In Defence of the Fifth Estate: Just Who Is Propagating Disinformation?

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The Fifth Estate

The term fake news was popularised by now defunct US president Donald Trump in the days after he took office in early 2017.

The notorious billionaire used it to describe the way in which the press reported on him, while others used it to refer to disinformation circulating on the internet during the 2016 campaign that led to his election.

The great irony is that while Trump repeated “fake news” to such an extent that it became everyday parlance, he was sitting in the most reputable seat in the US spitting out disinformation on a daily basis, which was especially damaging when it came to his pandemic denialism.

Along with fake news, the terms misinformation and disinformation get bandied about a lot, often as though they’re interchangeable. However, misinformation usually means false information, whereas disinformation is false information with an intent to deceive, such as propaganda.

The charge of spreading fake news is usually laid at the feet of the Fifth Estate: the growing body of bloggers and journalists publishing on websites and social media. This is distinct from the Fourth Estate, which is a term used to refer to the traditional mainstream media.

Following on from this assertion about fake news, establishment figures – conservative politicians and the press – have been attempting to rein in the Fifth Estate. Yet, more often than not, this is due to these nontraditional new sources exposing the holes in their previously unchallenged agendas.

Rupert champions diversity

The dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in the Australian media landscape goes back decades. These days, it controls 59 percent of national and metropolitan print media, and it’s a top player as far as radio and television goes as well.

“The predominance of News Corp in cross-media settings is unprecedented in liberal democracies,” stated GetUp in April this year.

In its 2018 submission to the ACCC’s digital platform inquiry, News Corp slammed Facebook and Google for disseminating fake news to generate profit and damaging trust in publishers due to this “rapid spread of misinformation”, along with charging them with having caused a reduction in media diversity and original content.

However, more to the point would be that the Murdoch Empire – with its near monopoly on news – is attempting to hold these digital platforms responsible for the very crimes of which it’s culpable, in an effort to discredit the tech companies, which have eroded its dominance and are impacting its profits.

Indeed, the ACCC digital platform inquiry led the Morrison government to draft laws that – since passed last February – require these social media companies to pay News Corp and other traditional outlets a fee for hosting their content.

So, after denigrating these online platforms as lawless zones where anything goes, News Corp was quite happy to be the first local mainstream media outlet to strike a deal with Facebook, so the tech company now pays for the use of its content, following Morrison having paved the road with gold.

News Corp sign

Making it up as you go along

Distrust in the Murdoch media is rampant in this country, and that’s due to a growing understanding that it is – and long has been – a purveyor of disinformation.

Greenpeace’s Burnt Country report outlines that during the 2019/20 bushfire season that saw 20 percent of mainland forest perish, News Corp was making a concerted effort to downplay the obvious connection that the unprecedented crisis had to the heating of the planet.

Report researchers found that News Corp published 75 percent of all articles denying climate change having anything to do with the bushfires, whilst the media outlet only published 46 percent of all articles dealing with the fires and climate over that period.

The Greenpeace report further found that News Corp attempted to place the blame for the fires upon a lack of backburning and arson, despite any evidence of this. And this led to one of the biggest social media disinformation campaigns of recent times, that being #ArsonEmergency.

News Corp also runs Sky News, which was just suspended from posting its news content on YouTube for a week, as the digital platform found the television broadcaster was spreading disinformation about the current COVID pandemic, including advocating unapproved treatments for the virus.

Which evil one?

Scott Morrison, though, takes his dislike of the Fifth Estate to another level. The PM asserted during a speech to a Pentecostal congregation in April that social media is “a very evil thing”. He said online platforms can be used by the “Evil One” and “spiritual weapons” must be used against them.

However, distorting the truth for political gain is par for the course with Morrison. Just this week, he told the nation that as a response to the new IPCC report, which warns that the planet is on the brink of a climate catastrophe, he suggests facilitating the expansion of the fossil fuel industry globally.

Well known to be in bed with this industry, the PM suggests we should enhance fossil fuel use – the reason for the climate crisis – as then we can develop technologies to get us out of this predicament.

Yet, renewable energy technologies already exist, and Morrison refuses to invest in them, although he’s happy for Singapore go green on Australian soil, as it moves to build the largest solar energy farm on the planet in the Northern Territory.

To have the head of state blatantly spreading disinformation, not only leads to some citizens walking around with distorted ideas, but it further spreads distrust amongst those who see through his lies, which isn’t helpful when the government is asking people to buckle down for a pandemic.

Changing of the guard

Just prior to the invention of the internet, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky warned that disinformation had long been used by government and the mass media to shape public opinion in their landmark work Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

So, in terms of the Fifth Estate, the main issue the mainstream media and government have with it is that it permits a diverse range of voices to express points of view that are often silenced by the establishment in order to suppress the truth and advance its own agenda.

A point in case is the recent assault upon Gaza by the Israeli government, as while there were widespread complaints about how the mainstream media presented a pro-Israeli version of events, the Palestinian side was well represented via emerging online news sources.

And another indication that the spread of fake news is not the real issue is when digital platforms have moved to shut down pages on their sites over mounting pressure from the campaign against disinformation, what has often occurred is reputable sources were actually targeted for takedown.

The ongoing campaign against the Fifth Estate is predicated on the idea that these independent media organisations can’t be trusted as they’re just being run by regular people.

Yet, Rupert was just a regular guy who took over his father’s newspaper company, and he’s a lot less credible a source than many of the new editors and journalists operating within the Fifth Estate.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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