Research Article: Communication in a Post-Truth Era

This was an assignment for Business Philosophy (BSF800)

Citation:

Boshoff, H. (2017). ‘Communication in a Post-Truth Era’. [online] Responsible Communication.co.za. Available at: http://wp.me/P91LJu-Y [Accessed dd mm. yyyy].

STARTS

 

Assignment 2:

By Henk Boshoff

Business Philosophy (BSF 800)

DIVISION OF COMMUNICATION MANAGEMENT In the  FACULTY OF ECONOMIC AND MANAGEMENT SCIENCES At the UNIVERSITY OF PRETORIA

Promoter: Dr. E. De Beer | Date of submission: 2017-05-22

 

Table of Content

  1. Approach.. 1
  2. Introduction.. 1
  3. Post-Truth in the mainstream.. 2
  4. Fake news: A contextual ancient history. 3
  5. Defining Fake News. 6
  6. Fake news and Public Relations. 7
  7. Responses to fake news. 10
  8. Virtuous Communication.. 12
  9. Issues with responding to Fake News: Wikipedia’s coverage, an evaluation. 13
  10. Post-truth or post-trust?. 18
  11. Conclusion.. 19
  12. List of References. 20

 

Table of Images

Image 1. Example of an online headline designed to generate clicks (Carson, 2017). 9

Image 2: Wikipedia’s Coverage of Fake News (WikipediaEN) 15

 

1.    Approach

Literary research on the topics of fake news and post-truth soon yielded a plethora of sources pertaining to the themes of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and social media. In this paper I intentionally set two boundaries. Firstly, to avoid those themes and its sources wherever possible in search of wider views of this paper’s topics. This because, secondly; Most of the coverage of those themes emanated from those in, associated with or vested in the media industry and to a slightly lesser degree the Public Relations industry. I deliberately chose to cast blanket suspicion on their responses and coverage as if it were reactive, partisan and self-serving in equal measure to the alleged crimes of fake news these commentators were responding to. While this does not invalidate their opinions or research, it helped to achieve two things: Firstly, to find insights on the topics outside the ‘group-think’ of communication, media and journalism studies. Secondly, to narrow my field of enquiry into these two topics that proved to have a “…very-very…” (Trump, 2017 in Hincks, 2017)  wide landscape of influence.

2.    Introduction

In the long history of deceit, lies and misinformation, fake news has already secured a prominent place, mainly because it is arguably having such publicly visible impact. This impact has lead some to call ours the “post-truth environment” (Rensburg, 2017:6).

With relatively few academic studies regarding both fake news and even fewer on post-truth, this paper charts a course through topics and phenomena that this researcher therefor selected mainly from news articles  to generate a broad overview.

The first part of this paper investigates Post-truth. Then the focus moves to the phenomena of ‘fake news’, focusing on the dawn of history and skipping to the present. Definitions of fake news, while not scarce, has not yet received much academic scrutiny. While this paper is merely literary research and not aimed at empirical findings, it became clear that the elements of fake news are not new, and are merely resurfacing in a new guise made possible by the modern context and its technology. I offer a contribution to a definition of fake news.

Brief overviews of responses to fake news are discussed as well as some implications for the Communication industry in broad, which includes the discipline of Public relations but centers mainly on journalism and the formal news media industry in practice.

I then evaluate a specific instance of coverage of fake news and provide some of my own analysis thereof.  Finally, I offer a re-frame of the problem -or at least a part thereof.

3.    Post-Truth in the mainstream

Post-truth was selected as the word of the year for 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries, who and defined it as: “‘Post-truth’– an adjective defined as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”(Oxford_Dictionaries, Not Dated). Furthermore, Oxford Dictionaries defined the word ‘truthiness as: “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”(Oxford_Dictionaries, Not Dated) The word and concept of ‘post-truth’ can be said to extend the notion of truthiness from an isolated quality belonging to particular statements to “a general characteristic of our age” (Oxford_Dictionaries, 2016). With this I expected to find other definitions for the term in the literature, but discovered in almost only discussions about the phenomena. In addition to discussions in the fields of media, journalism and politics, the concept is also discussed by some academics in the social sciences (Kucharski, 2016; Sismondo, 2017) and in fields one may not immediately associate with the public ‘fake-news’ debate, like security studies (Jackson, 2017) as well as medicine and science (Higgins, 2016; Marmot, 2017).

