First, a belated congratulation on yesterday’s International Labour Day.

Today, I shall discuss a few aspects related to fake news, including that I believe that fake news and populism are related. Furthermore, I shall use a radical network on the left as an example in counteracting to fake, tilted and biased news – with limited success, though. At the end, I shall reflect briefly on how the mainstream people try to counteract to fake news, and how little even researchers and social scientists understand about media.

Jan Øberg in the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF), situated in Lund, Sweden, just across the bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark, sends out bi-weekly online bulletins with an alternative view on international news. I usually believe what he says and I agree with most of it; still, I have a problem with the stories. In his ‘Besserwisser’ style, he seems to want his readers to believe he knows everything better than everyone else, even when his stories are tilted and biased, yet, important counterattacks on those stories that have been presented in mainstream media in less arrogant and more subtle ways, yes, so that we don’t quite see when they are biased, tilted and outright fake news.

Most of us believe what we read, hear and see in mainstream news media, not all of it and not all of us, not Jan Øberg, and not those of us who have been trained to be critical. We take quite a bit of mainstream news with a pinch of salt. But I didn’t know what was claimed at a recent seminar I attended, that maybe over half of the news we get on TV channels is fake. Even in respectable newspapers, much is not quite true, not as neutral and unbiased as the publishers want us to think. Added to that would be all the stories that are not reported and not discussed, but are as important as what is in the news.

In our time, when we blame the social media for being the worst sinners in spreading fake news, it is important that we remember that mainstream media is not all that neutral either, especially not the big international TV channels. Actually, the state-run monopoly radio and TV channels, which my generation grew up in the West and in the young independent developing countries, were not quite as bad as we made them out to be. In the West, there were quite independent newspapers, yes, with, political and other owners, conservatives, leftists, and also some liberal and centrist groups. Counter-expertise also existed. Importantly, there was an ideal that news should be fair and balanced, even neutral, possibly with a slight tilt towards the state and its overall ideology.

But let me go back to Jan Øberg’s and TFF’s important counter-propaganda. Their mission seems very much to be to take power to task, especially USA and Western Europe states, the over-rich capitalists and multinationals, the media with fewer and fewer owners, and the establishment politicians, who have also become a class of their own. Øberg is particularly strong going after the military and the war mongers in the West, the NATO spokespersons, including those in Øberg’s country of origin, Denmark. All good and well, yet, TFF’s style reminds me too much of the way we used to criticise power in the 1970s, as students and young academics. Few others than those who agreed would listen. Besides, that time and today, those in power knew they were safe enough in the saddle, probably more so that time than now – after the waves of the Financial Crisis, WikiLeaks, the Panama papers, and more. Also, Øberg and TFF contribute to revealing untrue news.

The rise of right-wing populism (not Øberg’s left-wing one) in Europe and the West in general, following the fall of Soviet Union, has made the world more unpredictable than ever since WWII. Well, in USA voters were always quite populist, and the majority would be rather uniformed. Americans must be preoccupied with making ends meet and climbing the ladder, so there is less time for politics; better be opportunistic and flow with the tide. In politics, therefore, many Americans, and populists everywhere, come up with their own homespun solutions to problems that need expertise, ideology, social scientific analysis. Political parties and labour unions are important in imparting that in people. Only with than, can the voters hold enlightened discussions. In populist circles, it is difficult since the degree of knowledge is limited. However, I would admit that populists sometimes have points that politicians and mainstream media left undisclosed – both I and Øberg have said that.

In Europe as well as in America, the mainstream politicians, with the technocrats around them, seem to be in a state of shock by the rise of populism, or if not quite as bad as that, they are in any case unable to win the ‘reality battle’ with the populists, whether news are fake or real, well, mostly fake and tilted. When populists have good points they shatter the comfort debate zones of the established politicians. The specific news and ideas of the populists may not be true and accurate, but there may be a broader trend behind their stories, which has truth to it.

One reason why the established politicians seem not to be too worried, though, not quite in a state of shock, as I said above, is that they trust that state of the Western democracies will stop any turnover attempt of their political systems; that may also be why President Trump is not really seen as a threat to America’s political system either – in spite of all the fake news he generates in his populist style. The state, the civil service and the military service, even the opinion leaders in the universities and think-tanks, and the mainstream media, would defend status quo of the political systems in the West. They would not allow unplanned and too fast changes, and certainly not outright overturn of their systems. Some criticism is allowed and may even make the systems stronger. It has been a way of luring people in the West to believe that media are neutral and objective.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend several conferences and debates on fake news and media issues in Islamabad. I was not impressed at all. Few people, even researchers and social scientists, have proper knowledge and understanding of the media. That doesn’t auger well if we want to be able to learn how to evaluate news better in future, and that is required to learn to distinguish real news from fake news, Social media have a role, but we have to rebuild the role of good mainstream media, not only the big ones, but also local media, and make them better and more objective than before. As consumers, we must learn to be better at reading and listening to news, and grasp reality better. I will try to discuss these issues in one or two future articles.