Rosemary McLeod: The dark art of conspiracy and phony 'news' sites

People flee as the World Trade Center Tower collapses behind them in 2001.
SUZANNE PLUNKETT/FOTOPRESS

People flee as the World Trade Center Tower collapses behind them in 2001.

OPINION:  There are people who truly believe journalism is a dark art practised by latter-day witches who seek only to deceive readers by telling them glorious lies. To what end is rather vague, but who's asking?

Count me in, you believers that the American government blew up its own Twin Towers, that jet planes were never there, that what we saw at 9/11 was mocked up deep in the CIA – oh, to make people think there are terrorists when that's just a big fat made-up story to spook children with at bedtime. 

So that's good, because all those dead firemen never existed, and nobody died. Or if they did, their own government did them in. And nobody noticed. And the Pentagon blew itself up just for the lols.

John Key with Mark Zuckerberg  in 2011. The prime minister met the founder of Facebook recently to challenge him for the ...

John Key with Mark Zuckerberg in 2011. The prime minister met the founder of Facebook recently to challenge him for the perception that his company is not paying its fair share of taxes.

And a hearty yes from me to the many believers that men never landed on the Moon. That, too, was a hoax, the footage mocked up using old plastic figures from cornflakes packets. Why they bothered I don't know, but hey, there sure is a conspiracy and I'm smart enough to know it.

Yes, we who work in the media have nothing better to do, once we've covered lost-dog stories, than take our orders from The Man. I've heard all my working life that we take orders directly from the government, and that people like me put on pointy black hats and meekly obey, because we're in on the conspiracy – to do what I'm not sure, but it sounds interesting, and I've been told it so often, over the years, that I no longer bother to deny it. So yes, John Key sends me orders and I tug my forelock, in my case fringe, and do his bidding, because I'm too stupid to think for myself, and too dumb to realise telling lies is a bad idea.

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As always, reality is mundane, there are no broomsticks, and if anyone thinks journalists are that malleable they've never worked with them. There would be no fun in publishing lies because they'd never have to leave the office to do that, which would be boring, and it really isn't cardboard cut-outs that you see on TV, with someone hiding behind them to make their arms and lips move. They are ordinary people much like you, only their jobs have more variety, demand more accuracy, have strict deadlines, and are twice as stressful as you imagine, all the more stressful because their business is in dire straits.

Why? Because too many people want to hide from reality in chatrooms, and on Facebook and Twitter, where you see what you want to see, and believe what you want to believe, among people who think just like you.

If they're any good, journalists are cranky, allergic to taking orders, and they'd punch you on the nose if you tried to make them. Far from being in on a conspiracy, they are suspicious of everyone, alert to the possibility that they're being hoodwinked, at heart loyal to no-one.

These are a minority, as the best always will be, but the rest can be counted on to be the clerks of the news business, recording events as they happen, depicting the world as it is today, but may not be tomorrow. And as we know, they are a dying breed as traditional media struggles against other information sources, some of which are outright liars, believed because what they publish fits the pre-existing prejudices of conspiracy theorists and paranoids.

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And so Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, makes megadollars. With no editorial oversight, lies get published on his watch that could quite possibly have swung the American election in Donald Trump's direction, and put the world on tenterhooks. It is news to Zuckerberg, for all his cleverness, that information needs to be presented responsibly, that lies should not be disguised as confident facts, that there are reasons why media vets its own content and contests what's doubtful before publishing, because it's too important for flippancy and practical jokes. And what is appalling is that Facebook's phony sites flourish, and responsible reporting can't compete.

So I'm proud of our prime minister for fronting up to Zuckerberg this week and challenging him for the perception that he's not paying his fair share of taxes. And like, I would say that, because he's The Man, and I'm on his secret payroll. And I run the CIA. And Putin's my uncle.

 - The Dominion Post

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