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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Fighting fake news cannot be trivialised. It is the scourge of our times, the struggle of our era

Time is not on the side of those dealing with the challenges posed by false and inflammatory reporting, writes Damien McElroy

Donald and Melania Trump married in January 2005. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Donald and Melania Trump married in January 2005. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Is the term fake news already debased? Last week a Chicago museum turned the tables on Donald Trump to declare that an artwork in his Trump Tower penthouse was a replica.

The impressionist Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir has been owned by the Art Institute of Chicago since 1933. Yet Mr Trump was quoted boasting that his version was worth $10 million as long ago as 1996.

The subsequent headlines coincided with another allegation that the US leader was engaged in fakery. A media squall blew up when photographs were juxtaposed to support a claim that sunglass-wearing body doubles were standing in for the First Lady.

The body double story soon flamed out. Similarly Mr Trump has never hidden the fact his properties are stocked with replicas, mostly from a warehouse in New Jersey.

These risible disputes are easily built up into stories that consume reams of newsprint and go viral. Can we be surprised when politically motivated or manipulated stories also make an impact?

While both go hand-in-hand, the gravity of the fake news epidemic is where our focus should remain. Fighting fake news cannot be trivialised. It is the struggle of our era.

Caught off-guard, the West has struggled to cope with the disruptive effects of Kremlin-style dezinformatsiya adapted to social media channels.

Exposing the problem is just one aspect of the battle. Hillary Clinton used her book tour in Britain last week to elevate warnings about the threat emanating from the Kremlin to the western democracies. Sowing distrust in democratic rivals online is the basis, she said, for the new Cold War.

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The Russians have penetrated cyber-networks worldwide virtually unchallenged. A glimpse of the extent of the problem came when the US outed the anti-virus product maker Kaspersky as a tool of Russian intelligence.

The greater fear is Russia not only has these tools but it has also empowered a real world army of useful fools. These are far greater in number and more significant than the tweedy professors the Soviet Union once bankrolled.

A senior British cabinet minister told a lunch last week of his fears that another leading political figure could be killed, like the MP Jo Cox, as a result of a political atmosphere of increasing hatred. Damian Green blamed unscrupulous blogs and websites for aggravating tensions.

It was a call that fell on the deaf ears of the Europe editor of Breitbart News who said he took pride in work that was dangerous to politicians like Mr Green. Raheem Kassam’s message? “Deal with it.”

Time is not on the side of those dealing with the challenges posed by false and inflammatory reporting.

The media war that surrounded the events in Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq demonstrated some of the dangers of unfiltered reporting.

Pictures spread on Facebook showed General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, meeting Hadi Al Ameri, the commander of the Badr militia, to plot the takeover of Kirkuk. The pair were sitting on a map as if carving up the oilfields. Gen Suleimani has undoubtedly orchestrated the offensive against the Kurds since the referendum. The photograph was, however, two years old and not a piece of breaking news.

There were more inflammatory posts to come. Leading figures in the Kurdish establishment circulated website news reports of civilians confronting the Shia militias in Kirkuk and Khanaqin. The Washington Post said claims of heavy fighting were made up and sporadic unrest had died down.

The combustible nature of the plains south of Erbil is high and rising. Photographs and reports of civilians clashing in the streets with heavily armed sectarian invaders amount to a viral civil war. The effect of social media is akin to petrol on a brush fire.

At the ceremony to mark the relaunch of The National in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last week, editor-in-chief Mina Al-Oraibi spoke of this newspaper’s responsibility in this context.

The promise to readers is that we are dedicated to an editorial line that resists the manipulation of religion and political differences to create divisions between people. Reliability, insight and adherence to clear standards is the link to our readers. Around the world news organisations face the same struggle. In the battle for attention, there is always a larger consideration. Responsible reporting can never cross the line into incitement or open hatred. “Deal with it” is not an option when the lives of lawmakers or others are at stake.

Fake news is the scourge of our times. There is a prize in flushing out the rot in the online news sphere. Should the space for malicious reporting implode, appetites for simulated outrage could also collapse.

Bad news for Melania Trump body doubles but good for us.