Fake News


All news is fake to some extent. When a reporter watches some event unfold he or she will have their own in-built and acquired biases, no matter how hard they try to keep them under control. Those who watch or read the news report will also have their own leanings and belief systems. In addition they will tend to view only those sources which fit with their world view.

Although I attempt to show that “news” as such is a severely distorted view of events, and that everyone has their own viewpoint on news events depending on their innate beliefs and acquired biases, this phenomenon is not restricted to news and the events that get reported by the news media. We filter all that we see through the sieve of these beliefs and therefore what we see conforms to our world view and naturally this acts to confirm these beliefs in our minds.

Beliefs Knowledge and Truth
Beliefs Knowledge and Truth

Back in 1991 Jean Baudrillard said that “The Gulf War did not happen“. Of course, he did not mean that the events referred to as “The Gulf War” or “The Liberation of Kuwait” did not happen, but that the events as reported by the US authorities and others were highly edited and presented in a way that but the US and its allies in the best possible light. Baudrillard also contended that the so-called war was not a war in the usual sense as the American troops did not directly engage in conflict with the opposing forces.

I am not arguing on the rights or wrongs of the Gulf War, as that is not the main purpose of my posting here, but that what was reported by the Western media was a distorted view of the events that happened during that war. As I live in a “Western” nation, the view that I and billions of others had was highly tilted in the direction of the United States. If I had been able to see the reporting of the Iraqi media, I am sure that I would have a very different view of the events. Similarly it too would also be highly distorted.

Destroyed tank
Destroyed tank in Gulf War

Neither viewpoint could be considered “right” or “wrong”, as such. Neither is intended to be an accurate record of what actually happened, while the events as reported happened, the interpretation of the events may omit or emphasise some aspect over others. One report may record that several “insurgents” or “terrorists” were killed, while another report of the same event will record that some “freedom fighters” were killed. One report may leave out the fact that “non-combatants” were killed while the other may call them civilians and children.

In recent times though, so-called “fake news” has had some attention in the media itself. Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” to explain the claim that President Trump’s inauguration had the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”, when less partial estimates put the crowd at a much lower level than it was at the previous three inaugurations. She was widely ridiculed for this, though, to be fair, she maybe meant to say “alternative information” or “incomplete information”, as she has claimed.

Presidential inauguration
Presidential inauguration

Unfortunately for that interpretation, she later referred to something that did not happen. This may again have been a slip of the tongue or incorrect remembrance of the event referred to, but two such slips probably indicates that she should not be doing the job and should let other handle the interaction between the White House and the media. However while the media is focusing on her missteps they are not focusing on the President, and that may be the whole point.

Of course, “alternative facts” or alternative interpretations are not found just in politics, but in many walks of life. How many people have watched a sports match and have been surprised by the interpretation of the way that the match went that appears in the media. One group of supporters may think that the referee was biased in favour of the other team, while the opposition’s supporter might believe that the referee made the right calls. Of course it may depend a great deal on whether or not your team won!

Referee (Massimo Busacca)
Referee (Massimo Busacca)

However, in spite of all that I have said above, there has been a rise in recent time of true “Fake News” sites. These sites publish news items which are simply not true and the intent of these sites is to deliberately confuse and deceive those who read it. One interesting consequence is that China supported Americans who accused Facebook of spreading false news.

The most controlled regime outside of North Korea pointed out that in the free for all of democratic and liberal societies anyone could set up a web site and promulgate false news and views. In China however any site which published fake news would be hit by the full weight of the state. Of course the issue with this is that any site publishing views opposed by the state would be shut down immediately whether or not the news was actually fake.

The article on Chinese support for the opponents of fake news on Facebook come from the Huffington Post, and as such contains its own biases of course. Therefore the amount of credence that you put on the above article will depend on your political stance. However, it is likely that while the Huff may post satirical articles, it is unlikely, in my opinion, to post out and out fake news. Just use your brains when you read it, and be aware of your own and the site’s political biases.

The same goes for sites which promote miracle cures, or medicines which are outside of the mainstream medical province. Sites which promote anti-abortion, anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride, anti-folic acid, and other fringe beliefs really annoy me because they either ignore medical evidence or call into question by invoking conspiracy theories (“Big Pharma” anyone?) Beliefs like homeopathy and many other alternative medical beliefs belong with beliefs in psychic powers – in the rubbish bin of history.

