Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “disinformation”

Fake news about fake news

Does fake news exist?

The term “fake news” gets bandied about a lot, but like other terms, such as “political correctness”, “conservative”, “liberal” and “terrorist”, the definition is vague and when you see it in print, it is often not immediately clear what the writer means by it.

Is there such a thing as “fake news” and if there is, does it differ from related terms like “media spin”, “disinformation”, “misinformation” etc?

Some people vehemently deny that there is such a thing as fake news, and insist that it is merely media spin, but reports like this one show some of the characteristics of fake news EXPOSED: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA | News24:

News24’s investigation into the owners of Mzansistorie.com and Allnews.co.za started earlier this year as part of a much broader investigation into the originators, enablers and funders of fake news websites in South Africa.

Ironically, it was the very fact that Ramatseba wanted to make money from his website that revealed his identity. It was also the same social media used by Ramatseba to distribute his fabrications that proved instrumental in identifying him.

In this case the primary characteristic of fake news is the desire to make money. The article gives a detailed picture of how and why fake news is produced and propagated.

I suspect that some popular news tropes, like “white genocide” and “Russian interference in US elections” are based on this. If you want something to attract lots of clicks, post a fabricated or exaggerated story that plays on or feeds people’s fears, and you will get lots of clicks and lots of lovely lolly rolling in.

People often assume that the motive is ideological. “The Russians” are trying to influence US elections, and everyone knows that the Russians are linked to Putin. But perhaps most of it is Russian internet entrepreneurs harvesting clicks and making money by playing on US political rivalries and fears of “the other side”.

In South Africa, the irony is apparent when it turns out that it is black people like William Mahlatse Ramatseba who are seeking to capitalise and make money out of white people’s fears and racism towards black people, and it is White Monopoly Capital organisations like Bell Pottinger that profited by stoking fears of “White Monopoly Capital” among black South Africans, for profit, of course Deal that undid Bell Pottinger: inside story of the South Africa scandal | Media | The Guardian:

Bell Pottinger was accused of stirring up anger about “white monopoly capital” in South Africa. Material including a video interview with Ajay Gupta, which had never been publicly circulated, was leaked onto South African media.

Bell Pottinger was accused of inciting racial tension, and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns.

Fake news certainly does exist, and it is different from old-fashioned media spin.

But fake news does sometimes get mixed up with media spin. Take the News24 headline above: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA. The words “to divide SA” are misleading, because they don’t quite fit with what the rest of the article says. If we read the body of the article “to make money” would have been a more accurate reflection of the content, but in a society where making money is seen as a good activity, and dividing people as bad, “to divide SA” might attract more readers (and thus make more money), than using a more accurate description. It’s true that the overall effect would be to divide people, so it’s not exactly fake news. But the spin is to create the impression that that was the intention, while the body of the article shows that the intention was to make money. See how complicated it gets?

And in a country where some people are talking of making “entrepreneurship” a school subject, nobody wants to call William Mahlatse Ramatseba what he is, an entrepreneur.

Concerning the “white genocide” trope, one finds things like this:

But clicking on it reveals that there is no such site. Perhaps it is a fake news site that has since been taken down, but I saw that site referred to in an an answer on the Quora website that  got 68 upvotes. Fake News works because there are people who want to believe it.

Having said all this can one make some tentative definitions of these terms?

Here is my attempt:

  • Fake News — articles purporting to be news that are completely or partly made up. Their main purpose is clickbait, with the primary aim opf making money for those who post them. Those who promote fake news don’t care whether those who read them believe the stories or not. The important thing is that they click on the links to bring revenue to the fake news vendors.
  • Disinformation — articles purporting to be news, but which, like fake news, are completely or partly made up. But unlike fake news, where the intention is to make money, in the case of disinformation, the intention is to get people to believe the false story. So Fake News stories manufactured as clickbait may be propagated as disinformation by those who want others to to believe them. The primary intention in disinformation is to deceive.
  • Misinformation — false information that is spread unintentionally by people who do not know it is false. This may be either fake news or disinformation that is passed on by those who believe it, or simply something that was misheard or misunderstood.
  • Spin — genuine information that is presented in such a way as to create a false impression, or to manipulate people’s opinions about it.

Thoughts? Comments? Can anyone think of better definitions?

 

Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

View all my reviews

Urban legends about Christmas

Recently someone posted a few items about Christmas on an interfaith discussion forum. The problem was that each item began with or contained statements about Christmas that were manifestly untrue.

Here’s one:

Oh, no — more hysteria over Christmas from Bill O’Reilly, joined now by Gretchen Carlson, the blinkered bigot host of some other Fox program. The dialog is hilariously stupid. Billo blows it early, claiming that Christmas marks “the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the holiday is based on”, which is simply not true (Source: Pharyngula).

Now I don’t know who Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson are, but claiming that the statement that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ is “untrue” (and implying that it is “hysteria”) is, well, untrue.

That’s like saying that it is untrue to say that your birthday party commemorates the anniversary of your birth (and hysterical to boot).

As we approach Christmas, urban legends about Christmas proliferate, but that has to be the most ridiculous one I’ve seen yet.