Keyes (2004:153) provides a post-truth credo: “creative manipulation and invention of facts can take us beyond the realm of mere accuracy into one narrative truth.” In essence, authors take license to communicate an alleged deeper truth by replacing facts with lyrical invention. Keyes(200413), citing Steve Tesich as the originator of the term, states: “We live in a post-truth era.”, where “post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight sone.” Furthermore, This era also contains statements that are not lies, but not truth either.

Using the Oxford dictionary definition, Speed and Mannion (2017) argue that the phenomena it describes –post-truth, relates to sociological approaches that emerged in the 1980s that explored how evolution of mass communication technology have given birth to a sense of ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard (1981 in Speed and Mannion, 2017:250) defines hyperreality as: “an inability to distinguish between real and false, and a postmodern condition, in which even hard economic evidence can be contested.” Populist politicians who rely on assertions that “…appear true, but have no basis in fact…” (Speed & Mannion, 2017:250) create and reinforce a false world-view that can be used to reinforce prejudices of their target audience. This creates a situation where “…Trump supporters were ‘taking him seriously, not literally’ (while the press was taking him literally, not seriously).” (Zito, 2016 in Sismondo, 2017).

From the above, a post-truth environment (or era) may be defined as:

‘An environment/era that is marked by a general characteristic of creative manipulation and invention of facts that goes beyond the realm of mere accuracy into one of narrative truth’.

4.    Fake news: A contextual Ancient History

Most Westerners today suspect the first laws against lies and fake news was instituted in Exodus 20:16 “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Bible, 1989). It is also clarified in Exodus 23:1 “Thou shalt not raise a false report…”(Bible, 1989). However, even older legal codes, like that of Code of Hammurabi (c. 1790 BC) does not only prohibit lying, but dictates that one guilty of such a crime “…shall be put to death…” (Hammurabi, 1995).

Similar codes of ethics originated in Oriental traditions. ‘The five precepts’ originated in and survived from pre-history in Indian Brahmanism (before c. 2390 BC) and was later integrated into Buddhism and Daoism (Kohn, 1994). The fourth precept, in its Daoist rendition, reads: “The precept against false speech is: If one did not hear, see, or feel something, or if something is not realized by his Heart, but he tells it to others, this constitutes False Speech.” (Whun-Hey).

Also in Egypt, more than two thousand years ago, the 42 negative confessions in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, attributed to Ma’at contains the moral undertaking: “I have not uttered lies.” (Budge, 1967:43). Particularly applicable in terms of communication and journalism in particular are the 42 negative confessions for Egyptian scribes (Budge, 1898:54-55), which among them contain the following 15:

  • I wrote no more words than needed, nor less than required
  • I neither abbreviated nor omitted
  • I have not set one word against another in contradiction
  • I have not written apologies, mitigations, extenuations
  • I have not written obfuscation, confusion, calamity
  • I have not written words in vain, in disrespect, in contempt
  • Neither have I written flattery, cajolery, conspiracy
  • Neither have I written sham, slur, nor claims upon others
  • Nor have I written with thought of more, for gain
  • Nor have I written out of envy, to harm, nor bring disrepute
  • I have not written that which is untrue
  • I have not changed truth to be otherwise
  • I have not written what I did not know
  • I have lessened no meaning, nor compromised any
  • I have not written but in the service of correctness

As is evidenced by the moral/ethical oath of the Egyptian scribes, the problem of abusing communication to achieve less than ethical ends have been plaguing mankind for a long time. The 42 negative confessions for Egyptian scribes are however adapted from the original 42 negative confessions, indicating that the specific details it contains apply to all citizens (Budge, 1898). As with the 42 negative confessions, the technical difference between lying and bearing false witness also receives specific attention in the Mosaic (Paul II, 1994) and the Hammurabic codes (Hammurabi, 1995).

