The damaging impact of fake news on the national political discourse│ Cameron Bradbury

You are fake news. No seriously, have you ever stopped to consider that the information you are subject to is actually full of half-truths and disinformation? Of course not. I don’t spread fake news, it’s only the other side that spreads fake news. Fake news first entered the public psyche after the bombastic entertainer (and I use that word loosely), Donald Trump insulted his way to the presidency in the US 2016 Presidential election.

Commentators say we are living through a period of post-truth politics whereby political debate is framed largely by emotive arguments that is completely disconnected to objective details of policy. Of course, fake news is not just a right wing phenomenon, as here in the UK we see increasingly the use of fake news spread from more left  wing news sources.

For me, the most memorable contemporary example of such fake news was when a rabid Michael Crick questioned Theresa May about her visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Crick’s swivel-eyed manner immediately betrayed this wasn’t going to be a rational interview.

“What did you do to help release Nelson Mandela?” Crick pressed. When Theresa May attempted to answer, explaining what the UK government did to help; Crick pressed further getting more and more hostile. “Did you go on protests, did you get arrested outside the embassy” Crick pressed further.  Nelson Mandela was convicted in 1964. Theresa May was 8 at the time.

For the record, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise to John Major that 2 year-old Cameron did not do more to prevent the election of Labour in 1997.

Now you may think I am just being flippant, and in some ways I am, but the point remains- even in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released Theresa May was not an MP and in no position to influence Mandela’s release.

In this example, we see the media peddling deliberately provocative and emotive questions to spread disinformation that Theresa May was in a credible position to help Nelson Mandela and undermine her trip to South Africa.

I am not against probing political questions- indeed we need a strong and inquisitive media to hold politicians to account, but all news organisations must resist the urge to play up to popular prejudices and spread a false narrative. I don’t even mind that certain media outlets have inherent political leanings, however, this should not stop them from offering relevant, factual information.

The catchphrase “fake news” has only entered the common collective lexicon since the election of Donald Trump; however, fake news has been around since the beginnings of mass media itself. Radicals, fanatics and extremists have been utilizing fake news to influence political discourse for centuries.

Looking back- no historical figure has had their reputation tarnished by fake news more than the iconic Marie Antoinette. There are many lessons that can be learnt from history and I want to draw attention to the vitriolic fake news directed towards my Queen, Marie Antoinette.

“Let them eat cake” – fake news. She never said it. The most memorable quote passed down through history of Marie Antoinette was fake news. Let them eat cake was attributed to Marie Antoinette in 1843 and used forever more by proponents used to justify the blood-lust and tyranny of the French revolutionaries.

In her lifetime Marie Antoinette was subject to many baseless and salacious news scandals in the burgeoning French media. Throughout the 1780s vicious pamphlet literature targeting Marie Antoinette’s personality and sexuality became commonplace. A group of unscrupulous journalists recognised they could earn a lot of money by simply producing fake news, lying about the Queen. Sound familiar?

I am not suggesting for one second, that Marie Antoinette was not a flawed individual- everybody is. However, these French pamphlets overtly played up to the worst of human instincts. Objectivity and fact were thrown out of the window. Hyperbole and sophistry became the order of the day. The barrage of fake news, not just of Marie Antoinette, but of the monarchy as a whole precipitated the violence and tyranny that was to come.

As the French economy worsened- French journalism became more and more extreme and fake news spread like wildfire. Journalists like Jean-Paul Marat sprung upon this toxic environment to push revolutionary hard-line views and, as a result, terror ensued.

This is not supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of the causes of the French Revolution or an argument as to the virtues of the ancien regime vs the France that emerged from the revolution. I do, however, feel pertinent lessons can be drawn from what happened Marie Antoinette in our political discourse today. She lost her head, and her reputation because of the smears purveyed by eighteenth century fake news.

