Combatting fake news

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Is organised resistance to political falsehoods emerging and could this become an effective movement? Alan Austin reports.

DEFINITE TREMORS can be felt in Australia and beyond in response to the reality that public lying is now deeply entrenched and profoundly destructive. This is not yet the earthquake needed to collapse the great edifices of mendacity. But a groundswell may be forming.

Iceland has gaoled more than 30 company directors who deliberately deceived clients. Close associates of President Donald Trump have been imprisoned for lying to Congress or law enforcement agencies.

Legislation has been enacted in Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, France and the European Union to penalise media outlets which violate content laws.

In Australia, many online journals have analysed the damage caused by fake news. These include Independent Australia, Crikey, New Matilda, the New Daily, The Saturday Paper, Michael West, Mumbrella and others.

New Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has acted by stopping his colleagues making flippant allegations against opponents of lying.

On the other side of politics, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has threatened journalists with gaol for revealing government secrets.

Academics have entered the fray with studies of the problem and its proposed solutions. An impressive critique of the anti-fake news campaign by Melbourne University academic Alana Schetzer was in IA earlier this month.

Target groups

Which organisations are the primary generators of destructive falsehoods in Australia? Here, IA’s trusty Facebook friends have been helpful once again.

The groups nominated most frequently by readers include:

  • News Corp;
  • commercial radio and television newsrooms;
  • the Institute of Public Affairs;
  • the Liberal Party;
  • the National Party;
  • public relations consultants used by the above parties;
  • big business peak bodies;
  • the big four banks and some other finance corporations;
  • mining and forestry corporations and industry groups;
  • some municipal councils;
  • some property development corporations; and
  • leadership teams of some rich mega-churches.

Definitions matter

Clearly, these are powerful organisations. That they routinely lie is a serious social problem.

In one online discussion preparatory to this article, psychologist and broadcaster Terry Laidler noted:

In my view, "fake news" is more radical and more corrosive. It is the systematic and targeted use of information and communications media to promulgate stories and ideas deliberately concocted to disrupt or destroy confidence in social institutions that promote equity, participation, sustainability, co-operation and trust in civil society.

Precisely. We are not dealing with accidental errors by busy journos on the run. We are not talking about barracking for one political party or philosophy. The definition of "falsehoods" remains, as articulated back in 2014, 'knowingly false statements made with the deliberate intention to deceive'.

Hence, mainstream churches and synagogues are not on our list of offenders, despite nomination. Their doctrines may appear false to outsiders, but they are genuinely believed by adherents.

Legislation not the answer

Colleague Dr Martin Hirst has shown that the current Coalition Government wants to restrict access to information because

letting the public in on the government’s dirty little secrets exposes the underhanded, unethical and potentially illegal actions they take, and the wrong decisions they make in our names.’

But Hirst rejects punitive legislation.

He fears that new laws

'are more likely to reflect the restrictive culture of FOI law and entrench the right of government secrecy than to give us any form of genuine reform and a guaranteed free press.’

The multiple problems Alana Schetzer outlined, with laws controlling news content, confirm this is not the answer. The risks of stifling free speech are too great.

So what is the way forward?

Community collaboration

What is needed is a broad community alliance to identify the offenders, boycott their operations and thereby restrict their gains.

This has succeeded in other areas of moral and ethical concern. Community outrage over child sex abuse and rorts by the banks led, eventually, to royal commissions. The environment movement began with the activism of fringe players perceived as nutters and is now a truly global movement. So there are models.

Organisations already urging truth in reporting include Reporters without Borders, Snopes, other fact-checking teams, ABC's Media Watch, GetUp and Australia’s alternative media outlets listed above.

The Australian Press Council has this task on paper. But in reality, it is hamstrung by its limited budget and the pressure big media can exercise.

Potential groups which could and should join forces include the courts of law, the reformist political parties, academia, the faith communities and ethical corporations and business groups.

Churches, synagogues and temples

High profile religious leaders frequently campaign publicly. Causes over recent years include opposition to poker machines, same-sex marriage and abortion, and for overseas aid, accepting asylum seekers and religious freedoms.

In fact, there is a far more scriptural warrant for religious believers and leaders to be proactive in defending truth and condemning lies than for activism in any of the above. From the Ten Commandments in the early biblical texts through to the last words of Christ, more than a hundred passages exhort believers to discern the truth.

Israel Folau has quoted three biblical texts which refer to same-sex activity, although none is clear in its precise meaning. In contrast, he has nearly three dozen emphatic calls to purge from our midst those who "bear false witness". This would include the owners of Fox Sports.

Can this succeed?

The answer is an emphatic, Yes! News Corp's British newspaper, News of the World, was shut down following community outrage at the criminal activities of its executives and staff.

Other Murdoch outlets are vulnerable to boycotts, including The Australian. This is the publication routinely cited as generating the most destructive fake news in Australia. Its many evils are well-documented, including its malicious campaigns to denigrate public figures Gillian Triggs, Julia Gillard, Jacinda Ardern and more than 20 other notable women.

The campaign will succeed with enough support. Pass this along.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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