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Fake News, Propaganda and Media Bias: An illusion of the truth?
The internet has revolutionised the way information is presented and consumed. The traditional newspaper, for example, is no longer the main medium of news coverage. This therefore, has meant that mass media, in general, has had to find new ways of creating money. As a result, one could argue, that the ‘news’ is not objective but rather socially manufactured through a selective process. Events happen, but this doesn’t automatically mean that they will make the headlines or the news coverage at all. As a result, one could argue that the media is biased and is altered to represent certain views and ideologies. The concept of fake news and the deliberate misleading and deceptive information presented in the media could take the form of propaganda. As a society we have become more media saturated but are these agencies of communication, we refer to as mass media, transmitting an illusion of the truth?
One could argue that the ‘news’ is socially constructed and as McQuail noted, it is not objective or impartial (McQuail, 1998). The reality is that the ‘news’ is socially manufactured as a result of a selective process carried out by gatekeepers : the editors, journalists and proprietors. This leaves room for media bias as the news is essentially influenced by a group or individuals own opinions and judgements. The news is not just simply a collection of facts but rather a collection of knowledge made up of information which is ‘loaded’ reflecting an interpretation. The process of selection, one could argue, is influenced by organizational constraints, values of media outlets and ideology.
This links directly to the Marxist theory: that the news is fabricated and is an ideological apparatus which helps maintain power. Media outlets shape the ‘news’ and as a result we get injected, like the hypodermic syringe model suggests, with ideas that may be an illusion of the truth. As Miliband noted the media shapes how we think about the world we live in (Miliband, 1976) therefore if media bias is influencing the news, important issues like poverty, which show weakness in the capitalist system, are likely to be concealed. In contrast, media outlets are constantly providing us with information regarding political, financial and industrial states, for example recently: the benefits of Brexit, which reinforces corporate values.
For example, during the EU referendum, media outlets helped broadcast the idea that the £350 million sent to the EU weekly would be used to help the NHS instead, if voters opted to vote Brexit. However, after the referendum, the Brexit leaders decided to abandon the pledge (The Guardian, 2017). This case clearly demonstrates exploitation through misleading the public, as the NHS was a topic that they felt strongly about. This was a major political change, Marx would argue that the media transmitted the conservative ideology here in the interests of the elite. This could also be classified as a case of propaganda. As Herman and Chomsky noted the media participating in propaganda campaigns is nothing new (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Taking this into account, one could argue that the media purposefully selected facts “designed to deceive us” (Brennen, 2017) and encourage Brexit. The media is dependent on the government and businesses as sources of information. These overlapping interests mean there is a certain degree of solidarity between them, as Highfield notes the personal and political are highly interlinked (Highfield, 2016), which means the effect was inevitable.
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Furthermore, analysing the headlines and news coverage, there seems to be a pattern where certain events are reported more than others, which reinforces the idea that media outlets choose what makes the ‘news’. For example, recently we got continuous reports and headlines which revolved around Hurricane Harvey which had a death toll of eighty-two (Moravec and Moravec, 2017). On the other hand, the floods near Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, Africa were hardly reported, even though the death toll was over three hundred (BBC News, 2017). The ethics can undoubtedly be questioned here, the two events occurred at similar times so why was one reported more than the other? This relates to Spencer-Thomas’s (Owen Spencer-Thomas, 2017) idea of “news values” where the guidelines for what is considered ‘newsworthy’ come into play. The Freetown floods it could be debated were not as significant as Hurricane Harvey, and consequently didn’t make the headlines.
Alternatively, it could be argued that the media is not biased but rather like every other cooperation in society, works within the hierarchal structure conforming to the requirements which bring reward (Curran and Seaton, 2010). Media outlets are businesses essentially thus need people to invest to generate revenue. Therefore, rather than being biased and promoting fake news, it could be argued that media outlets actually focus and tailor the content based on their audiences. For example, Five News is characterized by short, snappy bulletins aimed at a young audience. In contrast, The Guardian has detailed articles which are aimed at more qualified professionals.
Furthermore, to succeed, media outlets have now had to intensify media strategies to compete with cybermedia organisations (Williams and Tapscott, 2014). Considering this, it could be argued that media outlets choose the most important stories as a way of fulfilling users’ needs and their own profit interests(Fuchs, 2014), online. This links with the concept of ‘clickbaiting’ which is used by media outlets to attract audiences to ideas which appeal to them. Postmodernists, would argue that media outlets are a channel to promote consumption rather than propaganda. They tailor and direct certain information towards certain people in the hopes of increasing revenue through advertisements. The increasing diversity of choice, globalisation and social media has resulted in a variety of influences shaping our identities.
