Universal findings can cause local problems

By: Rob Corbidge, 18 April 2024

How do you check facts when there is a good chance it is a joke

A stern warning to a news outlet that doesn't take itself too seriously reveals the shortcomings of efforts to make credibility a metric.

We haven't done very well grasping the universal nature of the internet yet have we? Something that by nature is neutral and able to carry a multiplicity of truths and realities will tend towards developing in that way, and yet some seem to perceive that reality as if it is something to be defeated - a bug not a feature.

For those of us of in the first digital transition generation, it can feel like the afterimage of that period is imprinted on our retina, like being in the Nevada desert with Oppenheimer without any eye protection. In that flash of technology most of us saw something of huge promise, even it was a promise that we would struggle to fully articulate.

So how did we get to an example this week of what looks like clumsy internet policing, carried out by one of the many organisations which have found or created a role in apparently protecting the content-consuming public from exposure to awfulness?

In among the news organisations who have had their "credibility score" down-rated by Newsguard is a particular publication that sits in a unique position in the UK media landscape. Its downgrading says more about the inherent issues of the methodology used to rate it than it does about the publication itself.

Before continuing into the example that drew front page attention in the UK, let's state for the record that it is clear that Newsguard is trying to do what enormous numbers of people think is a good thing - fight to stamp out fake news. But, the following example also shows exactly how hard that is to do without sometimes missing the point. 

The UK's Daily Star sits at the junction of news and broad humour. And that's a tough place to occupy when the puritans are after you. Yet, for a lot of Britons, the sight of a riotous Daily Star front page brings a smile to the face. The paper - a rogueish tabloid if ever there was one - dishes it out to everyone, without fear or favour. 

Its approach to power is most notable in the recent past for comparing Liz Truss - the UK's blink-of-an-eye Prime Minister of early autumn 2022 -  to a lettuce. It featured said lettuce on the front page of the newspaper, and boldly predicted the leafy vegetable would outlast Truss's tenure as leader of the nation.

And it did. Much to The Daily Star's editorial joy and the amusement of many, particularly political sketch-writers and comedians who have continued to link the pair ever since. It worked then and now because of the absurdity of the comparison, and it is as clear now as in 2022 that it was intended as a humorous way to make a point.

Such stuff makes The Daily Star a true inheritor of a particular kind of rough-house British political satire that has existed for centuries in one form or another and serves a vital purpose in deflating the aura of the powerful. You could call it keeping democracy honest.

The UK is far from alone in this. Most readers will have something in their national news eco-system that defies simple classification, that sits on the cusp of one thing and something else, that is the creation of complex local historical forces, or just simply exists and thrives on controversy. 

The downgrading of the Star by Newsguard is because it "frequently publishes unsubstantiated stories about Vladimir Putin being dead and about the existence of aliens" according to the UK Press Gazette's story this week.

I'm sure the senior strategic planners at the UK Ministry of Defence can't wait each day for the latest information on the health of the Russian leader from The Daily Star and make decisions concerning the deployment of nuclear missile submarines accordingly.

As for the existence of aliens, the paper has reacted the only way it think it should to Newsguard's credibility audit, by headlining their splash story "You're Talking Out Of Uranus" and labelling Newsguard as "fun sponges" who ordered the Star to "provide definitive evidence of flying saucers and aliens ... or else".

Will they be asking The Catholic Herald to prove the existence of the Big Man next?

As for the other news organisations Newsguard have downgraded, I'd argue their admonition is likely to be turned by some into a badge of honour. And I'm sure the NYT is quaking. 

Yes, this sort of thing matters these days because fake news is not without impact, and I have written often before about its use by more nefarious forces and the danger that presents. But, in the real world, the blunt bureaucratic instrument of the "truth rating" seems inadequate for the breadth of the human experience.

Curiously, we already have a mechanism for dealing with such publications. If you don't like it, don't read it. If no one reads it, they'll go out of business. 

At the heart of such efforts to police content sits an idea that people are stupid and must be protected. They largely aren't, and they largely don't, if adults. 

There's also the fact that such tools, when used by "your side" on a particular issue, are an obvious unmitigated good, yet if the "other side" control them, they are an unmitigated bad. 

If that it the case, then I'd argue that they are probably not the right tools.