As quoted from the 42 negative confessions for Egyptian scribes above, codes make clear that motives and the impact of immoral or unethical conduct are also considered. The emergence of fake news into the mainstream consciousness must therefore be seen within the context of merely a new manifestation of an age-old problem.

Purpose

These moral/ethical codes were decreed by kings or even messengers of divinity, which indicates the seriousness with which such codes were approached. The obvious question is why? This author argues that rather than the secondary aim of trying to prevent certain types of behaviour, the primary aim is to prevent the negative effects or results of such behaviour.

By the same reasoning, proponents of fake news use it because they intend specific results and because it works (Bean, 2017). These desired results are perceptions, conceptions, understanding and emotions that will drive behaviours of the recipients of fake news. These behaviours, in turn, will further the agenda of the perpetrator. This element of motive will be discussed below.

5.    Defining Fake News

During Donald Trump’s first press conference as President-elect the term “fake news” broke into the mainstream when, refusing to answer a question by a CNN reporter Jim Acosta, Trump pointed at him and stated: “You are fake news!” (Carson, 2017).

Outright definitions of fake news prove to be scarce. In answer to the question “What is fake news?”, An Xiao Mina of Harvard University responded that “…the range of possibilities is broad enough to render the term almost meaningless, and can encompass everything from when an Onion article is cited as news to dealing with state-sponsored propaganda botnets.” (Harvard-Gazette, 2017).

Lipsett (2008) states: “The term has become widely used – too widely. But it’s understandable there’s confusion when some fake news is only a bit fake, or fake for an arguably legitimate reason (such as satire)”.

Allcott and Gentzkow’s (2017:213) define fake news as: “… news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers.” Their definition includes news articles that are intentionally fabricated as well as satirical website content that could be misunderstood to be factual. Furthermore, their definition excludes several phenomena.

1) reporting mistakes that were unintentional;

2) rumours not originating from a news article;

3) conspiracy theories;

4) Clear satire;

5) false statements by the person quoted in an article; and

6) Biased or misleading articles that are not false.

Their definition is limited because it deals in provable falsehood, which is not always possible, but they make clear their context is limited to articles pertaining to politics and that actually have political implications (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017).

Following an investigation by Deloitte (Deloitte, 2016) for the UK News Media Association, and citing Allcott and Gentzkow (2017), The two key elements of fake news are identified as firstly, the article is a fabrication, and secondly, there is deception as to the purpose and source. I add a third element, which, while arguably implied in the element of deception, aids in the identification of fake news, namely motive.

6.    Fake news and Public Relations

Does Public Relations (PR) make itself guilty of fake news? The matter of ‘spin’ has plagued the industry for decades but has become normalised (McNair, 2004). Furthermore, the question about PR’s role in fake news as an ethical transgression is only lately coming into the spotlight.

An example of ethical concerns regarding PR practices is video news releases (VNR) by PR practitioners. While it has not been studied extensively, video news releases (VNR) have received a lot of attention in the U.S. A video news release is “…a client-sponsored video that presents a controlled message using a news angle, broadcast style writing, and production practices” (Aronson, Spetner, & Ames, 2007 in Smallwood-Clark, 2009:8). Farsetta (2006) generalises such practices as: “Fake news occurs when public relations practitioners adopt the practices and/or appearance of journalists in order to insert marketing or other persuasive messages into news media. While fake news is obviously bad news, it’s very good PR.” Smallwood-Clark (2009) indicates that U.S. Public relations practitioners have large influence on the content consumers see, both in newspapers and on television news, which blurs lines between journalism and public relations.

In response, Wood, Nelson, Atkinson and Lane (2008), arguing from social utility theory advocate for the explicit labelling of VNRs because it is the ethical thing to do. They cite Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985:451) who state: “Social utility is diminished when the origins of public relations are hidden or ascribed to other than their true source”. Their findings indicate that such labelling will diminish the impact on consumers because the source of the message is known (Wood et al., 2008). Furthermore, PR companies produce VNRs to look like news and present the content in a slanted way to influence public opinion or behaviour.

