Last week, I began exploring the issue of ‘fake news’ and I will continue this week. I don’t quite go along with what we say nowadays, that fake news is something entirely new, and that there is so much more of it today than before. True, social media may circulate more of it than the regular media; the latter media have editors and gatekeepers, so essential for truth worthy media.

As a social scientist, I would claim that we always have had fake news, indeed tilted and controlled news. Besides, many things that should have been covered were ignored. The establishment, the rich and powerful men, yes, very few women among them, have always controlled the media, and they often beautify their stories to suit and benefit themselves. When the newspapers came, and later also electronic media, they would become watchdogs and make it more difficult for the powerful to get away with anything and everything. But still, the media would be ‘careful’ and accept more from the pillars of society than others. The media played, and still play, a vital role in any democracy.

We all know that free and independent media are essential. We sometimes call the media the ‘fourth estate’, after the three others, the elected parliament, the executive government and the judiciary. Critical and investigative journalism, even just simple reporting, is required so people can be aware of issues and make up their own minds. Whereas social media can add to the traditional media, they are much less trustworthy since they lack professional gatekeepers, and the consumers, the users, are not trained to evaluate truth from what is fake; and many times, it will be impossible to distinguish even for a critical mind.

In recent years, we have been reminded of the importance of professional media when respected organisations have been investigated and it has been discovered that they were not as clean and holy as they pretended to be. For example, the revelations of sexual and other child abuse in the Catholic Church has shocked and led to mistrust not only in the religious leaders but in all authority. With the publishing of the ‘Panama papers’, we have begun seeing a bit of what goes on in the private sector, especially among the very richest, often highly trusted and admired people and organisations. In politics and more, WikiLeaks has revealed some secrets that we ordinary people were not supposed to know; hence the defence from the high-ups was massive, especially American leaders. WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, is in the news himself again; he is paying a terrible price for his bravery. He might have used other means and methods; in any case, I believe he made a service to us all.

In order for good organizations, institutions and companies to remain good, it is in their own interest, in the long run, that they are open to their users and the public, yet, not everything should be on the front pages of newspapers and in the gossip columns of magazines. The media has a key role in informing and educating the public in a balanced way, and to present news that we can trust, however, still being critical consumers. The media shall be the people’s eyes, or the ‘Argus eyes’, as the term sometimes is, refereeing to ancient Greek mythology, where ‘Argus’, or ‘Argus Panoptes’ (Argues ‘All-eyes’), was a giant with a hundred eyes. The media can and should be such a giant.

In our time, well, always, the media have had shortcomings and have not been as neutral and independent as they should have been; one-sided private ownership of the media is a problem, as is one-sided government ownership; the role of advertisers and sponsors is also a problem. In the West, indeed my home country Norway, the diversity of the media, indeed the high number of independent newspapers, has been a success; they have received government support but have remained independent. The radio and TV, and the country’s news agency, NTB, owned by the newspapers, have been responsible and independent.

Today, private media, untraditional and sensational media, including social media, have filled some gaps, for good and for bad; true, they also focus on what the responsible media overlook. But their threshold for truth is lower, and we sometimes end up in a wilderness. It probably had to happen when the technology made the volume of news and information explode, and everyone could be a news-caster, and when the monopoly of the electronic media had to be given up.

If the new standard and social media, with tilted, sensational, unprofessional and fake news, are to thrive and fly (and they probably are), good spin doctors are needed, notably the propagandists, the story tellers and the charmers. Often, we don’t know who the spin doctors are, unless we use our critical senses more than ever.

The Danish writer H.C. Andersen (1805-1875) wrote a famous tale, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, about everyone listening to the spin doctors and the communication directors, long before such titles had been invented. They all said the emperor’s new clothes were so uniquely elegant when in actual fact there was not a thread of truth in it, simply because there were no clothes, no silk, no wool, no stitches, no design, nothing. And, then, when the emperor strutted about, ruffling his feathers, as it were, it was a little girl in her innocence who spilled the beans. She told the truth: The emperor has no clothes on; he is naked!

The story doesn’t say what happened neither to the spin doctors nor the emperor afterward. Maybe they were out of work for a good while, and maybe the people watching and applauding, all trying to please the principal, also felt a bitter taste in their month? How ridiculous could they all be, totally lacking critical senses?

Today, when we complain about fake news, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we believe so many things that even a little girl or boy can see is fake? Why is it that we are not more critical? Have we not learnt anything from history? Don’t we know that those in power, or those who want to sell something, must always be watched with suspicion? Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the leader of the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War, is quoted to have said: ‘Politicians are the same all over. They promised to build a bridge even where there is no river.’

But how can we learn to be more critical and distinguish fake news from true realities? How can we become more critical so that we can participate positively in society in politics and in everyday activities in the new media situation in the information age we live in? Since it is all to stay with us, we’d better learn to see realities in the world we live in. I will play my modest part and try to explore some key aspects in one or two forthcoming columns.