Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fake news, filter bubbles and the failure of the BBC

A couple of days ago The Times splashed its front page with a story about a leaked 'Cabinet Office Memo'. You all saw the story, either in its original Times incarnation or else the retread from The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News or the BBC. The content of the memo and the argument it informs is not relevent to what I'm going to say but rather the provenance of the memo. The argument is merely the victim of the news story.

Within a few hours of The Times splashing its story, there were doubts about its veracity. Was there really a government memo or has there been some sort of creative interpretation of something else. The government helpfully told us there was no such memo but then whoever believes anything a government tells us?

In the end the story was shown as a more-or-less complete fiction. Rather than a memo produced by a government department to advise the Cabinet, we had instead a polemic created on the authors' initiative as a pitch for consultancy business. The 'truth' presented in that Times story turned out to be quite a lot less than actual truth. Fleetingly one wonders how a great newspaper can make such a cock-up even to the point of asking whether it's not a cock-up but essentially a commissioned leak designed to embarrass the government - a sort of Brexit version of the Zinoviev letter?

Oddly - or maybe not oddly at all - alongside this example of misleading news reporting there has been a story about how 'fake news' was responsible (I exaggerate but only slightly) for Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election:
In particular, there are those who argue that Facebook fueled Trump’s rise by circulating a host of fake news stories about political topics, and these stories helped tip the scale in his favor.
Coupled with the filtering algorithm used by Facebook all this fake news resulted in a 'post-truth' election result. Others, including Facebook itself, have kicked back at this argument by pointing out that most (like 99%) of the content on Facebook isn't fake news. What's odd - to me at least - is that very few people have pointed out that Facebook isn't a newspaper, it's content is user-generated, unmoderated, unedited and therefore essentially untrustworthy. But bluntly the problem isn't fake news on Facebook it's the selective presentation of news, even false news, by trustworthy media.

And this problem - what I might call the "mainstream media filter" if that didn't sound too much like the wilder fringes of left and right wing blogging - is why here in the UK, we were all so utterly shocked and surprised at Donald Trump's election. Every news story on every channel told us that there was absolutely no chance at all of Donald Trump winning. When I went to the excellent Bradford Politics in the Pub everyone, panel and audience, believed that Donald trump was toast.

Why is this? Partly it's about the failure of opinion polling - US polling has hit the same wall as polls in the UK, but I don't think this explains all that failure. It's easy for us to lean back, smile and say. "I know I was wrong but so was everyone else - look at the polls". You'd have thought that, after the 2015 election and the EU referendum, us Brits would have developed a healthy scepticism about predictions based on opinion polling?

No, the reason for us getting it so comprehensively wrong (and looking at the US popular vote, those national polls weren't so wrong any way) is that the media we trust - BBC and other broadcasters, broadsheets newspapers - created a narrative that failed entirely to reflect the actual debate in the US election. We got an easy-to-swallow caricature of Donald Trump - racist, sexist, homophobic, bonkers - set against an equally shallow picture of Hillary Clinton. The election was light and dark, good and evil, saint versus sinner - there was no way Americans would vote for a man as bad as Trump especially as it would mean we wouldn't have the first female US president.

Watching events before and after the election - especially on the BBC - we can see the shift from smug certainty to incredulity and incomprehension. The BBC's narrative - indeed the narrative of almost the entire UK press corps - collapsed under the shallowness of its analysis, the prejudice of its presumptions and the degree of its ignorance about the USA and its demographics. It's not just that some of the anti-Trump stuff might just be crying wolf but that we'd not spotted that a whole lot of people in the USA actually looked at Trump's agenda and concluded they'd have a go with that.

After all, Trump's message out there was about jobs, immigration, patriotism, ending corruption and giving a voice to the voiceless. It's true this is a deceptive agenda - the economic policies will make America poorer not greater and in a land of immigrants attacking immigration seems dumb and just a bit racist - but when the counter is shrill attacks on the candidate's character rather than a debate about the issues, should we be so surprised when a whole bunch of people gave Hillary the proverbial finger?

So when the BBC and others point at Facebook, accusing the social medium of spreading fake news and creating filter bubbles, perhaps they need to examine the massive beam in their own eye - after all Facebook doesn't pretend to be a news medium, the BBC does. And, if we've learned anything over the last two years it's that the voting behaviour (and, I don't doubt, the opinions and attitudes) of a lot of folk simply doesn't fit the liberal* narrative that our national media promotes. Whether there's anything that can be (or indeed should be) done is a matter for debate but one thing is certain, the search for different news sources on-line suggests that a lot of people out there have rejected that liberal world view and are seeking alternative news sources.