Rubbish bin
Rubbish bin

The Philosophy of Photography

Photomontage - Composite of 16 different photo...
Photomontage – Composite of 16 different photos which have been digitally manipulated to give the impression that it is a real landscape. Software used: Adobe Photoshop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my Facebook friends (a photographer) commented on another photographer’s picture, so I got to see the photo too. It was a stunning photograph but an interesting thing for me was the photographer’s description of the ‘post-processing’ that the picture had been subjected to. It was ‘soft’ because of the rain on the lens, but among things the photographer had done to the picture was to alter the contrast, and heightened the colour in the swathes of grass.

Now, I have no issue with post-processing and the photo in question was stunning, but it does raise the question as to at what point a processed photograph becomes less a photograph and more of a different type of work of art! Some people would not consider such a work a proper photograph. One wonders where they would draw the line. Would they, for example, allow that a cropped photo would be, in some sense, OK?

Interestingly (well, I think that it is interesting!) the photographers do it to themselves, too. Apparently a wild life photo was ruled out of a competition because it chopped off the heron’s toes. I’d be pleased to get any sort of a decent photograph of a heron.

A Great Blue Heron flying with nesting materia...
A Great Blue Heron flying with nesting material in Illinois, USA. There is a colony of about 20 heron nests in trees nearby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photos can be considered dubious for other reasons too. Brian Brake’s photo of a girl enjoying the onset of the monsoon was reputedly created with the aid of a watering can. It’s still a great photograph and does convey meaning and emotion.

Monsoon Girl
Monsoon Girl (Photo credit: colonos) Not the famous Brake picture however.

One of the factors that has perhaps brought such matters to the fore, at least for those who muse about philosophical matters, I suppose, is the digital revolution in photography. Post-processing used to be confined to the dark room, involving the use of dubious chemicals and often highly technical equipment. These days post-processing can be done on a computer, in comfort, with powerful helper programs such as Photoshop, and no chemicals, except possibly a quantity of water tainted with alcohol. And even more important perhaps, mistakes don’t matter so much. If the picture doesn’t turn out OK, hit the delete button and try again starting with the original image.

Photoshop Cow
Photoshop Cow (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

There are (at least) two other categories of photographs that are considered dubious. Photographs taken of glamourous people for glossy magazines are often highly touched up in post-processing, sometimes to an extraordinary extent. The pop singer Beyoncé was reportedly annoyed that her body shape was altered in a clothing commercial in which she starred (as reported by the Huffington Post anyway). The ethics of such ‘photoshopping’ as the above, and the removal of perceived blemishes, emphasis of facial symmetry, feature highlighting and so on are indeed dubious, and can give rise to unrealistic expectations in susceptible people. Against that, most people at least acknowledge that this manipulation of photographs is common, though few suspect the extent to which it goes on.

Popular Beauty Retouch
Popular Beauty Retouch (Photo credit: Tucia)

Secondly, and more troubling, it appears that news related photographs (and video materials) are often ‘doctored’. This could be used to promote a particular philosophy or point of view. For instance the North Korean regime appears to use photo manipulation to overstate its military capabilities. While this is amusing, one can’t help but wonder if our more benevolent regimes also use such alteration and exaggeration extensively. It is known that they do, on occasion, stretch the truth. For example, while TV was showing the successful recovery of the capsule ‘Liberty Bell’ of the fourth Mercury astronautical  test mission from the sea, the capsule was actually sinking in 15,000 feet of water.

Grissom Climbs into Liberty Bell 7
Grissom Climbs into Liberty Bell 7 (Photo credit: NASA on The Commons)

I’m not going to argue one way or the other. No doubt those who alter photographs as an attempt to make them better photographs in whatever way you use the word ‘better’ have the best of intentions. However there is a difference between the person who modifies his photograph to, say, enhance the colour of the grass and the person who manipulates a photograph of a political figure or a model selling hair treatments, or yet the person who modifies a photo for propaganda purposes. But they can all be considered art, even the propaganda. I’m thinking of Leni Riefenstahl, whose propaganda films are certainly art.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0020, Polen, Truppe...
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0020, Polen, Truppenbesuch von Leni Riefenstahl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)