In terms of my definition of fake news, such practices are not outright lies, but are deceptive and have clear motive. Does two out of three make it fake news? Perhaps not. However, the clear motive to deceive by presenting  press release or other communication to ‘look like news’, implies it is in fact not news by virtue of the deception. The degree of the issue also hinges on how many media publishers air or print such PR-originated pieces in their entirety, and-or without indicating the source of the piece.

Dangers of abusing the term fake news

The UK News Media Association (2017), in their response to the findings of a commissioned report (Deloitte, 2016), warn of the dangers of abusing ‘fake news’ as a term. They argue this is notably a problem when used to attack real news by those who are against the press with the aim of: “…bullying the press, silencing dissent and shutting down debate (News Media Association, 2017:6). Furthermore, one reason for the investigation was to underscore the importance of real news and to ensure its survival in an age of digital disruptions (News Media Association, 2017). While the UK news Media Association report is too long to discuss here, it is by far one of the best sources on the subject

While the definition of fake news is likely to take various forms in various contexts, the phenomena is real and a growing problem. It is likely to impact the communication professional more and more since they are often responsible for the ‘boundary spanning’ to identify and often to respond to them when it affects the organisation or stakeholders they represent.

Proliferation

Notwithstanding the long history of fake news, there are reasons for its increase. On the one hand, barriers to entry into the news industry have dropped while on the other access has been made easier by technology such as do-it-yourself websites as well as social media (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Furthermore, trust in the main stream media is declining as is confidence that its reporting is accurate. Furthermore, increased polarisation between opposing sides increased the degree to which one side believes fake news about the other.

The proliferation of fake news can be approached from the angle of motivation. One of the most dominant today is profit. Hunt (2016) states: “In its purest form, fake news is completely made up, manipulated to resemble credible journalism and attract maximum attention and, with it, advertising revenue.” The New York Times (2017 in Bean, 2017) reported on Cameron Harris who invented a sensational story about pre-marked ballot papers for the US election in order to attract more visitors to his monetised website, and it worked. Harris was earning up to $1000 per hour. This last approach, which Bean (2017) calls opportunism, is being employed by individuals and organisations to drive revenue on their websites.

Image 1. Example of an online headline designed to generate clicks (Carson, 2017).

In terms of matters of state, bending the truth for political gain is not new and verified instances from ancient times. Octavian famously used a campaign of disinformation to support him to defeat Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republic (Carson, 2017). This could be called outright propaganda, or what Hoskins and O’Loughlin (2015) call ‘the information war’, based on the mediatisation of war. In their analysis the information war is now in its third phase of development, called Arrested War. This phase is characterized by “the appropriation and control of previously chaotic dynamics by mainstream media and, at a slower pace, government and military policy-makers.” (Hoskins & O’Loughlin, 2015:1). Khaldarova and Pantti (2016) assert that Russia’s Channel One has become its most potent asset in its information war to create and interpret strategic narratives. They cite the Levada Centre (2015 in Khaldarova and Pantti, 2016) whose research indicates that 70% of the 90% of Russians who use Channel One as their main source of news believes it reports truthfully and without bias.

7.    Responses to fake news

The literature focusses on three main responses to fake news: Technology, legislation and media consumer awareness.

Technology

While this paper does not delve into efforts to automate the war against fake news in digital media, that includes sniffing it out, removing it and even sanctioning the perpetrator, as well as other actions, there are several studies, concepts and developments in this regard (Harvard-Gazette, 2017; Hunt, 2016). Furthermore, of all current automated response proposals, none have so far achieved a level of sophistication to either prevent fake news, or the unintentional sanctioning of publications innocent of fake news.

Legislation

This author immediately turned to legislation as a means to, if not prevent fake news, to hold its perpetrators legally accountable. This follows the example of our ancient forebears with their codes and laws. This alternative, as pointed out by Collins (2017), carries the danger that authoritarian regimes, in ostensibly stamping out fake news, do not do so because they want real news, they want no news, a silence about what is really going on. Furthermore, it has a direct impact on censorship and free speech.

