We live in an age of fear. An age where some immensely powerful institutions relentless try to make political use of fear, because, when people are scared, they lose their ability to think. No, we are not talking about Donald Trump or the ghost of a return of fascist populism. We are talking once again, about the utterly cynical business of media management, because the people in the media are the ones who really excel at the business of scaring people – compared to Donald Trump, they just play in a different league.
Yes, free media is probably a very important thing in a society, ideally vital for the society to reach its best potential. But free media does not have to mean that the media can get a free hand for loose and selective handling of facts. Free media does not mean that whenever somebody criticize them, journalists have to start crying hysterically about oppressive regimes wanting to silence them as if it was 1933 over and over again. People at large may not be perfectly informed, they may have short memories and be too busy to pay attention to every single small change in the political life of their society, but they are rarely as stupid and gullible as professional media managers probably think they must be.
The fake news scare, which exploded two years ago after the US election, is one of the scare tactics preferred by the embedded corporate establishment media. The gist of the story was that Trump won because of all the fake news people saw on Facebook and Twitter, as if seeing a single “anti-liberal” post on your mobile would permanently brainwash people and leave them in a state of stupor that would lead them to vote for Trump. There certainly might have been some social media activity from Russia, but the scale of this activity appears to be very modest if compared to the sort of “interference” the US and other Western countries employed for many years in many countries across the world. Moreover, the scale of the threat posed by the Russian social media efforts appears to have been slightly exaggerated. The “fake news scare” has helped create a nervous climate where every angle that does not suit the standard safe narrative is reflexively dismissed as “Putin’s propaganda”. One Polish magazine this year ran a cover story with the title: “Putin stole the internet”. This opinion has become almost common place even among otherwise intelligent people and certainly not only in “exotic” places like Poland.
The truth is that fake news (or at least not entirely true news, that it is to say manipulative news) has always been an integral part of journalism, in spite of the many professional media workers protesting, with large dose of affected offended pride, that the mainstream established media only deals in “facts”. The disturbing thing, however, is that because of their reputation, their vast means and their reach, the largest establishment media organisations, regardless of political inclination, often tend to display a rather ambitious claim in having the monopoly on truth and facts and the people working in these organisations often start to believe their own myths. The line between fake and not entirely true news is often a very blurred one. Most of the time, the established media simply get away with fake or slanted or not entirely true news for the simply reason that people are not too worried about the news of the day before or last week, and because, even in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest, alternative media is often intentionally discredited by the media giants.
We have gathered here our (entirely subjective) list of the 10 best fake news of 2018 – by mainstream media. As we did last year, our selection, though subjective, has been very cautious and rather conservative: you won’t find anything on the Skripal case or anything directly connected to Russiagate. Still, finding 10 very twisted stories was not a very difficult task.
1) Don’t you dare say anything bad about the EU
As so often with an inflated story, sometimes you don’t need to do anything more than actually read the article to dismiss it as, if not outright fake, at least shaky. Here for example: “One cannot say that the initiative is dictated from or funded by Moscow – some of its leaders are respectable local figures”. So if this campaign is not funded by Moscow, what is this all about?
2) Trump wants to recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea
This is the classic example of a story made out of an exaggeration coming from an impromptu circumstantial answer. It is the classic example of a story that is a good for Twitter, where readers more often than not will stop at the title, but that does not pass the simple test of reading the first paragraph.
From the article:
” U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking two weeks before a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has declined to rule out recognizing Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Asked by reporters on Air Force One late on June 29 whether reports about him dropping Washington’s longstanding opposition to the annexation were true, Trump said: “We’re going to have to see.” “
Does this mean that Trump was ready to recognise the annexation of the Crimean peninsula? His answer is extremely vague. But not vague enough for a Radio Free Europe reporter to make a story out of it. There is of course more than a little bit of irony in the fact that the not so indepedent Radio Free Europe resorts to creating fake stories about the president of the country they receive their finances from.
3) Putin’s umbrella
During the award ceremony of the football world cup, rain started to pour violently over Moscow. And only Putin got an umbrella.
This story was reproduced in almost identical form by much of the media accross the world. “Putin leaves everyone standing in the rain”, titles the German Stern for example.
A quick fact check would have shown that this is another example of a story made out of very thin air.
Rain starts to pour at around 3:15 in the video here. At this moment, yes, Putin is the only one who is given an umbrella. After all, he is surrounded by his assistants and guards, who should they give the umbrella to?
Less than two minutes later, there are more than enough umbrellas. The story however was so catchy and loaded with imagined meanings that pictures continued to be used even a few weeks ago. Once the fake is out there, there is little you can do to stop it from running wild sometimes.
The meaning of a story like this one? Never lose any opportunity to make Russia and Putin look bad.
4) Masha and the Bear – Russian Propaganda for Children
How did they come to this conclusion, one dares to ask?
“the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Because, yes, of course, we should naturally have expected that a cartoon produced in Russia, aimed at children, would have to portray the country as a place of horrors.
“in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” Critics see in a girl chasing a rabbit a form of Russian aggression. What do they take?
“Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”, said Prof. Glees of the University of Buckingham, an “intelligence expert”, as quoted by the Times.
The meaning of a story like this one? No story is too absurd if your task is to slander Russia.
Another similar story, again by The Times
The proof? Organic Erica, as she is called on Twitter, has a regular pattern of tweeting, so she must most likely be a bot, and as everyone in the know knows, all bots come from Russia, especially when the happen to say anything slightly critical of, well, anything, like in the case Erica, who does not appear to like genetically modified food and promoted a healthy lifestyle.
5) Italian election
It looks like no election will have happen again in Europe or anywhere in the world without the nefarious influence of Russia literally altering the minds of the voters. The Italian election in March 2018 was no exception.
