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Fake News? Undefined, It's a Danger That's Courting Censorship

Larry Wines: "Fake News" is suddenly the most ubiquitously over-invoked, fear-fomenting, vilifying term in every mainstream news cycle.

A definition, desperately needed, appears right here.

The first step in addressing any problem is recognizing you have one. Unless that's closely followed by defining the nature of the problem — what it actually IS — then there's bound to be a lot of Chicken Little. And that flapping and squawking, with plenty of hands dumping bags of extra feathers to cloud the view, is precisely where we are. This entire notion of "Fake News" is serious, and for some, that justifies calls for censorship. For us, it's too serious to allow such ad hoc self-serving exploitation.

"Fake News" is suddenly the most ubiquitously over-invoked, fear-fomenting, vilifying term in every mainstream news cycle.

Right now, we're dealing with a nebulous term, so it warrants the qualifying quotes. "Fake News" is suddenly the most ubiquitously over-invoked, fear-fomenting, vilifying term in every mainstream news cycle. It may be the most widely used label for anything that never acquired a clear definition before attaining mass dissemination. It is a chameleon portrayed as a rattlesnake. In fact, it's whatever you want it to be.

We're risking Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, when he said he couldn't tell you what it is, but "I know it when I see it."

This can't succumb to that. Journalism has rules and standards. They've flapped in the breeze with cable news practices. The collapse of competing daily newspapers brought a lack of alternative voices. The web, though apparently addressing that, did so from perspectives with little or no real journalism experience and no specific commitment to the same communities. Being serious on the web requires being even faster than cable, except the challenge has been met by speed instead of accuracy, because you can always post an update that erases the original content. Setting type for a printed page had an air of certainty—even if the paper ended up in the cat box. Still, standards of real journalism, though stretched thin by cable and then internet outlets, were not immediately abandoned in favor of supermarket tabloid celebrity gossip and fantasies of aliens landing in the city park. But these days that isn't so certain.

That ridiculous crap that infested your email in the double-aughts began to take on the appearance of news sent from the paper in your drunk uncle's small town. Art and page design software arrived before social media exploded. Then everything was about sending selfies, making your cyber social world all about you, and demanding your "friends" (though you'd never laid eyes on them) are instantly responsive to your every stray thought. And they are, because social media's algorithms surround you with an echo chamber of like-minded friends to keep you feeling validated and online to feel more of that and enrich the sites through the data they stole from you to bundle and sell.

Your world became a place where reality played second fiddle to virtual reality. Even at work, there was time for cyber immersion. The lines blurred, then vanished.

Anything nebulous works to the advantage of those who want to manipulate it, and to the exploitation of everyone else. In any earlier age, we'd see that as detriment. But drinking the Koolade made it desirable. The nebulous nature of it is central. If I tell you, "I like that flower," is it a perennial, an annual, or made of plastic? Or is it the brand I use to bake biscuits — it being "flour"?

Shakespeare observed that a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. Similarly, a skunk by another name does not have diminished stink. Make no mistake: the notion of "Fake News" is being manipulated by someone selling you the illusion of sweet intoxicating petals of their content, their roses. Which are probably plastic. Others, protecting the supposed integrity of their competing product, will tell you to avoid and fear something from "the other" because it's the turd in the punchbowl. Usually, it's actually something they're afraid may eclipse them, so they must ridicule or vilify it to dissuade you from it.

"Fake News" is like politics itself. It's out there with no regard for testing the veracity or falsehood of anything, so there is no ethical consistency.

The Washington Post muddied the waters to epic proportions with their story November 24th about how "Fake News" stole the election from Hillary. It was built around a shady website called "PropOrNot," whose self-declared purpose is to "out" organizations and others who are nefarious purveyors of propaganda. Make that Russian propaganda. Now, that site wants to "out" those propagandists. Which is not exactly the same as citing sources of "Fake News." Because taking the latter tack would have created the need to define "Fake News." And nobody in mainstream media wants to do that. Or even to let a definition appear. That would limit the ability to use the term as a tool of blame with universal applicability. Or as a bludgeon. Definitions are limiting. One can't "J'accuse!" in every direction at once.

