From gossip to fake news: A full circle incorporating state secrets

Walid Jawad
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Gossip can be fun, but more importantly functional. Secrets are intriguing, while State secrets are consequential. Gossip played a functional and necessary role in conveying relevant information in the pre-mass media era. Personal survival and society-wide well-being required continuously maneuvering to avoid physical harm. As we evolved, gossip helped people navigate social structures for personal gains. In the area of mass media gossip is institutionalized in the hand of trusted media outlets but has lost its interactive nature.

Mass media is a one-way information machine; transmitting information from media organizations to the audience. Social media has changed that equation allowing people to go back to a more natural two-way communication style. Being exposed to information is only useful to the extent they are factual. Of course, now that we have discovered a “new-type” of information, Fake News, many became skeptical of most news media outlets.

As we have been witnessing lately and specifically around elections, it’s a short hop from disinformation to a virally spreading misinformation accepted as truths on social media. Wholly or partially incorrect information disseminated intentionally to serve any number of purposes is not a new phenomenon. Decades ago when information was monopolized by mass media, Fake News was packaged within traditional media channels.


Wholly or partially incorrect information disseminated intentionally to serve any number of purposes is not a new phenomenon. Decades ago when information was monopolized by mass media, Fake News was packaged within traditional media channels

Walid Jawad

It was referred to as Yellow Journalism. The lines were clear. Today, disinformation; i.e. falsehoods presented as truths, become Fake News once it is widely referenced by others and accepted as truth without question Such lies don’t have to meet any standards or even be convincing, they only need to create doubt. Understandably, people don’t know what to believe anymore causing the truth to be lost. After all, who has time to research information for accuracy?

Now that we have discovered “Fake News” circa 2016, many doubt information uncovered by legitimate news outlets, all the while trusting none transparent sources; enter WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks War

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, stepped into the spotlight this week when US prosecutors unintentionally revealed secretly filed criminal charges against him. The US government has waged war against Assange and his anti-secrecy organization. The US is more interested in killing the messenger, as it were, than pursuing the people who have committed the criminality of information theft; espionage or hacking.

The indictment which is under seal; i.e. the charges are secret, leaves us speculating on its content. News reports confirm the indictment is connected to the alleged Russia collusion investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. WikiLeaks shared hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, which is believed to be part of a Russian government-sanctioned attempt to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in favor of advancing Trump chances of winning the presidency according to most accounts.

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Assange has been holed up inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012 in an attempt to avoid prosecution in Sweden on sexual assault charges and possible extradition to the US. It is unclear if his framing of Clinton being a personal foe qualifies him to be delusional. But in his 2016 editorial on his WikiLeaks site, he wrote: "I have had years of experience in dealing with Hillary Clinton and have read thousands of her cables. Hillary lacks judgment and will push the United States into endless, stupid wars which spread terrorism. ... she certainly should not become president of the United States."

Thus, raising a critical question: was Assange exposing secrets for the sake of spreading knowledge or for personal gains; the former makes him a journalist and the latter a person with an agenda. The administration of former president Obama treated him as a journalist rather than an activist. The Mueller indictment suggests a shift in that approach.

Indeed, the Trump administration made Assange a target by reversing his WikiLeaks classification as a media organization. This is a critical step to allow the US government to go after Assange without the appearance of intruding on press freedoms. Mike Pompeo, as the top US spy at the time, locked onto Assange making him a CIA target conducting espionage against his organization over the past year according to a New York Times report. The administration is out of sync with Trump who had praised WikiLeaks numerous times during the 2016 campaign for releasing Democrats emails damaging Clinton. Further, Mr. Trump adamantly denies any collusion between his campaign and the Russians. He believes Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt” and “absolutely nuts.”

Who is not a Journalist?

Can the US government reclassify a journalist as “information broker” and what are the criteria a person or an organization must meet before being stripped from its media status? Pursuing legal options places the burden of proof on the government. Because US laws don't carry over to none Americans, Assange, who is Australian, has no legal recourse or right to due process.

As per the guarantees the American legal code offers freedom of speech, officials avoid facing the news media in the courts. It is much easier and more effective to use their bully pulpit to smear the media. Fake News is one way to render the press less effective, but it doesn’t stop their mission. Having the ability to strip journalists of their status can silence the media and at the same time turn a democracy into a society rotting with corruption and abuse of power.

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Days ago, a federal court ruled in favor of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta after the White House revoked his access last week. The White House Press Corps is expected to ask the president the tough questions and pursue answers on behalf of the American people. Excluding a reporter on frivolous basis will not and should not be tolerated.

Pleading ‘fake news’ before the court

Unfortunately, allegations of Fake News is harder to stop. However, the silhouette of a silver lining is beginning to take shape. The casual observer will inevitably notice the pattern by which government officials invoke “Fake News.” They will soon conclude that only weak officials who are exposed by truthful reporting will always cry “Fake News.” Soon enough crying “Fake News” will be synonymous with crying “wolf!”

Constantly labeling legitimate reports 'fake news' was trumped by the president’s tweet last year branding news media as “the enemy of the American people.” The president’s freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed. The First Amendment guarantees the same right to every American except for inciting violence among other exceptions. Should we really be surprised when someone takes it upon themselves to act violently against the media?

Resorting to the courts seem to have delivered a first-round win to the press in the Acosta case, but the fight is far from over. Although the legal system is a compelling option when available, it is the court of public opinion officials should fear the most.

Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at US Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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