Is Fake News Destroying Democracy?

On 13th July, at an Internet Society event on Fake News, I am due to address the impact on politics. Last Saturday I attended Founders Day at my old school (the current chairman of ISOC England also happens to be an OA) and listened to Tom Standage  (another OA) give a lively resume on his excellent history of Social Media – the “Writing on the Wall“.

It set me to think what I might say, given that I will be speaking after contributions on

  • the technologies currently being used to spread known fictions,
  • how players like Facebook are trying to handle the problem,
  • how civil liberties groups like Article 19 are fighting to prevent censorship and
  • how professional journalists, who used to be employed to separate fact from from fiction, are being squeezed out by on-line business models which regard news as “free”.

Tom Standage says that man naturally networks in groups and that news and views travel when individuals pass them between the different groups to which they belong – whether or not their rulers approve. His history of “Social Media” begins with slaves of Rome carrying written messages (on papyrus and tablets) between literate masters and mistresses and merchants carrying them between trading communities. The first systemic records of the use of social media for political maneuvering are from the correspondence files of Cicero. From the same age we have the first use of “fake news” to destroy a civilisation (that of the Gauls): the stories told by Julius Caesar about their barbarian behaviour to justify an invasion to seize their gold mines to fund his political career.  The next great change came with printing. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went “viral” after being translated into German for a limited print run (500 copies). They were then printed and reprinted across Germany in a matter of weeks and “within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.” But printing was a small scale, labour intensive “cottage industry” with small print runs, until the 1830s.

Then the invention of the steam press ushered in the age of mass media. “News” became what journalists and their editors (whether employed by Press Barons,  Broadcasters or State – Lords Rothermere, Lord Reith, Joseph Geobbels or Joseph Stalin) said it was. Now the Internet has, “once again” enabled the users of social media to decide what they think is “News”.

Or has it?

What of the domination of Amazon (whose owner recently bought the Washington Post), Facebook, Google and Microsoft over what we see and find over the Internet? What of the Botnets (Macedonian or otherwise), pumping out “fake news“. And how different, if at all, is the UK? Great  claims are made for Full Fact which is itself claimed to be part of a self serving faux fact industry.

What is “real” news and what is “fake”.  Tom gives many examples over time. I have many from the IT industry itself, with press releases making claims for products and services that they can never deliver, even if they existed and worked, and case studies that bear little resemblance to reality. I remember checking a product with over 300 claimed users – I could find barely 30 who could recall ever having used it and barely half a dozen who did so regularly. I also remember reviewers who boasted of hands-on checking products before writing about them, waxing lyrical about innovative features which had been dropped from the product before its public launch.

In my essay for the 50 Anniversary of LEO (which I recently put on-line again)  I argued that the history of technology is also the history of the creation of ever more sophisticated illusions of reality so we cannot tell when we are being lied to. In consequence, until we have technologies we can trust, there will be a period when only the gullible believe what they read on-line. Given that Julius Caesar originally planned to invade what is now Macedonia to raise the funds for his election campaign and the biggest source of fake news on both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton was said to be Macedonia there is a delicious irony.

But which is the bigger threat to democracy?

“Fake news”


“Censorship” by media magnates (whether or not in close league with the political establishments of the day) and their employers.

And what is democracy?

One of the “Devils Definitions” which you may not have heard is “Democracy is a Western system in which decisions are dictated by those who shout loudest, as opposed to allowing those with wisdom of age to decide, after they have listened to the enthusiasm of youth“.

I will quote this at the ISOC event, if only to provoke a reaction from the Article 19 Group.

There is another “Devil’s Comparison” between the US and China: “One is a nation created by real estate agents and lawyers for real estate estates and lawyers, (think real estate agent George Washington, railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln etc.). The other is a nation created by engineers for engineers. (think the Great Canals of China and the composition of the current Politburo). Together they prove that engineers can be as corrupt as real estate agents and lawyers.”

The uniting of the States of America was a triumph of de facto Sino-American-operation (Chinese engineers built the railroads through the Rockies). So too is the spread of social media across the world – as Chinese technology makes the Internet affordable to the other 4/5ths of the population of the globe. Is the Internet bringing out the best, or the worst in those two great (and equally introverted and proud) nations?

The classic example of a democracy overthrown by “fake news”, organised by some-one who was a master of the social media of day, was the Weimar Republic. Joseph Goebbels said “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand time becomes the truth“. Thus Mrs Thatcher hardly ever cut anything, except the free school milk that most of us did not drink. But she used the rhetoric of a housewife spending within her means. Hence the beginning of the myth of “Tory Cuts” whenever priorities are changed within an overall spending increase, by a Conservative Government.

Then there is all the “fake news” as to what is, or is not, possible over the internet.

I will end with part of my favourite poem – written at a time when many viewed religion and truth as synonymous and England was about to tear herself apart in a Civil War whose brutalities were largely triggered by fake news stories in the pamphlets of the day. Indeed, but for one fake news story, the English Civil War might have been over before it began: without the pamphlets covering the horrors of the “Sack of Brentford” (the other version is that a barmaid was indecently assaulted by a drunken cavalier and dropped a candle which set fire to drinking house!) the King would have marched almost unopposed into London. Instead the “Trained Bands” (Militia)  of London mobilised and the citizenry dragged the cannon from the Tower of London for what became known as the Battle of Turnham Green.

Most readers will know  John Donne  for his love poetry but he was also one of the greatest preachers of his day – and a connoisseur of fake news:

Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus,

Thinking her unhous’d here, and fled from us,

Seeks her at Rome; there, because he doth know

That she was there a thousand years ago,

He loves her rags so, as we here obey

The statecloth where the prince sate yesterday.

Crantz to such brave loves will not be enthrall’d,

But loves her only, who at Geneva is call’d

Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young,

Contemptuous, yet unhandsome; as among

Lecherous humours, there is one that judges

No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.

Graius stays still at home here, and because

Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws,

Still new like fashions, bid him think that she

Which dwells with us is only perfect, he

Embraceth her whom his godfathers will

Tender to him, being tender, as wards still

Take such wives as their guardians offer, or

Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor

All, because all cannot be good, as one

Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.

Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so

As women do in divers countries go

In divers habits, yet are still one kind,

So doth, so is Religion; and this blind-

ness too much light breeds; but unmoved, thou

Of force must one, and forc’d, but one allow,

And the right; ask thy father which is she,

Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will implies delay, therefore now do;

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand

In so ill case, that God hath with his hand

Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;

Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied

To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried

At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee

To say a Philip, or a Gregory,

A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?

Is not this excuse for mere contraries

Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?

That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;

Those past, her nature and name is chang’d; to be

Then humble to her is idolatry.

As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell

At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,

But having left their roots, and themselves given

To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven

Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last …

Or to summarise:

  • small scale social media where you can check the sources – good
  • large scale mass social media where you cannot – bad
  • but can you check the sources or are you left deciding which editor (Google, the Guardian or the Goebbels of the day) you choose to believe.