Similarly, the formal media industry did not only not advocate for more laws and regulations, but against it. The reasons are more practical than philosophical. In the U.S. for instance, enactment of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would hold newspapers who are not under the aegis of Impress, the regulator, liable for the costs of the litigant regardless of the outcome of the case. This gives litigants a free chance and will tie up resources (Collins, 2017). The UK Media Association also opposes more legislation, citing similar reasons regarding cost and manpower (News Media Association, 2017). Furthermore, they regard the failures of existing players to be a major factor in the proliferation of fake news, suggesting that if these players fulfil their responsibilities, that in itself will make a major difference to combat fake news. Notably, they expect Google and Facebook to take responsibility and action to prevent, sanction or punish publishers of fake news.

No legal definition for fake news has been formulated by a court, but the U.S. may just see the first such case. In February 2017 the publisher of Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado, Jay Seaton, threatened to sue, a Republican in Colorado’s State Senate, Ray Scott, for calling his newspaper “fake news.” (Kues, 2017). Furthermore, Seaton, who perceives that and similar events as an attack on a free press, indicated he is pursuing the case precisely to obtain a definition for fake news on behalf of his industry.

Education: A viable counter for fake news

Based on investigations to date, ultimately, fake news must be identified by the established news media, and called out, as well as by readers themselves. Collins (2017) reminds us of what philosopher Sir Roger Scruton pointed out: “The man who tells you truth does not exist is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” With the exception of what digital platforms may be able to do to automatically (and imperfectly) pick up and act against fake news, it is ultimately the media consumer who is responsible to learn how to spot fake news and to ignore it. As pointed out in the UK News Media Association response report (News Media Association, 2017), there is a responsibility on news media to educate media consumers. This author is however sceptical of the success of such an approach in areas of the planet where rates of primary and secondary education is so low, that such media education campaigns are likely to literally go over the heads of its target audience. Also, authoritarian regimes are likely to respond to such efforts with discretisation and other nefarious means.

8.    Virtuous Communication

The proliferation of concepts, theories, fields containing the word responsibility, and calling for behaviour that is responsible is a clear indication that there is a problem with irresponsible behaviour in the context of business. This irresponsibility is as it were, the problem for which these fields seek a reversal. Communication management is an emerging field within business, which falls within the context of business and society (Boshoff, 2017).

Many of the irresponsible behaviours are acts of communication. I see fake news as irresponsible communication, and its negative impact is likely to affect organisations directly.

In ‘The Market for Virtue: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility’ David Vogel reframes Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to ‘business virtue’ which he defines as: “practices that improve the workplace and benefit society in ways that go above and beyond what companies are legally required to do.“ (Vogel, 2005 in Boshoff, 2017).

Given that corporate responsibilities beyond legal requirement and business virtue are equated in the definition above, I argue that it is possible to argue that virtuous communication is equal to responsible communication. This implies that the communication function of organisations must communicate about the social responsibility activities an organisation engages in (what), and must do so in a responsible manner (how). To complete the quintet, one could argue for such communication to also be responsible in terms of when (if applicable), where (if applicable) and why it is undertaken. All five these perspectives are dependent on a context, making general guidelines dangerous.

A previous paper (Boshoff, 2017) dealt with the motivations (why) for Virtuous communication as it pertains to the controversial contradiction inherent in organisational engagement in CSR. It remained to be added in this paper that the where, when, what and how are all impacted by the motivation (why) for communication, since the later serves as a meta-context. ‘Why’ also speaks to the element in my definition of motive. My previous discussion on the drivers of CSR did however consider only a two class categorisation: Does profit or ethics drive CSR? The question belies the myriad of other possible drivers that fall inside one, or even both these categories. However, asking the one-or-the-other question is important from various important perspectives, of which ethics , albeit important, is but one.

9.    Issues with responding to Fake News: Wikipedia’s coverage, an evaluation.

Following on from the warnings about the dangers (News Media Association, 2017) and the too wide use of the term ‘fake news’ (Lipsett, 2008) discussed above, this section evaluates a section on Wikipedia English’s page (WikipediaEN) titled ‘Fake News website’. The page contains a section titled: ‘Overview of coverage’ that provides an overview of media coverage on the topic of fake news –as opposed to coverage of fake news websites.

