As a writer and reader of politics blogs whose views are somewhat outside the mainstream, I am always depressed by the prevalence of conspiracy theories or blatant untruths that can be found on independent news sites (sorry pals, please continue to invite me to the monthly craft beer and pulled pork meet ups). Sometimes I worry that those of us on the radical left have watched too many seasons of 24 and believe that the world is controlled by a shadowy group whose existence can be exposed in a day with a bit of gumption.
Imagine my surprise this week when I saw that the mainstream media had just as much of an appetite for silly spy stories and secret conspiracies. The accusation that Jeremy Corbyn “gave information to a communist spy during the cold war” is just as crazy as the notion that the moon landing was faked or that Portland Communications had a role in the revolt of Labour MPs against Corbyn in 2016. I expected conspiracy theories from blogs written in bedrooms by hobbyists, not from national newspapers.
As the mainstream media is moving in on the crazy conspiracy theory space, on behalf of independent blogs I am moving into the serious analysis space with a few thoughts. First of all, the spreading of this story looks a lot like the spreading of the fake news that played a role in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
This story has been shared on social media platforms by people who instinctively believe that it has to be true. The accusation that Corbyn was passing information to a Communist government fits so naturally with certain people’s worldview that they don’t check if this story is complete horseshit before hitting the share button. This is no different from sharing stories about Hillary Clinton secretly having cancer or the Pope endorsing Trump.
This story really matters to a group of people who really hate Corbyn and not only will they believe anything bad about him, but the more outlandish the accusation, the more likely they are to believe it. The spreading of this story has been helped by the filter bubbles of social media platforms that create an information space isolated from content that challenges their views.
All this allows a story that is obviously stupid to spread as the algorithms that run social media platforms show the story to people who are likely to be believe it without question. If the filter bubble means that you are never shown a challenging opinion about the Labour leader then you can believe anything you want, including that he played a minor role in a James Bond film.
It goes without saying that in the real world (not the fantasy land of anti-Corbyn fake news) this story is completely untrue, has been wildly debunked and a Tory MP who accused Corbyn of “selling British secrets to communist spies” has had been forced to apologise. However, many of the people who have a high propensity to consume anti-Corbyn fake news won’t see the retractions, or if they do will choose to ignore them. Probably blaming an independent media establishment that is hushing up the truth.
If the mainstream media is going to undermine the value of objective truth, to exploit people’s willingness to believe stories that aren’t true, but fit their worldview, and to use the design flaws of social media platforms to spread disinformation, then it’s up to the independent media to address this. We simply cannot allow the good name of stories posted on Facebook to be dragged through the mud by large news organisations.
It’s telling that Corbyn used a YouTube video shared on Twitter to debunk this bollocks instead of an editorial in a national newspaper. The system that spread the fake news is now being used to counter it.
I am aware that I sound a little like Trump, denouncing the lies of the mainstream media, but this story has been shown to be false and when the mainstream media plays fast and lose with the truth, whether to score political points or to get social media clicks and sell advertising, then it is the concept of democracy driven by an informed electorate that ultimately suffers.
Labour has moved ahead in the polls following this pantomime, which shows that the average voter is not someone who so unthinkingly hates Corbyn that they will believe any rubbish written about him even if it sounds like the rejected plot of a shit British remake of Homeland (this time with an American as the leading man, putting on a British accent).
People care more about the issues they are facing in their lives - such as the rising cost of living, the public sector pay freeze, the increased reliance on food banks or being unable to afford a home - than who said what to a Communist spy 30 years ago. The average voter has bigger things to worry about than conspiracy theories about Corbyn.
If the right wing portion of the mainstream media thinks they can distract voters from the problems of their lives with third-rate spy stories and fake news then they have completely lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people. The people hate-sharing Corbyn spy stories are not representative of the average voter, whose concerns are being spoken to by Corbyn.