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The Ghost of Fake News

There are several reasons to lose your head over social media. This twenty first century phenomenon has fast become the defining aspect of western culture, changing everything from the ground up; our conversations, our society and our language. Along with all the great good social media has done (and there is a lot of genuine good), social media has also encouraged us to speak without thinking. This has led us to the edge of a very peculiar abyss. Last week we all had to put the words ‘nuclear war’ together with ‘tweet’, which left a strange aftertaste.

Chief among the monsters unleashed by social media is ‘fake news’. This benign gobbet, first used as a name for hoax news stories, has been transformed by over use. What started as a flippant phrase is now a public relations weapon.

Signal’s media monitoring is uniquely placed to keep an eye on such cultural footballs. We can track the mentions of Fake News, providing a clear map of how the phrase is being used and in what context.

Let’s start at November 16 - 22nd, 2016. ‘Fake News’ was enjoying a purple patch with roughly 500 mentions per day in major headlines both in print and online. However these mentions were not investigating badly sourced news. Almost every one of these mentions was an accusation. The crime was less important than the criminals, it seemed. The media was engaged in a festival of accusation and avoidance. Ron Paul revealed a ‘hit list’ of fake news journalists. CNN accused fake news of electing Donald Trump. Elon Musk claimed he’d been victimised, and to cap it all off China took the ironic step of putting ‘stricter regulations’ on fake news (presumably exempting the fake news that was published by the CCP). None of these stories actually shared any articles that had been proven to be fake. The thing itself was absent.

By this point the very phrase had changed its meaning. Fake News had become a by-word for ‘liar’ that could be hurled around with abandon. December was even worse than November. Amongst the accusers were Martin Shulz, Denzel Washington, Facebook and the government of Germany. Among the accused stood Joe Biden, George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffet and Barrack Obama to name but a few. Peak mentions in December were up to 795 on the 10th and 774 on the 17th, and still despite a palpable lack of evidence on either side.

Amid this war of words some earnest cultural soul searching had begun. The helpful tech journalists were out in force, speculating on the effect of fake news upon the individual. The Guardian ran ‘How to stop fake news? What is it and what you can do to stop it,’ evidence in itself that what ‘fake news’ actually consisted of was now up for debate. Retrospective histories sprouted like fungi, ‘Fake News, how we got here’, ‘A Brief History of Fake News’ and so on. Early this year fifth graders in the US were being taught how to spot fake news in class, and the phrase had become a click bait headline par excellence. Then in late February, employing his skill for turning subtle suspicions into vulgar realities, Donald Trump claimed all negative polls were fake news.

In recent months the petty accusations have died down and more serious allegations of fake news being employed by the Russian state have surfaced. What was once simply called misinformation has now been newly minted. Surely we must be reaching saturation point? This phrase has been worn so hard and so fast it must be near breaking point, right?

Media Monitoring, due to its unlimited potential, can help us understand the muscles behind these media phrases. How are they created? What have they become? Media Monitoring can also reveal holes in the story. If there’s so much fake news about, where is it? In the last twelve months there have been only 93 stories related to fake news from legal sources, pointing to actual defamation cases. Could the rest of these accusations just be...

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