The  motivations of Wikipedia contributors

Before analysing the text, it is prudent to investigate the motivations of Wikipedia contributors. Kutzetsnov’s (2006) empirical research on the motivations of Wikipedia contributors reports a near utopian community with values of autonomy, reputation, community, reciprocity and altruism where contributors voluntarily collaborate and learn together while contributing to the expansion of human knowledge. A different study (Yang & Lai, 2010) reports similar altruistic findings.

While these findings may speak to the motivation of the vast majority of contributors, I doubt the bona fides of a minority of malicious contributors. Wikipedia English’s (WikipediaEN) page on pages in its database most frequently vandalized bears this out. The reasons for frequent vandalization of certain pages are: “sometimes obvious, such as political reasons, religious reasons, substantial reasons, personal belief reasons, and reasons regarding immature editing on pages describing subjects such as articles pertaining to excretion, profanity, and sex.” (WikipediaEN). Given Wikipedia’s open access this state of affairs would not surprise most people.

Analysis

The Wikipedia section (WikipediaEN) cites ten examples of coverage on fake news. Of these, five examples blame Russia for spreading fake news. Three more examples cite political impact due to fake news and three cite responses to fake news. Therefor, of the eight examples of political use of fake news, five cite Russia as a publisher of fake news. Furthermore, two of the three examples about political impact paraphrase analysts who state that fake media is a serious threat to democracy.

Image 2: Wikipedia’s Coverage of Fake News (WikipediaEN)

This bias tells a story in itself. As an open, community driven site this Wikipedia page is targeted to and maintained by English speakers, most of whom are from English speaking (Yang & Lai, 2010) first-world and democratic countries (WikipediaEN). This could mean any of (a) that contributors reflect their own pro-democracy and anti-Russia sentiment, (b) that the coverage they cite, and by extension (c) the authors and (d) organisations the citations come from themselves share such a bias.

The above yields the following points:

(a) Firstly, it is telling that the section contains such an overwhelming albeit indirect anti-Russia sentiment.

(b,c,d) Secondly, it is telling who’s coverage or ‘statements’ regarding fake news are selected, since five are anti-Russia, and a further two are pro-democracy (anti-Russia).

Discussion

The above serves as a good example of various phenomena related to the broad topics of ‘Misinformation and disinformation’, which is the category name Wikipedia English uses to name an ‘article series’ on themes within this category. The themes under Misinformation and disinformation appear below:

Alternative facts, Big lie, Circular sourcing, Deception, Doublespeak, Echo chamber, Euphemistic, misspeaking, Euromyth, False flag, Factoid, Fallacy, Fake news, Filter bubble, Gaslighting, Half-truth, Hoax, Ideological framing, Internet manipulation, Media manipulation, Post-truth, Propaganda, Quote mining, Scientific fabrication, Social bot, Spin, Yellow journalism. (WikipediaEN).

Firstly, I have selected Bold themes above because they relate closely to Fake News, or are techniques utilised to create fake news. Secondly, I argue that the ‘overview of coverage’ section referred to above makes itself guilty of at least the underlined themes.

It is noteworthy that arguably many famous examples of a fake news story that had a negative impact in the real world, which was verified, are not covered. The example that is ‘world famous -in America’, is an incident a man shot at a Washington pizzeria by the name of ‘Comet Ping Pong’ because of an online conspiracy theory, propagated by several fake news stories, that it is the headquarters of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton (Hunt, 2016).

In addition, the following themes, taken from Wikipedia’s ‘Collections of themes’ related to fake news are relevant: “Appeal to fear, framing, Glittering generality, agenda-setting, false balance, character assassination, smear campaign.” (WikipediaEN). This author can think of a few themes from other fields that also apply, including: Selection bias, Allegation, Rhetorical technique,  Allegiance bias.

The above should be sufficient to indicate that the authors of the section under focus, themselves are arguably if not perpetrating, then at least leaning towards acting exactly what they are reporting on. This raises serious questions about responses to fake news, specifically who is responding, how they are responding, and what their motive is. If those who respond to the content and intent of fake news make themselves guilty of bias in the opposite direction, human policing of fake news faces a serious challenge. It reminds of a quotation by Bateson (1972:492):

There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.

