Image: Fox News' Megyn Kelly / Matt Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons
The idea that we need to question things in order to make sure we have a free and open society is something the vast majority of us agree with. Likewise, most of us see media as playing an important role in this, holding governments, businesses, and special interests accountable to us, the people. But there’s a big difference between saying we need to do something and actually doing it.
And it seems a lot of us in Aotearoa today – and indeed, around the world – aren’t doing it at present, or at least, we're not questioning media to the extent we perhaps should be.
Take a recent story that was the most popular on news.com.au (and also ran on the website of the New Zealand Herald). The story claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin told officials to fly relatives living abroad back to Russia, even if those relatives were kids in the middle of the school year, in order to prepare for potentially a “big war” with the US.
On its surface, the story appeared incredibly alarming: Russia – a country with enough nuclear weapons to bring about Armageddon – was seemingly ready for all-out war with the only other country with enough nukes to end all life on earth. Understandably, people were panicking.
The only problem: almost the whole thing had been blown out of proportion, thanks to poor translating, shoddy journalism, and even shoddier syndication on the part of the major media outlets that carried the story.
In short, outlets like the New Zealand Herald republished the story from news.com.au, which in turn originally got the story from the Daily Star, a UK tabloid notorious for its scaremongering and poor journalism (case in point: the outlet literally puts the words “World War III” in headlines almost every day). For its piece the Daily Star cited an obscure Russian website, Znak, translating the article from Russian into English. The problem, it turns out, is that while the original Russian story did cite a “informal recommendation” for the families and children of Russian officials to return to “the Fatherland,” the reasoning was more because of a possible cultural war. This war, it was argued, could take place within families if children grew up in a Western culture and thus learned Western values, many of which are quite different than the things the Russian government considers to be important. As the website Snopes stated in debunking the whole thing: “We found no sound evidence that Putin was ‘ordering’ officials and their families to return as part of preparation for ‘World War III.’” The website abc.net also chalked the entire affair up to a bad translation.
So much for the imminent end of the world.
Questioning where a story is coming from – and why it is being told to us – is something we all should do. Aotearoa is ranked as having one of the freest and most unbiased presses in the world (we're currently ranked fifth by Reporters Without Borders), but here’s something to consider: one of the main suppliers of Stuff’s international video coverage is an agency controlled by the Russian government.
Launched in 2013, the Berlin-based “Ruptly” bills itself on its website as an unbiased video news agency that offers a “forward-thinking vision, news without the blindfold on.” But by looking further on their website, one can see that they proudly proclaim they are a wholly-owned subsidiary of RT, the Russian government-run TV broadcaster known for its propaganda and poor journalistic ethics. Ruptly’s videos are also incredibly biased in terms of what they cover: its videos from Ukraine, for example, almost entirely feature pro-Russian rebels in a heroic light. Its Syrian videos depict the forces of Bashar al-Assad as noble (even though they’ve been accused of war crimes by multiple organisations), entire video packages are produced featuring conspiracy theorists (such as individuals who say Ukraine, not Russia, shot down MH17), and much of the video agency’s content appears to focus on the sensational - including a number of videos that are incredibly sexist and objectifying (entire packages around women working as models at a car show, for example). Oh, and the majority of its videos about the current US presidential election portray Donald Trump favourably, while focusing on the negatives of Hillary Clinton.
That all hardly seems unbiased, so the question is, why is Stuff buying their content, and thus essentially supporting the regime of Vladimir Putin, especially when propaganda is considered a key part of actual Russian military doctrine (a type of asymmetric “hybrid warfare” outlined in what is known as the Gerasimov Doctrine)?
While the mainstream media has its problems, we should also take “alternative” news sources with a pinch of salt. Websites such as InfoWars may claim they are uncovering things the “mainstream media and global elites are too afraid to talk about,” but there’s a reason the site’s founder, Alex Jones, is on the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s list of hatemongers and extremists (in short, the man is a misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, racist, and – surprise, surprise – hardcore Donald Trump supporter, among many other detestable things) – and not just because he’s said some batshit things (case in point: he actively tells his listeners that basically all US mass shootings are fake, and are in fact staged by the government to take away people’s guns). Questioning what the mainstream media is saying is one thing, but the things Jones does – like telling his followers not to get vaccines because they can allegedly cause autism (which is total bullshit, by the way) or not to drink water from sinks because it can contain fluoride, which allows the government to control people’s minds (also bullshit) – can cause real harm to the people who believe him.
It’s no secret that today’s media climate is more toxic than ever before. Even if we're not being served misleading messages or hidden agendas, we’re constantly bombarded with a deluge of photoshopped images, images of false happiness and fake lives, and other harmful things that can actually make us sick if we worry too much about it. Saying one should limit their exposure would be an easy thing to say, but the reality is that media is such an intertwined part of our lives it’s doubtful many of us could ever totally disconnect forever. So here’s a better idea: consume consciously. Question what it is you read, see and hear. Verify if a story is true by comparing it with other sources, and then make your own judgment.
And if it’s starting to make you feel sick, it might be a good idea to turn off your device for a bit and do something else.