In our post-truth era , the emotional resonance of one’s words carries far more weight than their truthfulness.
Even when we take facts into consideration, a great deal of people, either knowingly or subconsciously, pick a narrative which fits their political view, hand pick the facts which back it up accordingly, and bury the inconvenient ones out of sight and out of mind — a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Another growing trend is for people to dismiss those pesky facts they don’t like as ‘fake news’ — Trumpians and Corbynites alike.
This month, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead’s leader Councillor Simon Dudley used the term to discredit reports on the fact that a school sent a letter to parents asking them to fund basic supplies including toilet paper.
So what has eroded trust in the news? In Matthew d’Ancona’s Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, he says high profile scandals like the News International phone hacking scandal of 2011 and the revelation of Jimmy Saville’s sex abuse, of which figures in the BBC were accused of covering up, have broken down people’s faith in these previously trusted institutions.
Clearly the mainstream press needs to work to win back that trust, but it seems that in a digital age where everyone can be a publisher, where many pay more attention to the memes on their timelines than columns of a newspaper, fake news can come from any direction. In fact, it seems to be coming more and more from those railing against the media ‘presstitutes’.
When English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson was jailed last month after pleading guilty to comitting contempt of court, a predictable array of conspiracy theories rolled in.
Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley, was handed a 13 month prison sentence at Leeds Crown Court for recording several men involved in a live trial, including defendants walking in to court, and making a number of comments which could prejudice a jury. By the way, using the word ‘alleged’ does not automatically give you complete immunity alone.
As Robinson acknowledges, reporting restrictions were in place, but not ‘because they don’t want people reporting’ as he claims in his stream, which he filmed while still serving a suspended sentence for, you guessed it, contempt of court.
The judge had imposed a postponement order on reporting the case to ensure that juries serving on the linked trials running alongside each other weren’t prejudiced by reports in the media.
The trials were not ‘in secret’, as many of Robinson’s faithful claimed. Press and public were free to attend, though all journalists had to wait until all three of the connected trials were finished before reporting on any of them — A small concession to avoid a trial by media and hardly indicative of a totalitarian state.
Some of the many conspiracy theories that followed included claims that Robinson had no legal representation and that he was tried in secret, which have been debunked and well explained on The Secret Barrister blog.
Of course alt-right media outlets, who either didn’t know or didn’t care about the inaccuracies which followed on social media, were happy to use them to their political advantage.
InfoWars, American media platform-cum-nutritional supplement retailer, called Robinson’s arrest ‘the beginning of the end for free speech in Europe’ and called the temporary court reporting restriction ‘Orwellian’.
Propaganda swirled its way around social media, including one photograph which people claimed showed a sea of #FreeTommy protestors in London when it actually turned out to be 13-year-old photo of Liverpool fans celebrating their club’s Champions League victory.
After circulating gossip on Twitter that Robinson had been moved to a prison with a 71 per cent Muslim population, InfoWar’s Paul Joseph Watson quickly clarified that this statistic was for the specific wing in which he was held.
Following rumours that Robinson had been moved from HMP Hull to Leicester, former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London, Raheem Kassam, took to Twitter to voice his concern.
A report on an unannounced visit to HMP Leicester by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in January 2018, says that 14.3 per cent of inmates identified as Muslim, compared to 18.5 per cent Roman Catholic, 11.7 per cent Church of England, 11.7 per cent other Christian denominations, and 35.8 per cent saying they had no religion.
But why let facts get in the way of a good narrative? Raheem Kassam tweeted: “There’s no need for us to disseminate incorrect figures when the real truth is bad enough.”
In other words, what does it matter if the public was just misled? It furthers the martyrdom of Robinson and makes no difference to those who are already on our side.
Of course other sources claim that Robinson was moved to HMP Onley, which has a much higher Muslim population of about 30 per cent. But with multiple theories being shared and seemingly no solid confirmation from the Home Office, it is hard to draw any conclusion at all. It would be tempting for anyone seeking to aid their political cause simply to go with the British prison with the highest population, which is Onley.
Moreover, Robinson’s followers even played down the Muslim population of HMP Hull, where he was originally imprisoned, claiming it had a two per cent Muslim population when in fact the real figure was about seven.
It seems in our post-truth era, people fight what they percieve to be a dishonest media and establishment with fake news of their own. It’s not about righting wrongs or setting the public straight, rather it’s about taking advantage of a period of mistrust and using it to mislead the public into accepting ones own political narrative and world view. Facts and objectivity are old hat — whoever can spin the best yarn which fills us with hope, fear or anger reigns supreme.
It’s not just the alt-right who are at it. Who could forget the infamous bit of fake news from The Canary, which falsely claimed that BBC political editor Laura Keunssberg was listed as a speaker at the Tory Party conference?
All the Corbyn-backing site had to do was wait for a response from the BBC, but then its story would have been ruined, as it emerged that an invitation for Keunssberg to speak at a fringe event at the conference had been declined and that she was due to attend both the Labour and Conservative party conferences as a reporter only.
In a society where people respond to a perception of fake news or media bias by putting out even more fake news of their own, the general public are all made worse off. The winners are the ones with the loudest voices and the losers are those who value a well informed public and a transparent democracy.