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Is fake news a crime?

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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?

How I became an evil man

My love of poetry came in my sleep like a dream, a fever I could not escape and in little hours of the day I would read some poetry from different people who voice the volume of their emotions with words.  In one of those poems by Elleni Vakalo How he became a bad man, she introduced me to a new understanding of criminological thinking.  The idea of consequences, that lead a seemingly good person to become bad, without the usual motivational factors, other than fear.  This was the main catalyst that became the source of this man’s turn to the bad. 

This almost surrealistic description of criminal motivation has since fascinated me.  It is incredibly focused, devoid of social motivations and personal blame.  In fact, it demonstrates a social cognition that once activated is powerful enough to lead a seemingly decent person to behave in uncharacteristic moves of violence.  This interesting perspective was forged during the war and the post war turmoil experienced.  Like Camus, the act of evil is presented as a matter of fact and the product of thoughts that are originally innocent and even non-threatening. 

The realisation in this way of thinking, is not the normalisation of violence, but the simplicity that violence in innate to everyone. The person who commits it, is not born for it, does not carry an elaborate personal story or trauma and has no personal compulsion to do it. In some ways, this violence is more terrifying, as criminality can be the product of any person without any significant predispositions, an everyday occurrence that can happen any time.

The couple that will meet, fall in love, cohabit, and get married, starting a family, follow all the normal everyday stages that millions of people follow or feel socially obliged to follow.  In no part of this process do they discuss how he will control her, demean her, call her names, slap her, hit her or kick her. There is no plan or discussion of how terrified she will become, socially isolated and humiliated.  At no point in the planning, will she be thinking of ways to exit their home, access helplines or spend a day in court.  It happens, as a product of small thoughts and expressed emotions, that convert into micro aggressions, that become overt hostility, that leads to violence.  No significant changes, just a series of events that lead to a prolonged suffering. 

In some way, this matter of fact violence explains the confusion the victims feel, trapped in a relationship that they cannot recognise as abusive, because all other parts fall under the normality of everyday life. Of course, in these situations, emotion plays a key role and in a way that rearranges logic and reason. We are driven by emotion and if we are to leave criminological theory for a minute a series of decisions, we will make daily take a journey from logic to emotions and back.

This emotional change, the manifestation of thoughts is not always criminal nor destructive. The parents who are willing to fight an entire medical profession so that their newborn has a fighting chance are armed with emotion.  Many stories come to mind of those who owe their lives to their determination of their parents who fought logic and against the odds, fought to keep them alive.  Friends and partners of people who have been written off by the criminal justice system that assessed them as high risk for society and stuck with them, holding on to emotion as logic departs. 

In Criminology, we talk about facts and figures, we consider theories and situations, but above all as a social science we recognise that we deal with people; people without emotions do not exist.  So how do you/how do I become a bad man?  Simple…the same way you are/I am a good man. 

This is the poem by Eleni Vakalo, with my painful translation:

How He Became A Bad Man

I will tell you how it happened
In that order
A good little man met on his way
a battered man
the man was so close from him laying
he felt sad for him
He was so sad
That he became frightened
Before approaching him to bend down to
help him, he thought better
“What do you want, what are you looking for”
Someone else will be found by so many around here,
to assist this poor soul
And actually
I have never seen him
And because he was scared
So he thought
Would he not be guilty, after all no one is hit without being guilty?
And they did him good since he wanted to play with the nobles
So he started as well
To hit him
Beginning of the fairy tale
Good morning
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