Here’s another, from the same poster:

Early in its history, the Catholic Church proclaimed December 25th as Christmas. Several centuries later Pope Gregory corrected the calendar. 12 days were displaced from the Julian calendar. What had been December 25 was now January 6. The Eastern Church refused to go aloing with the calendar change and continued to observe Christmas on the OLD December 25 which was now January 6 in the West. The Western Church still wanted to give some sort of holiness to the original December 25 so they proclaimed it a new holiday, Epiphany. Thus were born the 12 days of Christmas.

He doesn’t give a source for that one. Unlike the first one, it doesn’t make glaring errors of logic. But it strings together a series of historical “facts”, most of which are wrong, or have wrong inferences drawn from them, or both.

So what really happened?

Until about the 4th century, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ along with his baptism on 6 January (as the Armenians still do today).

Some time in early 4th century a separate commemoration of the birth of Christ began to be observed on 25 December, probably beginning in Rome. It spread throughout the Christian world (with the exception of Armenia, as noted above).

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in the 16th century it was 10 days ahead of the Julian Calendar. The gap grows by a day a century, except when the end of century year is divisible by 400 — so it did not increase in 1600 and 2000. The gap is now 13 days, and in the 22nd century it will be 14 days.

This means that “Old Christmas” (which is still kept by some Orthodox Churches) is on Gregorian 7 January, not 6 January. In the Old (Julian) Calendar Theophany (Epiphany) is on 19 January Gregorian.

So the story, as posted, gets the whole thing backwards. But that is typical of the urban legends about Christmas.

And here’s a third one, also from the same poster (no source quoted):

Christmas has a difficult history. Until recently, Christmas was not a major celebration. When the Protestants had their reformation, Christmas came under attack, specifically in England. It was called a Catholic holiday and many employers would fire their workers if they did not show up for work on December 25.

I suppose that one depends on what you think “recently” means. For Christians, Christmas has been a major celebration for at least 1000 years, and probably a lot longer than that.

In the Orthodox Church the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Christmas for short) is preceded by a 40-day fast. The only other feast preceded by a fast of that length is Pascha. That makes it major.

Nativity3Now I’m sure the poster (who isn’t a Christian) was not being malicious when he posted these in the discussion forum. He maybe thought that with Christmas approaching they were timely and had interesting information. The problem is that most of the information was wrong. I suggested that he might do better to post information about festivals of his own religion, where he could be more discerning to check that the information was accurate before posting it.

But I give these three examples of a common phenomenon, especially at this time of year. The urban legends about Christmas are often spread by the media, and people pick them up by the way. The recipes columns of the newspaper will publish a page of traditional Christmas recipes, and the writer of the column, who may know something about cookery, but little or nothing about the history of religious festivals, might preface it with a couple of half-digested paragraphs compiled from an encyclopaedia article or two. And so these weird and wonderful urban legends about Christmas (and other things) spread.

So here’s a tip for any journalist who has been told by their editor to produce a column on Christmas and its origin, and the folk customs associated with it, and their origin. The book to read is The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Even if you aren’t in Britain, Hutton’s book will do for the English-speaking world. Hutton is a careful and competent historian, and knows what he’s talking about.

There also the stories one also sees around Christmas time to the effect that Christmas was “originally” Yuletide, which was celebrated at about the same time. This too is an urban legend, and a moment’s thought will show how ridiculous it is.

It’s a bit like saying that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March was “originally” Greek independence day, and that that was why the date was chosen.

The fact is that there are only 365 days in a year, and that if you look at a particular day when a religious or other group has a particular celebration, you will probably find another group that celebrates something else on the same day. It may be that two groups that have different celebrations on the same day may encounter each other, and each may borrow some aspects of the other group’s celebration. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning changes.

Among Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, for example, the following are commemorated on the same day:

  • St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (712)
  • St Martha, mother of St Simeon Stylites the Younger (554)
  • St Andrew Rublev, Iconographer (c 1447)
  • Burial of St Andrew, Prince of Bogoliubsk (1174)
  • St Finbar, Abbot of Innis Doimlile (6th)
  • St Andrew the Russian of Cairo (1174)
  • St Donatus of Libya, Bishop
  • Martyrs Theodotus and Theodota at Caesarea in Cappadocia (108)

The day is 4 July.

This does not mean that all those commemorations are derived from US independence day.

See also The real origins of Christmas.

Wilful ignorance?

Adventus: “No one likes us/I don’t know why….”

Funny, I’ve not heard anyone else put it this way:

Far from ending terrorism, George Bush’s tactics of using overwhelming military might to fight extremism appear to have rebounded, spawning an epidemic of global terrorism that has claimed an estimated 72,265 lives since 2001, most of them Iraqi civilians.

Back during the Cold War, we used to think that people behind the Iron Curtain were brainwashed by propaganda, and deliberately kept in ignorance by their leaders.

Now, it seems, an iron curtain has descended over the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Rio Grande. Does anything filter through from Canada? Because we have heard it put this way again and again, before and since the US-led invasion of Iraq.

One is somewaht reluctant to say “We told you so…” But we did tell you so, we are telling you so, and we will go on telling you so. George Bush and his henchmen have made the world a much more dangerous place, and they are apparently determined to make it even more dangerous still. Is this the twilight of the gods?

The difference between now and the Cold War is that unlike the time of the old Iron Curtain, Americans have access to the internet. Yet many of them still say “No one likes us/I don’t know why….”

Is it a matter of invincible ignorance, or wilful ignorance?

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