The increasingly complicated world of American politics is being made even more incomprehensible with the integration of so-called “fake news” into the mix.
As most people will know by now, “fake news” is the term used to mean stories which purport to be fact but which are actually not true. These fake news items are usually either entirely false, or start out on a fictitious premise and then mix in some facts to make the story seem legitimate.
This sort of practice has probably always gone on – journalists have always made up stories, or embellished the facts to spice stories up a bit.
But you would’ve thought there would be no need to add any extra sauce to the story about Susan Rice – former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama – since she seems to have been caught red-handed leaking information to the press to try and help Democrat Hillary Clinton during the presidential election last year.
Republican Donald Trump eventually won the election, and now he wants to know what really happened.
It seems that Rice had not only leaked information to the media, she also “unmasked” National Security Agency intercepts of Trump’s aides and associates. That is, she used her secret service contacts to find and reveal the identity of those helping Trump.
Rice herself has denied everything. “I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” she said in an interview on MSNBC.
“The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” she said. “That’s absolutely false.”
Politics can often be a dirty business, and the disclosures Rice is alleged to have made would probably have gone largely unnoticed in the past.
But against a background of allegations that Russian spies – directed by President Vladimir Putin – were involved in an “influence campaign” to infiltrate the US presidential election, the stories have taken on a more serious tone.
Moreover, as more and more cyber attacks take place, with millions of people’s private information lost to hackers, the serious issue of data protection is perhaps the subtext of the whole saga.
In a story today, City AM reports that personal details of 245,000 UK customers and 25,000 Polish customers may have been stolen in cyber attack against payday load provider Wonga.
The Rice scandal has been said by some to be bigger than Watergate, in 1972, when the Democratic National Committee headquarters were broken into and which the then Republican President Richard Nixon tried to cover up.
But others – such as CNN – have called the Rice story a “fake scandal”, claiming that Rice had nothing to do with anything, and the Russians weren’t involved in anything.
The story has become so multi-faceted – involving Trump, Clinton, Putin, and a whole host of others – that adding Rice to the recipe could cause news junkies nervous breakdowns.
But this is probably not the end of it, and in all likelihood, more people – including former US Attorney General Jessica Lynch and Obama himself – will be hauled in front of the media to add more ingredients to a story in which the only truth is that no one really knows what’s going on.
The Lynch-Obama dynamic already overshadows this entire saga, but perhaps will emerge in the final act of this story, with the ultimate conclusion being that this is all part and parcel of politics – probably always has been.
But what is probably unprecedented is the sheer volume of fake news – there’s tons of it. Whereas before, the perception might have been that it was just a small minority of journalists, or a small number of media outlets, nowadays it’s probably hundreds of thousands or even millions of people propagating falsehoods on a daily basis – most might be insignificant, but some can be convincing.
Who hasn’t fallen for a fake news story in the past?
Potentially anyone with access to the Internet can go onto social media and other forums and spout complete rubbish. And if they do it often enough and intelligently enough, it might get taken seriously.
And because the old rules of journalism – based on laws about slander, defamation, libel and so on – no longer apply on the Internet, if they ever did, the problem is likely to grow to a point where we are all living in a make-believe world, as some claim we already do.
The problem of fake news is now being directly tackled by some of the largest media companies of the day – namely Facebook and Google.
The thing about Facebook and Google is that they were never journalistic organisations. They apparently never asked themselves the question: “What if people use our platform to peddle falsehoods that are legally dubious?”
Whatever people’s criticisms of mainstream media – and they have plenty of detractors of their own – such basic questions are always asked of everything they publish.
But belatedly, Google and Facebook are trying to do something about fake news, and of course it’s software-led and user-led – as opposed to journalist-led. Basically, they are throwing the ball back in the court of the general public, rather than hiring more journalists to check what they publish.
Google has introduced something it calls “Fact Check”, which seems to rely on well-known journalistic or fact-checking outlets – such as Politico, Snopes, and others – to provide categorisation, such as “mostly true”, or “false”, and so on.
Facebook is appealing directly to its 200 billion users and has provided a tool which enables people to flag up stories they think are fake.
Neither company seems to accept that if you’re going to publish news, or provide a platform for publishing information which purports to be fact, it is your responsibility to ensure that it is not slanderous, libellous or otherwise legally erroneous.
Meanwhile, in another development to this fake news story, the billionaire founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, has committed $100 million to combat fake news, according to a story on CNN.