This author posits that propagators of fake news are likely to be on the extreme end of the spectrum in a given debate or on a given topic. This includes individuals in their personal capacity as well as entities like states or corporations. This, as discussed above, is where propaganda, spin and the like rears its head in pursuit of a given agenda. This raises the question about the position on that same spectrum of those who actively counter or respond to it. Are these entities at the extreme end of the spectrum as well? In my opinion, it is likely that the medium will dictate this to a large degree. Commercial print and other media are likely to respond via professional journalists based on research, expert input, or as articles or interviews by experts themselves, all of which has undergone a process of journalistic oversight to some degree. However, responses by individuals in their personal capacity on social media do not typically undergo such oversight and is more likely to represent an extreme end of the spectrum.

10. Post-truth or post-trust?

Steve Inskeep (Not Dated in Martin, not Dated) is of the opinion that history and experience tell him that we are in fact not in a post-truth era, because it has always been difficult to separate facts and truth from falsehood. The ancient codes cited above seem to bear this out. In fact, now that the truth about issues like the Iran-Contra affair and the  ‘evidence’ of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) in Iraq under Saddam Hussein have come to light, why should people trust either the media or its sources? (Silvestri, 2017). Furthermore she feels the public now bears the burden of discovering the truth, and it is simply too much to ask in modern life, leading to a complacency and even an “apathetic cynicism”. This is what she considers our “current condition of post-trust”.

Several authors refer to a marked decline in trust of several long-standing systems: governments, the media and organisations, commercial, non-profit and civil (Gallup, 2016; Jacoby, 2017; Martin, Not Dated; Shields, Not Dated). The  Gallup poll (2016) indicates only one-third of Americans trust the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly”. While there are no figures for the UK, trust levels there are down drastically as well (Deloitte, 2016). Furthermore, the rise of populism, ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘apathetic cynicism’ is borne out by the very rise of fake news.

I could argue for ‘the post-trust era’ because I view it as the cause of ‘fake news’, which is the result. Hidden agendas and the age-old human trait of deceit to achieve them notwithstanding, the organisations and entities who claim to be the voice of truth have let us down. It is hard to believe the news media when it is owned by the very owners of the large multi-national corporations responsible for so much scandals in recent years. Lamentably this situation of lack of trust in the news media is a double-edged sword. After all, news media report what they are told by the representatives or press-releases of the organisations and individuals they interview. It is after all investigative reporting that has revealed many of these scandals. On the other hand, news media published the initial lies as well.

Arguing for ‘post-truth’ one has to accept that the situation is complex (Shields, 2017). Human psychology, nefarious forces driving hidden agendas with sufficient resources to do so, after-the-fact revelations of what actually happened and other factors put the average man in a position of helplessness.

Then comes populism. Is it appropriate? I don’t know, but is it any wonder? If the prophesised evils of populism are true, does it matter to the down-trodden? Is it not altruistic and in the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ to make that sacrifice for the greater good? Are the supporters of populism, ‘misguided’ by fake news and alternative facts not the true heroes of mankind by virtue of choosing -if only politically, to create change. For those who don’t or feel they don’t have anything to loose, any change is better than the ‘system’ responsible for their fate. I view the rise of fake news outside the established purveyors of news as a sign of mistrust and if not that a cry for change.

11. Conclusion

The solution to fake news from those in power lies in a humanistic change in their behaviour -which, as history has shown, is not likely. The ability of the mainstream media to play a role also depends on that change, without which ‘radical transparency’ is a pipe dream. The average adult agrees with Buddha’s ‘first noble truth’, the truth of suffering, the truth that life is hard (Gautama Buddha, Not Dated in Weiss, Not Dated). However, at some point situations arise, elections is but one such context, scandals another, to cause ‘the masses’ to look at the state of affairs, and to face the hard fact that someone somewhere is laughing at their expense.

Mankind has had lies and deception since before recorded history. Until mankind evolves to something more altruistic or enlightened, fake news will not be the worst of our problems. That does not stop us from trying.

List of References

Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. 2017. Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2):211-236.

Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind : collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bean, J. 2017. The medium is the fake news. interactions, 24(3):24-25.

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