding abuses of those in its charge. But these are ironies for another time …
The point is that we have now reached the stage where post-truth and fake news are so central to the political conversation that groupthink is almost bound to occur and assumptions that may indeed contain some kernel of truth become mere platitudes. One doesn’t have to employ Edenic imagery à la the current Bishop of Rome in order to lapse into ‘Golden Age’ thinking, and for journalists of a certain vintage the temptation to mistake the state of the world for the state of their own bank accounts is a standing one. (Steven Spielberg’s recent film, The Post, which your reporter took a look at here, is a fine example of this dynamic in action.) None of this is to say that we are not in different territory; it is simply to question whether the map of that territory we’ve been offered is an accurate one, and whether certain of its features remain unchartered. Are we really in a ‘post-truth era’? Is fake news a threat to democracy? What responsibility might the very people who complain loudest about these phenomena bear for their prominence in the current environment? We need, I think, to take a step back and consider these, and other, questions, before declaring an emergency. An emergency it may be; but who should we call?