The Post ultimately had to publish a mamby-pamby and not-exactly-retraction of their story because they fundamentality lacked evidence for their assertions. But it is, functionally, a retraction. They admit they were unable to determine the veracity of PropOrNot or the claims inherent in its blacklisting. The Post's discredited story, with their sort-of-retraction up front, remains online. There is one major since publication: PropOrNot has removed a bunch of the 200+ sites the piece originally referenced. The Post sheepishly tells you in the new forward. It can all be read here.

Seems like vetting PropOrNot, before it had the chance to purge a lot of its now invisible content that turned out to be blatant "Fake News," is something that could have been done before the story first ran. Perhaps the hallowed Washington Post should consult its own archives for schooling in how it conducted its landmark investigative reporting of Watergate in the '70s. They could buy popcorn and screen "All the President's Men" for today's newsroom. Might prevent a lot of embarrassment. They won the Pulitzer for exposing Watergate by tracking down those involved, interviewing them, verifying facts with multiple sources, documenting what really happened, and reporting with integrity.

Indeed, invoking that axiom could have guided the paper's handling of its 2016 campaign coverage. That could apply to all of corporate mainstream media. It hasn't been that way for some time now. And the failure of mainstream media to be thorough, fair, and trustworthy sowed the seeds for the rise of a lot of "Fake News" from the new and far reaches of the cyber realm. It seemed an annoyance and embarrassment. Yet, after the epic fail with predicting the election, remembering the sudden rise of "Fake News" was useful for corporate mainstream media as it had already been for certain political campaigns.

The mere existence of "Fake News" provides cover for anything you want to put out there without being identified or held responsible for saying it. The vast scope of "Fake News" enables everything fantastical. It provides countless justifications or negations for any opinion you are predisposed to have. On any subject or issue. About any prominent political figure or famous-for-being-famous celebrity. For learning about any event that brings you joy or horror. Whether that's what really happened or not.

Since it has no definition, we have a value-neutral tool enabling us to produce an intended response. For its critics within establishment media? Not so fast. Just call anything "Fake News" and you are absolved of responsibility for learning enough to make an honest assessment. Just attack the unwelcome intrusion for being fake. That can be useful, when exploited.

Clearly, this free-for-all creates a vast minefield masquerading as a garden of knowledge. But whoever presumes the moral authority to stop it, and how they resolve to do that, is fraught with danger of censorship. Even runaway censorship that once started, may not be stopped.

There's a way around accepting intrusive censors. All we really need is a definition that's true to the legacy of the Founding Fathers' faith in the Fourth Estate, in the free, fair competitive press as the ultimate check and balance on everything else. We need a definition that everyone can apply. A criteria for what constitutes "Fake News," and frees us from applying those quotation marks of qualifying presumption.

Humbly or not, here is that definition.

"Fake News." Two-word term used as a noun. Meaning and context has experienced recent abrupt change.

