You must have heard the phrases by now. ‘Fake news’ and ‘post- truth’. What do they mean and have they any relevance to our industry?
Well, yes and no. It depends on who you read.
Ignoring the salient facts has long been a staple of political speech. Every day, our politicians of every hue overstate some statistic, distort their opponents’ positions, or simply tell out-and-out whoppers. Pundits and PRs spread the spin. That’s what they’re paid for. Every newsroom in the country has a producer called Phil Space who will gratefully accept another talking head to fill the void.
Then there’s fake news, the unnerving phenomenon that is now sweeping, well, the news. Fake news is made-up stuff, (that’s lying to you and me) creditably manipulated to look like trustworthy journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and share the stories on social media.
Is it dangerous? You bet.
How about the fake news story during the recent American Presidential election when some allies of Hillary Clinton were accused of being complicit in a child sex ring story based around a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Yes, really.
The rumour seemed to start from a Twitter account associated with a white supremacist.
From there, users on the online forums suggested that evidence for the theory was to be found in stolen emails, which had been recently published on WikiLeaks. Even more weirdly, rumours were stoked up to suggest the pizza shop, Comet Ping Pong, housed secret rooms to imprison children.
Cue, a 28-year-old male arrested by Washington Police for threatening staff with a gun in the restaurant as he self-investigated these rumours.
False information has always lived online. Lincoln warned us about that in a recent internet meme.
Before this destructive fake news, there were electronic message boards where people shared conspiracy theories and emails instructing you to FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!! I still get those occasional Facebook postings, and I bet you do too. I just press delete on every one.
Before the computer, there were anonymous pamphlets and chain letters sent through the mail.
For those with long enough memories, the excellently subversive counterculture but short lived magazine Oz reinforced all the Kennedy conspiracy theories with a special edition in 1965 which sold in significant numbers. I still have my copy. I still want to know who else was behind the grassy knoll…
Fast forward to 2016, and most viral lies are now spread on Facebook. They are reinforced by Google searches, in which stories from dubious sites jump to the top of your screen based on traffic numbers. It’s just a logarithm. The biggest news provider in the world and it doesn’t employ a single journalist.
With 1.79 billion people around the world now using Facebook each month, the platform dwarfs other online offerings. Hoping to encourage people to be better informed, Facebook have introduced many new tools to the site in recent years. Ironically, Facebook’s technology and good intentions has probably fuelled the rise of fake news in 2016.
Journalism has no Hippocratic Oath, no injunction to “do no harm.” Every time we check our phones for the latest updates, switch on the TV news or scan our Facebook feeds. What can we believe? This article I’m reading—who wrote it, and why?
Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its word of the year 2016, and has defined it as the state of affairs when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
‘Yes, yes’, I hear you say. ‘What’s all that got to do with shipping?’
OK, let’s say your fleet of ships carry palm oil. Pretty routine stuff you might say. Even quite boring. But this time, one of your ships has a minor accident and some product is lost. It really upsets local people. Rumours and ‘fake news’ start to fly about how the oil was sourced.
It is reasonably well known that the main threat to the survival of orangutan populations in the wild is the massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra. Those are where the two endemic species of orangutans are respectively found. So the ‘fake news’ is spread that your oil was directly sourced from those threatened areas.
You’re under fire from two areas now. You need to clean up the oil and make good to the coastline, but you also are trying to douse the internet fire of opprobrium which is painting your company as a threat to the environment. The story is moving fast, shared by hundreds then thousands with just a phone tap.
Memories of Nestlé’s disastrous efforts to stop Greenpeace telling the world about palm oil in chocolate bars resurface. You’re playing with the grown-ups now. Your charterers take fright and you have potentially a third far more serious problem.
There is an old saying in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, double source it.”