History lesson over and turning our attention to the twenty first century – fake news is still around, albeit in a much more subtle and civilised form. (And by this I mean the Socialist worker isn’t overtly calling for my beheading…not yet anyway). Despite attacks from the fake media, the liberal values I cherish – that of freedom, democracy and rationality – are still the foundation of our political system.

As citizens of a democracy we all share a duty to remain informed and be open to many sources of information. Of course, we will all develop different views on how best shape our future destiny- but the survival of our democracy requires we can make informed judgement based on facts and reason.

In modern democracies fake news seeks to exploit latent prejudices, spreading misinformation in an attempt to subvert rational debate. Speaking for myself- I am increasingly concerned- I think fake news is slowly beginning to infiltrate our national discourse.

Only this week, to my abject horror, Politics Live hosted left-wing zealot Aaron Bastani- author of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”. Yes, you did read that correct- I died a little inside as well. In addition to suffering through this mental torment – BBCQT invite Falza Shaheen- director of the left-wing think-tank CLASS. I have actually looked into some of CLASS’s work and I was certain that to be classified as a “think-tank” would include some degree of thinking… but I guess I’m just old fashioned.

I would not suggest no-platforming any of these speakers- in fact sunlight is often the best disinfectant but, as Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grand-master and Putin opponent once said “the point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking and annihilate truth”.

There has been a concerted effort on the hard left and far right to discredit credible sources of information creating an echo chamber, bolstering the views of the extremes in an attempt to undermine objective political truths. On the right we have seen this with the fervent defenders of Tommy Robinson. On the left we see this in the hard left take over of the Labour Party.

Why has the hard left takeover of the Labour party been so successful you might be wondering? I believe it is because so many on the left (and I can hear them crying into their Pumpkin spiced lattes at the thought) have been caught up in a wave of populism that is unprecedented in twenty first century politics. I want to share with you a quote from Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” where she describes going up against Bernie Sanders in debate. It is important because it has remarkable parallels to what the Conservatives face against Corbyn’s Labour.

He didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up, for Bernie, policy was about inspiring a mass movement and forcing a conversation… I’ve learned that even the best plans and proposals can land on deaf ears when people are disillusioned by a broken political system and disgusted by politicians. When people are angry and looking for someone to blame, they don’t want to hear your ten-point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry too“.

Think about this for a minute- I am not suggesting that the Conservative proposals in 2017 where all good proposals or that our political system is broken. (actually I think our political system has held up quite well when compared to others in Europe). But, the similarities are apparent- It matters not that unemployment is at record lows or that the deficit has fallen or even that we are putting more money into the NHS than ever before (even that sacred cow doesn’t placate the hard left). Facts no longer matter- their agenda will be pushed regardless.

Corbyn has taken a leaf out of Trump’s playbook. His devoted followers pump out misinformation, half-truths and emotive arguments whilst discrediting all opposition criticism as “fake news” and elitist smears. A mysterious “elite” are to blame for all the UK’s ills and our problems can only be solved by a hysterical mass movement devoid of fact and moral compass. Again, I am exaggerating, but see how easy it is to make sweeping generalisations and people who are angry enough will blame all their problems on anything- immigrants, the rich (but usually Tories; if it’s raining outside- someone will find some way to blame us).

Fake news has facilitated the emergence of the far right in the US and the hard left takeover of the Labour party here in the UK. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish what is and isn’t fake news, especially on the internet (I’m looking at you, Twitter). As I said previously, in a democracy, we all have a duty to be rational, informed citizens capable of making sound reasoned judgement, however, we now all have an additional responsibility to call out fake news so it doesn’t permanently damage our democratic traditions.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been plaguing political discourse since the dawn of politics itself. Marie Antoinette’s reputation has been forever tarnished by eighteenth century fake news- let us learn from this- we must challenge fake news, of all kinds, and not allow UK political discourse to be inflamed by fake news because- as much as I adore Marie Antoinette- I would quite like to keep my head.

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