The Corbyn spy hoax and the cycle of (fake) news

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Jan Blommaert

In mid-February 2018, the British tabloid The Sun published an article in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having been involved in espionage activities in the 1980s. According to The Sun (and quickly endorsed by The Daily Mail), Czech archives and statements by a former Czech spy confirmed that Corbyn had repeatedly met Warsaw Pact intelligence agents and had been paid for his services. In a curious return to the days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sun claimed the existence of secret Stasi files, the contents of which might reveal numerous names of British traitors whose real identities, alas, “we will never know for sure”. But Corbyn? Yes, they were sure of him being a traitor to his country.

The allegations were swiftly turned into truth by hostile politicians and opinion makers. The Defence Secretary stated that Corbyn had betrayed his country, and another Cabinet member compared Corbyn to the Cold War cause célèbre Kim Philby – here is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once again. In the overheated atmosphere of the Brexit debates in UK politics, heavy artillery is quickly and frequently used. Evidently, the issue went trending on social media and became headline news and a major commentary topic in all mass media as well.

#CorbynSmears

The allegations, however, were quickly debunked. Corbyn himself swiftly dismissed them as “a ridiculous smear” and ridiculed the tablois for “going a bit James Bond,” probably as a sign of fear for the Labour leader whose popularity is on the rise. The real James Bonds – British intelligence officers – backed him up. There was no evidence of Corbyn performing espionage duties for the Czech secret services. On social media, hashtag activism started at once using #CorbynSmears as the thematic label for three large types of actions: direct discussion (as in Figure 1), boomerang statements pointing towards other fake news stories by these tabloids (as in Figure 2), and more broadly focused political essays on the role of media in society (as in Figure 3). A highly effective campaign was waged on social media this way, marginalizing the voices supporting the tabloids and their stories.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Battle hashtags such as #CorbynSmears went trending as well, for several days, and while the tabloids made desperate attempts to raise the “free press” flag and extend their line of revelations, they lost the day. When the facts and the backgrounds are on your side, fact checking (or better: fact reconstruction) is a devastating weapon in social media discussions. The three genres of activity shown here shaped three interlocking frames of action: (a) demanding factual evidence for claims in direct one-on-one interaction; (b) background checks disputing the overall credibility of the tabloids, and (c) pointing to broader motives of political power and influence behind such forms of media reporting. Taken together and deployed en masse, they were highly effective in silencing the opponents in the online debates. The Corbyn supporters had shown themselves to be a formidable social media force on previous occasions; they did so once more in the spy hoax case.

The mass media (who a few days earlier carried the story as headline news) turned against the issue – now identified as fake news – with unusual vehemence. The Independent printed a razor-sharp sarcastic commentary piece including a summary of other outrageous tabloid hoaxes about Corbyn. And BBC Daily Politics anchor Andrew Neil mercilessly pummeled a Cabinet Minister on the question of whether or not Corbyn had betrayed his country, concluding “Surely the real scandal is not what Mr Corbyn has ..supposedly done but the outright lies and disinformation that you and fellow Tories are spreading – that’s the real scandal isn’t it?” The clip of this interview fragment went viral too, and in many ways functioned as a climax to the debate: if the BBC formulates the issue in such a categorical way – connecting “scandal”, “lies” and “Tories” in one sentence – then that’s it.

The cycle of fake news

The Corbyn spy hoax of course taps into the highly complex issue of fake news – perhaps the most important new theme in media culture nowadays, certainly after the exposure of the impact of media such as Breitbart News on the election victory of Donald Trump. And in connecion to this issue, the Corbyn spy hoax shows us a thing or two about what we can call the contemporary cycle of (fake) news. In a graphic form, this cycle can be represented as such (Figure 4).

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Figure 4

Three wheels are constantly turning in a validation debate, in which the tabloids and the social media do most of the work, while the mass media perform a relatively passive, responsive  but nevertheless decisive role. Debates about the validity of news items are hot and hectic in the first two media channels, and these validation debates are taken up by mass media at various stages of development. Thus, mass media very often make an item not just out of the “facts” of the case, but about the debates on the validity of these facts in other media channels.

What we observe here suggests a changed media environment in which it would be wrong to see social media as just echo chambers for what was produced in more traditional media channels. They now must be placed alongside those more traditional channels, as echo chambers, surely, but also in two other capacities: as critical producers of news in the strict sense of the term; and as the critical producers of the criteria for “real” and “fake” news. This latter capacity is what makes their position in this new media environment perhaps inevitably controversial, but nonetheless of extreme importance for understanding the present structure and dynamics of the public sphere and public opinion – a key concept for defining democracy.

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Big questions, and my answers

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Jan Blommaert

Ari Sherris (Texas A&M University) submitted a series of questions to a number of colleagues, to be answered in brief statements. Here are my replies.