(1) Historical derivation (now archaic): Term was specifically employed by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, circa 2009, referring to their nightly Comedy Central skewerings of socio-political incidents, calling attention to public policy initiatives flying beneath the radar, and ridiculous advocacies and trends. The term was particularly applied to comedic "reports," often profiling the "full-of-themselves" politicians who routinely committed foot-in-mouth actions using public money. Typically, a report exposed politicians' often obscure pontifications, revealing them to be possessed with airs of self-righteousness. Reports were accompanied by graphics, sometimes scatological, further propelling satirical lambastings. Segments established select but usually essential facts, either those already on record or discovered from original reporting. Commentary used comedic sarcasm to posit the inconsistency of ethical bases for the behavior being spotlighted. The Stewart/Colbert adoption of the term derived from earlier forms that never proclaimed themselves "Fake News" as such, as in: Vaudeville routines, dating from early days of variety stages; the 1920s and '30s news-based observations of Will Rogers; "modern" political comedy, circa 1960s, by comics Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul, and others; George Carlin's 1970s "Hippy Dippy Weatherman" character with such dual-entendre reports as "Tonight's forecast is — dark. Continued dark until tomorrow morning;" the 1975 advent of "Weekend Update" which continues through the present on "Saturday Night Live," positing partly-factual satirical news aimed at comically revealing underlying "truths." Additional current TV offerings would fit this definition, if we were still able to use it in its historic form. These shows include: the nightly foray by Trevor Noah; the equal-opportunity bashing of both parties' foibles by Lee Camp on "Redacted Tonight;" the weekly HBO show by John Oliver and its partisan agenda-driven counterpart with Bill Maher; and the recent but short-lived TV show hosted by Larry Wilmore. All such shows should now be defined as "Satirical News" due to changed circumstances that have overtaken journalism and created Trojan Horses, misrepresenting the appearance of actual journalism.

(2) "Fake News." Current, active definition. Negates the earlier definition above. Evolved definition necessitated by chaotic, ad hoc, self-serving, contradictory thrashing-about of the two-word term since the November, 2016 election.

New meaning, short definition: Any presentation taking the form and/or appearance of journalism that is not obviously satirical, but which is based on inaccuracies and/or false assertions and/or contrived or invented findings, whether intended for or appearing on broadcast, print, or web-based media, without regard for whether the source is established mainstream or alternative media, or a non-news entity. The nature, content , and/or purpose of the piece or presentation, rather than the source, are the fundamental identifying criteria for Fake News, though a purported source by accruing multiple offenses according to these criteria can be deemed "Fake News" as an entire entity. (See full definition for characteristics of purpose and intent.)

Full definition, established December 17, 2016: (Includes short definition above, and continues with the following.) "Fake News" includes any item or report meeting the foregoing criteria and appearing to be an actual journalistic filing. This includes a field report, research-based or interview-based or first-person-based piece; any purported news bureau report, whether from an actual established or a fictional news organization. Any misrepresentation as a purported revelation of fact and/or of a finding discovered by research and/or interview and/or documentation that is (a) a reported assertion of fact citing only unnamed sources and no actual evidence; (b) invented from fantasy; (c) an extrapolation of expectation deriving from wishful thinking ("Dewey Defeats Truman!"); (d) reporting of purported events that never actually happened; (e) a report based on circumstances that do not exist; (f) an egregious misquote from or misrepresentation of or misuse of an actual piece or product of real journalism; (g) a falsified interview; (h) falsified reporter's notes; (i) falsified document(s); (j) falsified photographs; (k) falsified recordings, whether audio and/or video; (l) falsified conclusions, whether in any purported news feature, supportive sidebar, or statistical chart or other graphic form or in text or broadcast form.

(3) Presumption of intent: In each case above, the reasonable presumption in determining Fake News shall be the intention to produce a response or attitude or belief or opinion in an individual or in any larger population that is based on a willful alteration of the facts and the truth that may be based partly or wholly on lies and inaccuracies, whether to slander, abuse, bully, or compromise, or to damage, impugn, or destroy the reputation of an individual or institution.

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(4) Journalistic malpractice as Fake News: That which is reasonably likely to produce said misimpression through journalistic malpractice or negligent irresponsibility or malevolent intent is Fake News.

(5) No exemption or special circumstance or alternative "qualified definition" shall apply to any person or institution, whether acting as an agent of government, as an employee or agent of any entity, news organization or otherwise, or as a message crafter or spokesperson for any person or entity whether as a writer of promotional or public relations material, or of press releases, talking points, air scripts, written pieces, graphical images, or presentations for publication or web posting. No person or entity may escape being labeled "Fake News" by citing the offending article as a work product of another. (Note: That's why any publication can publish a disclaimer attached to any piece they run; broadcast and web outlets can certainly do the same.) Multiple findings of Fake News devolving to the same source or affiliated sources that have repeatedly used disclaimers shall be sufficient to label said source(s) as a consistent and egregious disseminator of Fake News.

