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First fake news, then a resigned, indifferent public (just ask the Russians)

Galina Pyshnyak recounting story about a child’s crucifixion. It never happened. Photo: Liveleak A portion of the MH17 wing lies in the field as smoke rises behind the tree-line. Russians no longer know what to think. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Budapest: Russian state television aired an interview in 2014 with a woman who claimed the Ukrainian army, entering a rebel-held town, had publicly crucified a three-year-old boy. The woman, named as Galina Pyshnyak, said she saw soldiers “take a little boy in his underwear and T-shirt and nail him to a notice board like Jesus”. The story was a complete fabrication.

War has always made truth its first casualty but distortion and lying are creeping into everyday life in the “post-fact” world.

White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway justified the recent Muslim travel ban by inventing a “massacre” in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She later admitted she had “misspoken” in a gross exaggeration of the reality that two terrorist suspects had been arrested there.

Fake news is not new – the yellow press has been deceiving us for decades – but with the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of the internet, “alternative facts” are everywhere going viral.

“The conditions are right for a perfect storm of fake news,” said Dean Starkman, a media specialist at the Central European University. He predicted that companies like Google and Facebook would eventually have an incentive to police it, as their own value was being eroded.

Meanwhile the public was left vulnerable.

“Readers will get more sophisticated about how to wade through this stuff but the onus shouldn’t be on them; it isn’t fair. The system has to be cleaned up structurally,” he said.

Russia, with its Kremlin-loyal media and army of trolls, has made a particular contribution to fake news, using not only modern technology but all the techniques for muddying the waters that were perfected by propagandists and the KGB in Soviet times. Pointing the finger, shifting the blame, twisting history to fit a certain narrative, all these techniques keep Russians in the dark while facts are reserved for the elite.

President Vladimir Putin’s “political technologist”, Vladislav Surkov, a man with a background in the theatre, is credited with turning Russian public life into a shadow play in which all but the bravest actors are puppets. On command, the media takes up whatever is the latest “party line” – Obama bad, Trump good (for the time being).

Donald Trump — whether influenced by the Russians or from his own native talent – seems to have mastered the key defensive technique of “whataboutism”. This is when an accusation is thrown back in a false parallel.

Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio caught President Trump doing it when Fox News called Vladimir Putin a “killer”. (A British judge concluded that the Kremlin leader probably approved the assassination of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.)

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” asked President Trump. In answer to which Mr. Rubio tweeted: “When has a Democratic political activist been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as Putin.” When has a Democratic political activists been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as #Putin. MR— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 5, 2017

The effect of this constant blurring of distinction, whipping up of outrage and dodging of responsibility is that the public loses interest and turns into an apathetic herd. Many Russians, for example, no longer care who shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 because Moscow has generated so much false “evidence” to blame the Ukrainians.

“As long as it doesn’t affect me,” they say.

Or you hear the view that “politicians are all the same”, as if oranges and apples were identical fruit.

“I find it disturbing,” said Hungarian teacher Laszlo Kuroli, “that even the word ‘politics’ – think about its Greek origin – makes people shut down, as if you do something horrible and perverted when you try to discuss politics.”

In Hungary, as in Russia, independent media have been commandeered and NGOs are under attack. It is hard to find an objective and balanced picture anywhere.

With advances in technology, the problem of fake news may get worse before it gets better, according to Professor Starkman.

“Gathering and checking facts takes time,” he said. “‘A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’, as the old saying goes.”

Professor Starkman admits that some dishonest journalists are partly to blame for the degradation of their profession.

The only answer, he says, is for news organisations to invest in qualified staff. “We need more paid, professional boots on the ground, to go out and get the information.”

Helen Womack was a Moscow-based foreign correspondent for three decades.

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