The thinking goes that Russia follows the West. But it’s the other way around.
In 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked revelations that the U.S. government was peering into the personal lives of Americans, the world was aghast. I wasn’t. While working as a reporter for Reuters in Russia (between 2007 and 2011), government surveillance was part and parcel of our lives. Nothing was sacred. As foreigners, we accepted that our emails, telephone calls, and text messages were most likely being monitored, or could be at any moment. Russians did, too. It was cumbersome and inconvenient, but we even managed to joke about it sometimes.
Having reared its ugly head in the U.S. presidential election, the world is now affronted with fake news. (Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president received a lot of attention, as did a story that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to Islamic State. A slew of tweets by Trump himself turned out to be fake.) It looks like bogus media is here to stay.
Again, the Russians have excelled at this for years. In the murky, self-censored, and often impenetrable world of the Russian press, fake news has proliferated.
In September, I returned to Moscow, this time with The Wall Street Journal, only to find fake news sites and “stories” more sophisticated and streamlined than before. This is extremely dangerous: When the spurious becomes indistinguishable from genuine news, society becomes one big, moving conspiracy theory. Rules are bent and ethics become hazy.
According to a major BuzzFeed survey released last week, 75 percent of American adults are fooled by fake news headlines. Fake news has even led to shots being fired: “Pizzagate” involved a delusional man who “self-investigated” phony news stories about a child sex ring run by Democrats in a Washington restaurant. The 28-year-old drove up from North Carolina with an assault rifle seeking to save children trapped inside.
Hillary Clinton, often the vilified object of fake news, last week called it “a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.” Germany, wary of the reach of fake news in its own upcoming national elections, is pushing for penalties on misinformation campaigns. Facebook’s recent decision to create a new position as head of news partnerships is welcome, and we need other major information companies to follow suit.
Going into 2017, we must be more scrupulous readers, listeners, and watchers. We must double and triple source our news. We must try to restore trust in the media worldwide.