When Donald Trump launched his ‘birther movement’ in the lead up to the 2012 US presidential candidate race, his accusations about President Obama’s place of birth should never have been published in mainstream media. By publishing these demonstrably false accusations, aimed at delegitimising America’s first black President, the media gave the accusations, and in-turn Trump, an unjustified legitimacy. This coverage gave him a key step-up in his eventual rise to power in 2016. We all know how badly that ended.
Do the media ever adequately reflect on the part they played in this international abomination?
The answer is no if you consider the publishing of similarly egregious conspiracy lies in Victoria this week. When Louise Staley, the Victorian shadow treasurer, publicly asked questions about the ‘truth’ of Premier Daniel Andrews’ fall, she was promoting ridiculous and outrageous lies which had been spreading via social media and text message in Melbourne for weeks, all aimed at delegitimising the Premier while he recuperates from a near-fatal back injury. She chose to spread these unsubstantiated and frankly absurd lies as part of an ongoing aggressive Victorian Liberal campaign to smear Premier Andrews and the Labor government.
Did the media have to report these ‘questions’? No, of course they didn’t.
When media professionals complain about fake news, they are usually referring to the spreading of false information on social media. There is no doubt that fake rumours and conspiracies on social media – hello QAnon – are a huge problem which society is yet to adequately address. One way that the mainstream media could help in this fight, a fight to stop the erosion of public decency and trust in evidence and fact – a trust which represents the glue that holds society together – is by correcting false information when it is clear it is spreading out of control on the internet. Such correction would constitute the media fulfilling their most basic role as watchdogs for society – this time not as watchdogs on the powerful, but watchdogs for the quality of information spreading around the marketplace of ideas.
I describe fake news as the publishing of demonstrably false information on any platform whether it be social or mainstream media. By undermining the legitimacy of fake news, journalists are working in the public interest.
The opposite is also true. When the media give unearned legitimacy to fake news, like promoting Staley’s devious ‘question asking’ about the circumstances of Premier Andrews’ injuries, they are working against the public interest. And, they’re giving free rein to illegitimate behaviour, such as Trump’s dishonest birth certificate claims, and Staley’s deceitful spreading of politically motivated gossip.
Another example of the media failing to be watchdogs in the public interest when it comes to correcting false and damaging misinformation was the publishing of outrageous anti-vax conspiracies after a Queensland hairdresser banned covid-vaccinated customers from attending her salon. Her lies about vaccinations seeping out of the vaccinated and causing infertility had already gained unwarranted traction on social media. So why would mainstream news platforms give the misinformation not only more reach to a much wider audience, but also un-earned legitimacy? During a pandemic. When vaccination hesitancy is already a major issue. For clicks? What does that say about the ethics of some in the news industry?
Obama regularly mentioned his frustration at media norms in his memoir ‘A Promised Land’. He said from the start of his presidency, he was not just surprised at how much his Republican opponents peddled ‘half truths or outright lies’, but also by the media’s willingness to publish them. Trump used this willingness to his advantage by making lying a political weapon. His former chief strategist and editor of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, famously admitted this, bragging: “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sh*t”. Much sh*t was thrown, and much was published – The Washington Post tracked Trump’s lies, which counted 25,000 during his presidency. If the strategy is working, why would he do anything differently?
Pleasingly, not all Australian journalists reported Staley’s conspiracy mongering as legitimate questioning of the Premier. And some chose not to report them at all. Yet, too many lazily followed the usual script of blindly repeating every public statement made by a prominent person as if it is automatically newsworthy and legitimate until proven otherwise. This is how fake news flourishes. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s not much you can do to put it back in.
Some media insiders do self-reflect, but even when they identify the problem, it does not seem to have an impact on media routines. For example, after Trump was dragged kicking and screaming from office, retiring executive director of The Washington Post, Martin Baron, admitted journalists and editors should have done a better job holding Trump to account for his lies:
We had to be much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity, his lies over the course of the administration. We needed to call them that from the very beginning. We were very much operating on good principle; and let’s be fair, he was president, he was duly elected. But he was exploiting that. He was exploiting our principles.
These ‘principles’ have been weaponised in bad faith by right wing politicians who give no thought to the long-term damage disinformation does to society. As evidence of just how bad this situation has got, a recent survey found one in seven Americans trust the QAnon conspiracy which peddles the laughingly outrageous accusation that the world is run by a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. It would be funny if it weren’t so scary. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has a close family friend who has been a leading spreader of QAnon nonsense. And of course, QAnon followers made up a huge number of the unhinged crowd who stormed the Capitol Building after being revved into an irrational frenzy by the only voice they seem to trust: Trump.
The sooner the news media act as watchdogs to maintain society’s fragile-grip on reality, rather than undermining it, the better. It is up to journalists if they want to use their power to be part of the problem of disinformation, or help solve it.