The controversy raging round the question of “fake news” – who uses it and for what purpose, with what results – raises the important issue of the role of the media in society – for good and ill.
The definition of “media” as in current usage is the main means of mass communication, encompassing television, radio, newspapers (hard copy and online), and the ever-growing internet.
Mass media, as we know it today, originated with the invention of the printing press using movable type by Johan Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. In 1453 he produced the first printed book, a Latin Bible. This enabled the distribution of printed material on a scale never before possible.
Newspapers developed in about 1612, with the earliest English version in 1620. The Times was one of the first high-circulation papers, distributed in London in the early 1800s. During the 20th century, new technologies allowed the fast, cheap production of a variety of media catering to mass audiences.
Opinions differ on the actual effects of the influence of media on society, with recent theories suggesting that people play an active, rather than passive, role in choosing to create their own meaning out of the messages and images they receive.
In general, most commentators accept that mass media, by the selective portraying of traditions, values and persuasions, has great power to shape opinions and beliefs about what becomes considered acceptable.
This is able to promote an entire way of life, perceptions of, and attitudes towards, other groups that can provoke both positive and harmful behaviour. This often morphs into propaganda which reinforces stereotypes and prejudices, creating an unquestioning, bland complacency which acts as a kind of opiate of the masses where no critical analysis or social responsibility is encouraged.
On the other hand, the media is capable of interrogating and challenging the status quo.
The role of the press as the watchdog of democratic values is well known, especially in South Africa during the apartheid era when numerous newspapers performed a crucial role in exposing regular human rights abuses and atrocities that the ruling regime was attempting to censor.
And the very fact that contemporary leaders with strongly dictatorial yearnings, such as Donald Trump, many African presidents and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, consistently attack the reporting of a free press is clear evidence of the threat this presents to their continued undermining of democratic principles.
The question of censorship raises the subject of “fake news” – perhaps the other side of the same coin – so topical with Donald Trump’s continual usage of the term during and since the recent presidential campaign.
This concept can be traced back to the use of propaganda during both World Wars in the early 20th century, in particular; although it has a far more ancient history. The British government used propaganda to motivate the population to action against the Germans, publishing stories exaggerating British successes, and using derogatory terms such as “The Hun” to provoke negative emotion. And the Nazis employed racial stereotyping to encourage false beliefs promoting anti-Semitism.
Very recently, the pages of Facebook have been used to announce, falsely, the death of those to whom the writer wishes harm, warning honest users of this facility to exercise due scepticism.
Donald Trump’s espousing of “fake news”, using it apparently indiscriminately in condemning all criticism aimed at his actions and outbursts, but also employing it to promote his own policies, is one of the most pernicious aspects of misuse of the media, which he regularly brands as “the enemy”.
Trump persistently called Hillary Clinton “crooked”, supplying no genuine evidence of this, except that “She sold weapons to Isis” – equally risible and unverified. He concocted conspiracy theories, one being that Barack Obama was not born in the US.
Then he breathtakingly and notoriously refused to take a question from a CNN newsperson, saying” “No, not you. You are fake news.”
He is quoted as saying: “I will make our country honest again, but first I’m going to get rid of…”; the implication being that the means he employs to achieve his goal need not be honest – any means justifying the end.
The fatal flaw of disconnect here is that contradictory, immoral means cannot ever lead to the intended ethical goal – it is rendered unattainable.
Once one has embarked on a path of deliberately propagating fake news, all trust in honesty, truth and authenticity is undermined, and the credibility of the Leader is subverted, as well as that of the entire state – and the centre cannot hold. “That way madness lies.”
The bedrock principle of the media is to honour its long-established accountability to its readership and viewers: to respect and maintain the quest to present well-researched, truthful information, or to sell its soul, relinquishing all integrity and raison d’etre.