(6) Exceptionally harmful "Fake News." This describes extreme forms of Fake News as libel or slander whether through false assertion, postulation, claim, or false report, or through inclusion of false information in a libelous or slanderous response to an article or feature appearing as provocation, whether the initial provocation was true or Fake News. In most serious form, it is any expressed attitude, belief or opinion based on a presentation of lies and inaccuracies with the declared or implied intention of, or reasonable capability of, producing fear of bodily harm in a targeted individual or entity. This includes fomenting abuse or bullying, or intention to compromise, damage, impugn, or destroy the reputation of an individual or institution through lies or falsehoods, which in addition to being possible criminal offenses, are misrepresented as news.


Now that we have a clear definition, there is no need within it to specifically cite allegations about Russia or Vladimir Putin. Or RT or Sputnik. Or anybody else's state-supported or publicly-supported media, including NPR or Pacifica or the BBC or CBC or DW or NHK or France 24. Or any corporate empire-owned for-profit mainstream media. Having a definition establishes a criteria for all and assures clarity and a level playing field. Either you choose to follow the rules of journalistic integrity or you don't. Either you avoid behavior and practices that constitute Fake News or you don't.

With this clear definition, anyone can now make their own assessment. That includes the ability to cite the record. Applying the definition to the CIA reveals its long-running, seemingly endless, examples of running Fake News operations as foreign and domestic initiatives and long term programs alike.

Best known of all these has been Operation Mockingbird, dating to the 1950s. It has paid for students to get degrees in the nation's top journalism schools and then be secretly employed by CIA after going to work at top US newspapers, wire services, magazines, radio, TV, and cable news outlets and at foreign news bureaus worldwide. The CIA assisted these individuals in always getting the best coverage of top stories. As their reporting excelled with the extraordinary assistance, they were routinely promoted by their news outlets to more senior positions. Once there, they could exert more influence, more determination of how things were reported, what was emphasized, and what conclusions were reached. They achieved positions allowing them to determine what was, in fact, the news.

It's appropriate to use past tense because we have a fairly clear picture of how it worked in the past.

But Operation Mockingbird is ongoing, and in a nation where the Congress forbade the CIA from engaging in spying on Americans in the US. At least until 9/11, the whole thing was illegal. Then came packages of known and clandestine legislation and authorizations accompanying the Patriot Act. It brought consolidations of agencies, functions and authority. That included creation of new powers that essentially negate our Fourth Amendment protections and the ability to downplay or ignore or mislead through the media. From here, we can invoke the present tense.

In September 2016, Congress empowered the FBI to secretly perform many Operation Mockingbird functions formerly under CIA purview, along with giving the Bureau specific powers of surveillance of citizens, using the media to do it. A September 22, 2016 piece, "US Govt Just Legalized Operation Mockingbird — FBI Can now Impersonate the Media," by Claire Bernish, ran in The Free Thought Project

There's a YouTube video about some of this with a title that leaves no doubt of its orientation, "Operation Mockingbird: The CIA Controls the Fake Mainstream Media."

Thom Hartmann has reported on this for quite some time, including his 2015 piece, "Operation Mockingbird: CIA Disinformation in the Media Then and Now."

Though the CIA is charged with intelligence based on foreign espionage outside America, they remain actively involved in propagandizing the American population through the news media. Theirs is the most frightening use of Fake News, because its universality and consist placement in multiple sources makes it nearly impossible to expose. And that doesn't stop domestically with Mockingbird. CIA media propaganda even reaches into the CIA's own media.

Having called out the Washington Post for their recent sheep dip as Fake News, we will cite a breakthrough story they ran prior to falling off the wagon. On January 31, months before the term Fake News was in vogue, the Post reported that current CIA activities include "Operation Eyewash." The CIA has run this op for years, specifically to deceive its own employees with Fake News published internally.