There are a pletora of similar stories, we chose one from El Pais, the Spanish daily.
The problem with this “analysis”? First the data is from February to October 2017, whereas the election took place in March 2018. Second, it is not Sputnik Italia and Russia Today who were disseminating potentially divisive content on the subject of immigration on Twitter but it is Twitter users who were referring to the content of Sputnik and Russia Today.
There is also another problem with this, in spite of many reporters thinking the are doing incredibile investigative work: the Italian secret services think it is bulls**t.
6) The journalist that was killed – until he wasn’t
This is more an example of staged news rather than purely fake news. In May, Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, was killed in his apartment in Kiev, where he had taken refuge after fleeing Russia. Babchenko had to leave Russia, fearing for his personal safety, after an “unpatriotic” post where he had displayed a good dose of schadenfreude when a Russian plane with artists and dancers flying to Syria to perform for the Russian army personnel fell and all those on board died.
Only he was not killed. The killing turned out to be a mock show, organised by the Ukrainian secret services, and not even Babchenko’s wife, present at the moment of the assassination, had been informed. The day after, Babchenko was resurrected and brought to a press conference by the SBU, the Ukrainian secret services.
7) The Insane Feminist from the Cold
In September a video featuring a Russian feminist activist throwing bleach on male passengers in the Saint Petersburg metro went viral. The EU unit in charge of counteracting Russian propaganda labelled the video as a stunt to destabilise Western society. Much of the media simply reported the news without doing much questioning. There are only two questions that arose: a) if the video is Russian propaganda aimed at destabilising Western societies, then why on Earth would the action have to take place in Saing Petersburg? b) if the video was a propaganda stunt by the Kremlin, why on Earth this was labelled as a likely stunt by Russia’s own federal news agency? More on the story here.
8) The Manafort – Assange meeting
One month ago the Guardian came up with could have been the scoop of the year. Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, had met Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London several times, according to the two sources of the Guardian story.
Only, the bombshell failed to detonate, as reported by the Washington Post. No other news organisation, other than the Guardian, has been able to confirm the story. Wikileaks vehemently denied it, demanding the resignation of the Guardian editor-in-chief and as a result the Guardian toned down the language a bit, without denying the story altogether though. Most tellingly, the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, no stranger to controversy and one of the authors of the story, went on a very uncharacteristical period of silence and contemplation in the days immediately after the publication.
” A denial from Manafort, meanwhile, landed in reporters’ inboxes a little before 3:30 P.M. “This story is totally false and deliberately libelous,” the statement reads. “I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to WikiLeaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or WikiLeaks on any matter. We are considering all legal options against The Guardian who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false.” “
9) Putin once again does what he does best – threatening
Another nice example of how you don’t need to radically alter the facts to create a fake story, – you just need to twist the language a bit.
Here the malicious Putin is at it again, threatening the civilized world with nuclear weapons. But is Putin the one who is “threatening” to do something here?
“Vladimir Putin has said Russia will develop new missiles banned by a nuclear arms pact if the US withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and builds its own weapons. Putin’s comments follow an ultimatum set by the US on Tuesday to declare its missile capabilities in 60 days.”
The irony was not missed on some readers, luckily:
10) Les Gilets jaunes are a Russian special operation
This incredible piece of investigative journalism comes from the Italian version of StopFake, a Ukrainian project to counter the omnipresent spectre of Russian propaganda, earns a very much deserved spot in our list of the top fake news of the year. StopFake is not really a mainstream media, but it is mainstream enough to have received US funds. To be fair here, StopFake, whose Italian operation appears to be run almost exclusively by a rather dubious figure, does not seem to be putting its full trust behind the author, since almost every piece is preceded by the disclaimer: “This article solely represents the opinion of its author. StopFake might not share these opinions”. It reads like a licence to bullshit.
“ Gerasimov in the exposition of the new Russian military doctrine explained that the new “hybrid wars” […] Gerasimov explained to us that the first phase involved a massive use of disinformation and then the next step (in case a friendly government had not been established in the target country) was meant to be internal destabilization thanks to demonstrations supported by those who in jargon are called “tourists”. ”
Let’s leave for a moment the fact aside that the whole concept of a Gerasimov doctrine has turned out to be a fantasy that was dismissed by its own creator. Is the author of the article here arguing that the demonstrators in France are in reality tourists from Russia? Or what is he alluding to?
“ We have no proof of all this, but many clues. First of all, the phenomenon “Yellow vests” is born and expands in countries that oppose the Kremlin policy. They do not have a clear social identification, neither the organizers nor the financial helpers are known. They have been compared to the Maidan protesters but have no contact point with them because in Kiev the people did not fight for economic reasons (really? note of the author) and in three months of demonstrations (with more than 100 dead) there was not even one shop window broken or a single damaged car for pure vandalism. These groups (not numerous) act in cities in a military way, it is not a crowd that vent its rage at random, but choose where and how to hit in small groups by putting a strain on the police. Russia Today immediately gave full coverage of the incidents from inside the parade without any kind of problem unlike the other media. ”
Once again, the proof of the gilets jaunes being Russian creation is the fact that RT was covering the protests. The impression is that the author of the article has access to higher levels of consciousness that are not achievable to common people, – because his logic is from out of this world. More on the StopFake Italia operation here.
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This is our list of the top 10 fake news stories of 2018 by mainstream media. Will this change anything? Will the media change its ways? Will they stop feeding into an atmosphere where independent media is almost automatically labelled “fake news” or accused of having Russian ties? The answer is no, of course. But hopefully our list will help critically-minded readers once again realise that mainstream media by definition cannot have a monopoly on the truth.