The growth of fake news - as well as polemical sites like Vox or Breitbart and conspiracy sites like Infowars or the UK's own Canary - reflects the utter failure of the main news organisations and, in the UK, especially the BBC. I watched an interview by a BBC reporter of a man from 'Gays for Trump' (this might not have been the exact name of the group but it describes it precisely). The reporter may have been tired - it was the morning after Trump's election - but what came across was utter contempt for the young man being interviewed: how dare he challenge the narrative of trump as gay-hating (he isn't) and appear as a pleasant, personable bloke rather than the cartoon version of the Trump supporter as a one-toothed, baseball-capped, wall-eyed, racist redneck!

Next year, we have elections in France. They're pretty important, not least because Marine Le Pen leads in the polls and the BBC and others will be building themselves up into a funk at the possibility of her election. What we might hope for is a slightly better narrative from the BBC and other national media, one that actually reflects the debate rather than "oh my god, no, please, not Le Pen, not a fascist, fascists are bad" repeated over and over again. It may be true that the French run-off system makes it very difficult for Le Pen to win (we saw this in Austria where they very nearly elected an old Green communist in preference to the Freedom Party candidate for president) but we deserve something of a better analysis that we've had in the last three campaigns the BBC has covered.

The selective nature of BBC news-making, the prejudice of mainstream sources and the inability of London-based reporters to appreciate a fundamental cultural difference between city and country, capital and provinces - these things have created a filter bubble around the BBC, other broadcasters and the main broadsheet newspapers that is far more damaging than 'fake news' sites on Facebook. Just as social science academia needs to actively recruit conservatives, so do the main media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters - not as superstar columnists or presenters but in the bones of the organisation as programme planners, producers, directors and researchers.

Right now a growing part of the population - radicalised by Brexit (to use the sort of divisive language the BBC valorises) - is more and more distrustful of our national news media and especially the one they pay for, the BBC. We know The Guardian and its ilk are biased but we now know that this increasingly applies to the BBC - the liberal media filter bubble just means that people at the BBC haven't recognised just how they're no longer meeting the public service remit given them in their charter. The incomprehension we saw in May 2015 became wilder in June 2016 and frantic in November 2016 - the UK's national media didn't see any of this coming because it was looking in the wrong places. Mostly its own navel. This is the problem not fake news stories on Facebook.

*Please note that where used the word 'liberal' is meant in its perjorative American meaning not its sane, noble and decent English meaning


Radical Rodent said...

Like so many in this country, I looked at the reports following Trump’s trail and wondered why he was so popular with Americans when he said such bad things. Unlike so many in this country, I watched a few of the speeches he made at his rallies. Outside the auditoria, I watched footage of the crowds of protestors who, when interviewed, had no idea what they were protesting about; I watched supporters who, when interviewed, knew full well what they were supporting.

The conclusions I came to included the unpleasant thought that we were being lied to – and lied to by those whom we have trusted for far too long. It makes me doubt almost every story that issues forth from these places, and chills me to think that these are what too, too many people continue to think are completely trustworthy. I now ask the question when someone raises a “fact”: “Is that true, or was it something you heard on the BBC?”

Anonymous said...

and in a land of immigrants attacking immigration seems dumb and just a bit racist -

Can you source Trumps attack on immigration please?

I watched and read a lot of Trumps words and cannot recall him attacking immigration. He criticised illegal immigration and spoke about repatriation of these illegal immigrants, illegal immigrants are law breakers, criminals and should be deported. They can apply through normal channels like everybody else if they want to immigrate. He also spoke about an hiatus on immigrants from known terrorist countries until a thorough method of vetting was set up, imminently sensible when you consider how many refugees from the Middle East have gone on to commit terror acts in Europe.

Dr Evil said...

I made several hundred pounds from Donald's win because months ago I reckoned he had a very good shot at the POTUS job. I just wish I had made the bet earlier. I could have made £10K. So some of us were not at all surprised.

Anonymous said...

For some years now I haven't thought that the Beeb is impartial and its partiality is most evident during interviews when no-one can be left in doubt that an interviewee is disapproved of (it even extends to members of the public - I remember Anita Anand on "Any Answers" expressing her personal outrage at a caller's opinion to a subsequent caller).

It's not just London journalists who exhibit conformity to a particular position - my local news presenter looked and sounded as if she was reporting personal catastrophe after the referendum vote - ("Smelling salts, Gavin, looks like Carol's about to go again"!).

A cynic might be tempted to believe that not only do all Beeb journalists hold a particular view but that it's Beeb policy to promote that view possibly to shape the narrative.


Henry Kaye said...

It took me many years but I eventually came to the conclusion some years ago now that the media wouldn't know the truth if they saw it. Their goal is to create controversy and they have certainly been successful!