On Bias and fake news

Herodotus of Halicarnassus: father of history or father of lies?

We all have our biases and prejudices. Historians have their political views too. Navigating history, politics and current affairs in 2021 needs to be very alert to bias. One might even call it ‘fake news’. Separating truth from fiction is of course an historian’s job, but the ‘fake news’ problem is also part of the history of recent years – it has fuelled politics, elections, and historical events. Herodotus, the so-called ‘father of history, writing c.430-425BC was accused by Plutarch of ‘fictions’ and by Thucydides of being a ‘barbarian lover’, so sources and their authors have always had their critics. Herodotus, likely a resident of Athens when writing his history, had to consider the sensitivities of his hosts.

Perhaps the situation we find ourselves in during 2021 is not that unusual? However we no longer consume our news and history from a public recital in the market place. How did we get here? Rather than pointing fingers at individuals, I think it is worth considering possible causes:

  • traditional print media is rapidly in decline, so with more news online reliant on advertising revenue and ‘clicks’ to drive people to content that media outlets can use to attract advertisers, you need people to keep coming to your news website to make money.
  • what are the best tools to drive those clicks – accurate, impartial reporting; or news and content that plays to your readers own biases, and prejudices? ‘Snow and ice to strike Britain’ screams one daily tabloid’s prominent website page, only to check the weather app and a bit of Scotland is going to get a blanketing. No surprise there – it’s winter in Northern Britain – but I’ve clicked the link and I’m a stat to show the advertisers.
  • where once a newspaper was printed once a day, or there were only a couple of main news bulletins a day on television, ‘news’ is now 24/7 – schedules have to be filled to keep up the viewers and the ratings. Ratings are revenue for non-state broadcasters. Are those ratings best served by good news stories or bad (or fake news) to frighten the viewer to keep them tuned in? Are you watching a faithful reporting of the ‘news’ or opinion makers telling you want to think?
  • social media tends to be free – I can post an opinion, photo, video of anything (with reason) whenever I want but it is free because a social media company is using your content to drive and personalise advertising content that you see, and hopefully share more widely. Am I more likely to share social media news and advertising more widely if it agrees with my views, beliefs and even prejudices? If that data I generate is then sold or obtained in another way, can others influence what I can see in the hope I share it?
  • when reputable news outlets decide that they must be impartial and have balance in their reporting are both ‘views’ of the debate actually legitimate, or is the side offering ‘balance’ being allowed to push and exploit a false narrative?
  • are there hostile actors or states out there driving (or exploiting the modern mechanisms of fake news and media) inaccurate or fake news via social media because this is how ‘war’ against countries you disagree with is now waged? Does undermining political discourse, news, and spreading disinformation provide one country with an advantage over another?
  • Could a devious, cunning, or corrupt politician within a democracy act in the same way to exploit social media and the ways news is now consumed?

From a historical perspective, none of this is new as Herodotus’ critics would appreciate. History can often be one-sided from editorial bias in newspapers, propaganda, history written by victors, the lacking of views of groups or members of society less represented in public discourse, and societies that left only oral history rather than written down historical narratives.

The word “disinformation”– probably derived from the Russian dezinformacija – stems from the earliest years of the cold war, and properly means sowing falsehoods among one’s enemies in order to confuse them about one’s own capabilities or intentions. But the more general term “misinformation” – spreading untruths – has been around since the late 16th century. Samuel Johnson, writing of the king of Prussia in 1756, said his subject “declares himself with great ardour against the use of torture, and by some misinformation charges the English that they still retain it”.

The age of post-truth, indeed, stretches as far back as you care to look, there never having been a golden age of transparency. The ubiquity of fake news and scientific misinformation was already a serious problem for leading thinkers of the Renaissance. In his Novum Organum (1620), the natural philosopher Francis Bacon describes for the first time the psychological phenomenon that underlies so much of our modern worries about trust and truth – what would only much later be christened “confirmation bias”. Our minds, he notes, tend to lend more weight to “affirmative” (or positive) than to negative results, so a person is likely to “seize eagerly on any fact, however slender, that supports his theory; but will question, or conveniently ignore, the far stronger facts that overthrow it”. In the book, Bacon considers the factors that lead people’s thinking astray, which include wrong-headed notions accepted from bad philosophy and science, various “systems now in vogue” – and inaccurate language: “The ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.”

Before Facebook, there was the coffee house. In the 17th-century, panic gripped British royal circles that these newly established drinking salons had become forums for political dissent. In 1672, Charles II issued a proclamation “to restrain the spreading of false news” that was helping “to nourish an universal jealousie and dissatisfaction in the minds of all His Majesties good subjects”. Before social media, there was the political cartoon designed to amuse but also to anger. Pick your villain: immigrants, Communists, Catholics, Napoleon, the Monarchy, and so on.

If there is a long history to fears about fake news, there is a long history to fake news too. In 1924, four days before a general election, the Daily Mail published the forged Zinoviev letter, a supposed directive from Moscow to British communists to mobilise “sympathetic forces” in the Labour party; Labour lost the election by a landslide.

In the wake of the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, in which a policeman, PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death, the police and the press organised a lurid campaign against the key suspect, Winston Silcott, depicting him as “the beast of Broadwater Farm”. Convicted on the basis of virtually no evidence, he was released three years later after it was shown that the police had forged their interview notes.

And so on. Lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. What is new today is not fake news but the purveyors of such news. In the past, only governments and powerful figures like your 19th century newspaper baron could manipulate public opinion. Today, it’s anyone with internet access. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to act as gatekeepers to news, defining what is and is not true, has also been eroded.

Historical inquiry has to navigate all this, carefully thinking about biases in the source, malignant or benign, working out what is true, maybe true, maybe false, or proven to be false whether it be sources from 425BC, 1640 or 2021. And perhaps, in 2021, with the proliferation of news and social media, it is hard to combat the disinformation because it is so viral. If you thought Herodotus was peddling fake news about the Greco-Persian wars, or Athenian politicians, there were not millions of manuscripts of his histories to round up.

I’m sure I will develop thinking here as I go on.


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