It's time to end the hypocrisy of certain beneficiaries expressing contrived outrage over "Fake News." It's time to fess-up to efforts to influence Electoral College members with unsubstantiated claims of intelligence agency "proof" that come with no willingness — and perhaps an inability — to produce evidence. It's time to end the easy escape of branding anyone who disagrees with you as a patsy of "Fake News."

Why the purveyors and exploiters of preserving this useful chaos do what they do may never be clear, at least in all instances. The truth is likely akin to Churchill's classic assertion about an earlier empire of espionage and deception, when he described "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

Churchill was talking then about the communist Soviet Union. Now it's easier to simply brand capitalist Russia, without producing evidence to prove it, as the source of hacks that resulted in a stolen election. And to brand Russia as home to a propaganda-purposed media, for which John Kerry wants an act of Congress to commit US taxpayer dollars to create one or more devoted new "anti-propaganda" TV channels. All because Russia is accused of being the malevolent source of "Fake News" (yes, the quotation mark qualifiers are back), and accused with no evidence made available — and the specific denial by the CIA of a request for that evidence, made by the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Oversight Committee.

Churchill's "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" perfectly describes Fake News after our definition "outs" it and takes away the shell game.

Facebook had best remember those words from a Prime Minister of a bygone era as they invoke their new paradigm to "flag" what they deem as "Fake News." They're way out over their skis, allowing anyone with a Facebook page to flag anything with a mere accusation. One individual's act will cause the suspect item to be sent for trial before one of Facebook's newly designated community of "independent evaluators." It's especially treacherous since those evaluators have a vested interest in discrediting and eliminating the non-mainstream competition: all the "deciders" are either part of corporate mainstream media, or suspected of CIA connections, and/or highly partisan players on the international stage. And each of them has, itself, come under scrutiny for disseminating Fake News.

Facebook has given itself a potential to "out" some wacky invasive posts. Like the Moldavian teenagers practicing their English by inventing imaginative Fake News combining the ridiculous with hefty doses of malice. And to circumvent Donald Trump's imagined malevolent cyber addict "who weighs 400 pounds and does this sitting on their bed."

Facebook likewise has established the clear potential for a new avenue of censorship, based on blacklisting a lot of non-mainstream but very valid and often investigative journalists and news sources that do not deserve it.

Our crazy, angry, post-election fragmented, manipulated, lied-to nation, awash in angst, being fed a diet of fear to produce contrived outcomes, constantly has outraged conservatives irreconcilably at odds with offended liberals. (If you hadn't noticed, it's the conservatives who are outraged and the liberals who are offended.) Somebody is bound to take issue with anything. Someone will, almost certainly with this story, or with the presumption to end the usefully exploitable chaos it seeks to curb. And if this, or the link for it, gets posted on Facebook, they can turn their displeasure into troublemaking aimed at discrediting the reporter or the outlet that outraged or offended them. Now multiply that by every piece of sociopolitical journalism that isn't Fake News, yet can be unjustifiably smeared with the accusation. I hear the voice of Fred Rogers once again. He's asking, "Can you say 'Chilling effect?' I KNEW you could!"

We are facing a serious erosion of our First Amendment freedoms. And Trump isn't even in office yet. In fact, I hope you just said to yourself, "This has nothing to do with that," because indeed it doesn't. Other than this: the entire subject arose, and perhaps by design, to provide a catalyst and excuse and restrictive social media operating paradigm with an ability to do harm to the rebellious many who don't accept things at face value, who reject the contrived narrative. And even as it punishes the questioners, it can accrue benefit for the corporate mainstream as the only "credible" sources.

The definition we offer for Fake News is a clarifier. That makes it confrontational to those who exploit the term for personal or corporate advantage. Those with ruthless intent to clear the field of competition. Those who benefit by espousing the narrative without being challenged. If our definition of Fake News is accepted and applied, it'll put sand in the gears of their Machiavellian machinations. Watching to see where this goes will tell us a lot about the roadmap of the opportunists and exploiters and the plutocrats who feed them the narrative.


Larry Wines