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Perhaps this entry needs to start with a declaration; there is no novelty in the term fake news. In fact, fake news is not a term but a description. Odd to start with something as obvious as this but given the boastful claims for those inventing the (non) terms is only logical to start with that. It is true that in news, the term that usually relates to deliberate dissemination of information, is propaganda. It aims at misinformation and as it is reproduced over and over it can even become part of indoctrination.
The 20th century introduced the world to speed. Mass consumption, marketing and two world wars that devastated countries and populations. In the century of speed, mass media and the availability of information became a reality. The world heard, on the radio first and on the television later, world leaders making statements in what seemed to be the spectacle of politics. Interestingly some countries, political parties and professionals realised the value of controlling news, managing information. The representation of positions became an integral part of modern politics. Information became a commodity and the management of the news became big business with social implications.
When we talk deliberate misinformation, we are probably reminded of the Third Reich and the “ministry of public enlightenment and propaganda”. Even now media analysts consider the Nuremberg Rally a clear example of media manipulation and deliberate misinformation. This however was only one of many ministries around the world set up for that purpose. In some countries even censorship laws and restrictions emanate from a relevant ministry or department. The protection of the public was the main justification even when the stories promoted were wrong or even fictitious.
The need to set up some standards on journalism became apparent and awards like the Pulitzer Prize became ways of awarding those who hold journalistic values high. National broadcasting corporations became the voice of their nation and many adopted the voice of neutrality. Post war the crimes of the Nazi regime became apparent and the work of the propaganda machine in contract demonstrated how easy it was to misinform whilst committing atrocities. The United Nations even took a resolution on the issue “Condemns all forms of propaganda, in whatsoever country conducted, which is either designed or likely to provoke or encourage any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” General Assembly, November 3 1947.
Unfortunately, this resolution remains mostly a paper exercise as the ideological split of the founding members led to a war of attrition of who tells the truth and who is using propaganda. Since then mass media became part of everyday life and an inseparable part of modern living. News became evidence and programmes presented decisive information in the court of public opinion. Documentaries claimed honest realism and news programmes set the tone of political and social dialogue.
In 1988 Chomsky and Herman in Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of mass media, proclaim that propaganda is not the reserve of a totalitarian state but of all states in their attempt to maintain order imposed by the establishment. Under this guise misinformation is part of the mass media’s raison d’etre. It can partly explain why the UN resolutions were not followed up further. So far, we are considering the sociological dimensions of news and information. Nothing thus far is clearly criminological or making the case for criminalising the deliberate misinformation in the news. (interestingly, the deliberate misinformation of a consumer is a criminal offence, well established).
One can ask rhetorically if it is so bad to misinform, spread fake news and manipulate the news through a systematic propaganda process. We presume that most citizens can find a variety of forums to be informed and the internet has democratised media even further. The reality however is quite different. People rely on specific sources even when they go online, finding voices that speak to them. In some ways this kind of behaviour is expected. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Back in the 1990s a radio station in Rwanda was talking about cockroaches and snakes; this led into a modern-day genocide, a crime that the UN aimed to extinguish. In the early 2000s the western world went into war on reports and news about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced. In the mid-2010s a series of populist politicians got into office making claims on news, fake news, utilising their propaganda machine against anyone who tried to take them to account. More recently people, having felt deceived by mainstream media, do not believe anything, even the pandemic. The difficulty in critically evaluating information is obvious but it is also obvious how destructive it can be. In short, yes fake news should be a crime, because they cause lives in so many ways. Question is: Can we differentiate the truth from the fake or is it too late?