  1. How would you introduce your current thinking/theoretical stance?

In a few words: encompassing, exploratory and radical. I embarked some years ago on the project of critically evaluating and, whenever required, reformulating (or formulating, if you wish) social theory for a society in which social lives now continually cross from online into offline spaces and back. This new online infrastructure, in my view, is a fundamental shift in the basic “operating system” of society, comparable to the mass circulation of printed book and newspapers, of the telegraph and telephone, of radio, cinema and TV, and of computers. There are entirely new ways in which people engage and interact with knowledge, artifacts, timespace, groups and ultimately with themselves – all of which demand new forms of social imagination, I base the exploratory theorizing on recent insights into sociolinguistics (very broadly taken here), using (and radically implementing) the assumption that every form of social action is a form of interaction, and that insights into forms of interaction can provide us with a reliable foundation for social theory.

  1. Your current take on meaning/meaning-making?

Meaning in its traditional (linguistic) sense is one of the many effects of social (inter)action, and quite often a nonlinear one (an outcome that cannot be predicted from initial conditions). I have replaced “meaning” almost entirely by “effect”, and I attempt to examine specific kinds of effects emerging from specific kinds of (online-offline) actions. Meaning-as-effect is grounded in (some degree of) recognizability, and this recognizability is usually not a feature of the resources we use alone, but more of the practices we deploy them in. Which is why “yes” can mean “no” and “darling” can sound like a threat depending on what happens in the interaction in which these words are being used.

  1. How do humans communicate?

Hymes gave us the answer long time ago: “use all there is to be used”. There is hardly a limit to the resources that can be turned into signs, and the range of resources thus made useful is continuously changing. This could suggest infinite creativity. I must qualify that: there is infinite creativity within sets of very strict constraints. There is the constraint of accessibility/availability of resources – not everyone has access to possibly the “best” resources for specific forms of communication – and there is the constraint of communicability, i.e. interactionally established recognizability of signs as valid, or, if you wish, the inevitable genre-requirement of any form of communication. The latter involves uptake, and here is the most crucial constraint: we need others for us to be communicating beings.

  1. Your current take on language?

Since a lot of what I presently do is reformulating established concepts, the question is hard to answer with any conventional reference to what “language” means. I can only say what it stands for in my current thinking. It stands for just one of the many resources that can be deployed in social interaction. And of all these resources, it is the most overrated one. It is overrated because popular beliefs equate “communication” and “language”, and so attribute way too much weight to the role of language (as “correct” mapping of form over denotational content) in meaning-making. Which is why, for instance, we keep bumping into the idea that multilingualism might be detrimental to social cohesion because people “can’t communicate unless they share a language”. People have to share a mutually ratified set of communicative resources, and if no such resources are readily available, they will construct them ad hoc. How to change these views? By explaining (over and over again) to the people around you how they effectively communicate, here and now.

  1. What value do you place on culture in your thinking?

We’re having the same problem here as with “language” above: what does “culture” actually mean in this question? In my current thinking, “culture” in any traditional understanding of it has very little place. It can be used to describe the specific sets of microhegemonies valid and operating within a community of people engaging in specific forms of social action. “Culture”, there, would just be shorthand for the stuff that makes such forms of action mutually and collectively understandable.

  1. Your current take on power?

Every bit of online-offline research I have done or have been confronted with lately confirms the Foucaultian vision of power as normative and moralized, infinitely fractal, reflexive, and visible only after having executed it. Foucault spoke of the care of the self, the fact that we subject ourselves to elaborate procedures of normative control and micro-regimentation. In the online world, this has now been complemented with the care of the selfie: infinitely detailed normative complexes (microhegemonies) are made available for the regimenting of almost every aspect of online self-presentation. Let it be said in this context that power, thus understood, is dialogical and operates, notably, through ratification by others.

  1. What is the relationship of individual agency and society?

Individual agency is an “accent”, a small inflection, of largely formatted moralized behavioral templates. I combine several sources here: Foucault (the individual as an effect, an artifact of power), Mead (individuals as the residue of the totality of social interactions they were involved in) and Garfinkel (individuals as concretely configured outcomes of social action). The fact that agency is “accent” implies that its range is small, but not that it is unimportant. In actual fact, we engage with others largely through formats, but the actual ways in which we engage with actual individuals is a factor of their specific “accents” (which is why we like certain colleagues and dislike some others, while most of our lives are shared with them, engaging in pretty well formatted actions).

  1. How might your thinking be used by teachers?

Much of what I now express as theory is actual common sense. In talking to teachers and other people who might benefit from these efforts, I often try to “peel off” the layers of language-ideological beliefs, trying to get to a pretty simple bottom-line understanding of communicative practices online and offline, for which a handful of structuring terms and arguments can then be offered in reconstructing a more accurate understanding of what “language” (the term they mostly use) actually is.

  1. What are the most crucial issues to be investigated today?

Inequality. By analytically expanding the range of communicative resources we intend to investigate, we necessarily find more objects of potential and effective inequality beyond “language” in the sense used, e.g., in sociolinguistic work on minority languages. Think, for instance, of all that is required to successfully launch an online petition for the removal of a corrupt bureaucrat in the South of China: such a complex online action is only “simple” and “easy” for those who have full access to the totality of the resources required for it – including knowledge and experience. This is one of the reasons why I tend to attach great importance to online-offline sites as informal learning environments, where such resources are being made available, distributed, learned and practiced.

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