One could argue, that users are not exploited, as Fuchs notes, users voluntarily choose to use platforms (Fuchs, 2014). Marx’s theory can be criticised for presenting users as passive rather than active participants. The idea that there has been a “cultural shift away from the… self-conscious user towards the subject as docile” (Lovink, 2016) can be debated. The revolution of the internet has meant that people can actively challenge the media, social media has become a “weapon of mass collaboration” (Williams and Tapscott, 2014). Therefore, it could be argued that fake news is a thing of the past, with social media flooding with different perspectives there has been, as Mason notes, an increase in individual freedom and human consciousness. The evidence lies in the streams of social media comments which critically challenge a piece of ‘news’. From one perspective, it could be stated that social media has helped a digital revolution to occur where the masses have finally gained a voice and power.
Moreover, it could be claimed that people choose which news stories to believe thus fake news can only exist if people allow it to be. Audiences receive and interpret the ‘news’ and as a result, not everyone will be affected in the same way. Consequently, if media outlets are promoting propaganda there is a very small chance that everyone will be misled. People tend to read and seek out information that interests them and confirms their existing views (Festinger, 1962). Taking this into account, one could argue that the media is just a scapegoat for media bias and fake news. The reality could be in fact that media bias and fake news is affected and created depending on a range of psychological and social factors, it may not be bias but rather unconscious nature.
Without question, the media plays a major role in society today, whether it be influential or informative. Media technologies may not be the “contemporary opiates of the people” as Maxwell and Miller (Maxwell and Miller, 2012) suggest but the validity and objectivity of media outlets can undeniably be questioned. The ‘news’ is affected by a range of factors and it is impossible for it to be completely objective. This may not necessarily make it propaganda but rather a certain opinion. Media outlets need to generate revenue and therefore, media bias may be a method of tailoring articles towards audiences rather than intentionally ignoring incidents because of capitalist control and deliberate misinformation.
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On the other hand, the ‘news’ is essentially a root of information, consequently we should receive an equal coverage of incidents, like Hurricane Harvey and the Sierra Leone floods, so that one incident is not seen as more significant. It could also be argued that media outlets should stay neutral in political campaigns like the EU referendum, as it is very easy to misinform and mislead readers.
However, the effect of misinformation can be oversimplified, as seen in the Marxist theory. People are not passive and critically challenge the ‘news’ and even play an active role in providing the ‘news’, as social media has given everyone the freedom to transmit information. The different perspectives, as a result, diminish the effect of fake news and allow us to assemble narratives and interpretations for ourselves. Consequently, there can only be an ‘illusion of truth’ if we allow there to be.
BBC News. (2017). Sierra Leone mudslides kill hundreds. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-40926187 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2017].
Brennen, B. (2017). Making Sense of Lies, Deceptive Propaganda, and Fake News. Journal of Media Ethics, 32(3), pp.179-181.
Curran, J. and Seaton, J. (2010). Power without responsibility. London: Routledge.
Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.
Fuchs, C. (2014). Digital labour and Karl Marx. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, pp.254, 257, 280.
Herman, E. and Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books.
Highfield, T. (2016). Social media and everyday politics. [S.l.]: Polity Press, p.3.
Lovink, G. (2016). Social media abyss. Cambridge, UK: Polity, p.5.
Maxwell, R. and Miller, T. (2012). Greening the media. New York: Oxford University Press.
McQuail, D. (1998). Mass communication theory. London: Sage.
Miliband, R. (1976). The state in capitalist society. London: Quartet Books.
Moravec, E. and Moravec, E. (2017). Texas officials: Hurricane Harvey death toll at 82, ‘mass casualties have absolutely not happened’. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/texas-officials-hurricane-harvey-death-toll-at-82-mass-casualties-have-absolutely-not-happened/2017/09/14/bff3ffea-9975-11e7-87fc-c3f7ee4035c9_story.html?utm_term=.5439927dfcdc [Accessed 6 Nov. 2017].
Owen Spencer-Thomas. (2017). News values – Owen Spencer-Thomas. [online] Available at: http://www.owenspencer-thomas.com/journalism/newsvalues/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2017].
The Guardian. (2017). Brexit camp abandons £350m-a-week NHS funding pledge. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/brexit-camp-abandons-350-million-pound-nhs-pledge [Accessed 10 Sep. 2016].
Williams, A. and Tapscott, D. (2014). Wikinomics. New York: Portfolio, p.3.
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