BY ANITA SENARATNA
Last Wednesday night, locals and journalists gathered at Bondi Pavilion for Fraudulent Facts, Hoax Headlines and Malicious Media, a panel discussion presented by the Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award and The Walkley Foundation. The panel consisted of several high-profile media figures – Sandra Sully (Channel Ten), Alex McKinnon (The Saturday Paper), and John Barron (ABC), led by Jan Fran, from SBS’s The Feed.
The discussion was focused around the concept of ‘fake news’, a term coined by US President Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. As Alex McKinnon noted, President Trump tends to define the term as “news he doesn’t like”, a definition that apparently includes CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
But despite the President’s claims that fake news is “one of the greatest of all terms” he’s ever invented, history says otherwise. The first ever mention of fake news in a headline appears in 1890, around 56 years before the President was born. Another early example is The Great Moon Hoax in 1835, a series of six articles published in New York newspaper The Sun, supposedly detailing the discovery of life on the moon, presented as a legitimate scientific discovery.
In a twenty-first century context, the term is more commonly used to describe news that is deliberately designed to misinform or mislead the public about a particular individual or organisation, often. The growth of social media means these stories can be seen and read by millions of people before they can be debunked.
Sandra Sully observed that “it’s no surprise that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg came out and finally admitted to Facebook playing a role in Trump’s election,” referring to the many stories about Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton containing sensationalist headlines and unverifiable sources, giving then-Republican candidate Trump a clear campaign advantage.
The panel discussed some of the factors that led to the public acceptance of these stories as fact. John Barron, political analyst for ABC’s US Politics division, says people are more likely to believe fake news when they’re “disillusioned with the government and with the media.”
He said that once the public have lost their trust in these so-called authoritative voices, they “look for curators of news that they can trust”, which can come in the form of bloggers, opinion columnists, or social media ‘influencers’- people outside of the mainstream media expressing their opinions to audiences who choose to take them as fact, which he considers to be the mental equivalent of “getting pre-made meals from Woolworth’s.”
The panel also considered the role of the consumer, and whether or not the public have a responsibility to think more critically about the news. Sandra Sully thinks consumers need to be “educated and a little bit savvy” to be able to tell fake news from real news.
“People need to consider who they’re reading and why they’re reading it.” she said.
Whilst there was debate amongst the panel about how much responsibility lay with the consumer as opposed to with the media outlets themselves, they all agreed that taking in as many perspectives as possible was essential to getting to the truth of any major story, even when those points of views conflicted drastically with their own. As Ms. Sully herself said, “isn’t the fact that we’re different what makes the world juicy?”