Trends vs. truth
What is the reality about the Hungarian dictatorship?
Back in April I was surprised when CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour mentioned that the Hungarian Parliament was “closed down” in her interview with the Hungarian foreign minister. My first thought was that I must have misheard what she was saying. I knew for certain that parliament was in session because I had been watching its debates over the previous three days. Would a distinguished and well known journalist like Amanpour make such a glaring mistake? Well, as it turns out, she did.
Unfortunately, not only had she made that mistake, but most of the mainstream media did so too. For days, if not weeks, most media outlets uncritically ran the story about “the suspended Hungarian Parliament.” So what had happened to the rigorously fact-checking media, which I’d learned about during my university studies? How did this divide open up between the truth and what CNN and other media outlets were reporting? And that was just the start. News of two exceptionally scandalous Hungarian decisions spread like an Australian bushfire throughout the international media at the end of March. The first was how ”the suspension of the Hungarian parliament” had given the Orbán administration unprecedented emergency powers under cover of the Covid-epidemic. The second news item was still more shocking. In essence it ran as the following: the Orbán-administration would receive emergency powers for an unlimited time: It could rule by decree for years on end.
Both stories soon proved to be false. On the one hand, the parliament was not suspended at all. It has been in session continually during the past months. Second, Hungarian law places a time limit on the special powers given to the administration in an emergency: the powers lapse as soon as the danger is averted. And that’s exactly what happened. The number of active cases (people infected with the corona virus) has dropped substantially over the last few weeks; and the number of new cases is also falling. Accordingly, on June 16th, the parliament – obviously being in session at the time– unanimously voted to revoke the regulations.
Nonetheless we still see the spreading of fake news stories in mainstream media. Why?
One reason is that the media follow trends on the international level. That’s its job: to deal with things that are recent, interesting, and on the mind of the people. Buy the international media also follows political trends. That in turn means that content is written and edited by people who are not free from the prevailing spirit of the age and but who in general shape and share it. And there’s a third factor. Several internationally renowned media with reputations for accuracy, even earnestness, and impartiality, published the two above pieces of news as simple facts concerning Hungary. And this is a problem, a profoundly serious problem. In conforming to current political trends, and meeting the presumed or real expectations of editors, owners, or readers, they misunderstood the facts. And they didn’t their check their veracity because those facts fit into a picture that had been painted so well about Hungary for almost a decade – the picture of a dictatorship being built in Hungary right before our eyes. Of course it’s possible that they did know the facts were fake but decided to publish them anyway. We don’t know what exactly happened, but it shows the falling reputation of journalism today that we might even suspect something like this.
One thing is certain, we are witnessing a fake news effect intensified by the social media. We have to highlight that this is an intensified phenomenon. While fake news existed before social media did, its extent was much less. For one thing, traditional editing practices paid more attention to fact-checking the stories. Obviously, this made news editing a slower process. Today, the competition of and for news, often opinion-based, leads to the new becoming inaccurate. At the same time, fast access to information also makes it easier to check the validity of the news and it soon comes out if someone is lying. So why have fact-checking an inaccuracy got worse? A final explanation is that journalists, like other professions, increasingly fall into the fatal habit of groupthink. Neither of the two Hungarian stories above passed the “smell test.” So why didn’t the editors smell them. And the answer is that when everybody thinks the same way on some topic, they reinforce each other’s bias. It used to be a motto in the news trade that if you wanted a story to be true, you should check it with particular ferocity. That maxim needs refurbishing even in the best papers.
Here we have come to a crucial question: if portals formerly believed to be trustworthy publish – due to the lack of checking their sources, or the pressure to conform to trends – statements that are not true, then what will make them different from blogs or the social media specializing in bombastic news? Both can make it to our news feed, which makes them equal in appearance in a way. A conscious reader would answer without thinking that the difference lies in source selection: news from the Guardian, the Euractiv, or the CNN should be taken more seriously than the statements of a no-name blog. But what happens, when a Guardian, an Euractiv, or a CNN article gets published with false or misleading title or content? How do they differ then from blogs and the social media? This is exactly what happened in connection with events in Hungary. Along with several others, the above-mentioned portals published articles with at least a misleading title, but often also with false content about Hungarian events. The CNN Amanpour interview was a prime example. The presenter talked about the suspension of the Hungarian parliament as a fact, and the Hungarian foreign minister, as a guest to the live show, corrected the falseness with diplomatic politeness. Disabling fake news content and sites would seem to be an obvious solution that could bring order to the present chaos, but if only opinion blogs, along with sites obviously producing fake news content would be examined, that would be arbitrary censoring. Which, let us admit, no one wants. Thus, selection and fact checking should be taken seriously again. However, this should also bring articles or sites of renown under scrutiny in case they publish information that is not valid. Or is it actually the current trends that determine what is fake news and what is truth now?
István Pócza Director of Research, Danube Institute