Fake News Manual

I just finished reading Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, his last book, which was published in 2015. If his name is not familiar you may remember hearing about his first novel, The Name of the Rose, which was made into a movie of the same name starring Sean Connery.

The book is a historical novel and not Eco’s best work. The point of interest here is Chapter 5, in which the narrator (a fake newspaper editor) explains to his editorial staff “… how it’s possible to respect, or appear to respect, one fundamental principle of democratic journalism, which is separating fact from opinion.”

He goes on to explain that, by quoting someone else the journalist can introduce opinion into an article:

These statements, once put in quotes, become facts — in other words, it’s a fact that the person expressed that opinion. But it might be assumed that the journalist has only quoted someone who thinks like him. So there will be two conflicting statements to show, as a fact, that there are varying opinions on a particular issue, and the newspaper is taking account of this irrefutable fact. The trick lies in quoting first a trivial opinion and then another opinion that is more respectable, and more closely reflects the journalist’s view. In this way, readers are under the impression that they are being informed of two facts but they’re persuaded to accept just one view as more convincing.

The editor goes on to give an example of how this is done. He also covers the technique of denial, by which he means retractions. He uses the example of an absurd fictitious article entitled “Ides Murder Suspect Denies All,” in which a person in the present is implicated in the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. When the victim of the false accusation writes in to complain to the paper that the allegations are absurd, the non-retraction and non-apology is crafted to as to save face for the paper by cherry-picking facts and other misrepresentations. Unnamed sources are also used to advantage in undermining the credibility of the complainer.

Do these techniques sound familiar?


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10 Responses to Fake News Manual

  1. 10 Cents10 Cents says:

    One can always frame the argument. You can get across your viewpoint by changing a few words with a connotation that skews negative or positive. The camera never lies but one can use the lighting and angles to make a person look bad or good.

  2. Vald the MisspellerVald the Misspeller says:

    I don’t think most journalists are as subtle as this, mostly they just use crude constructions like:

    ‘sources close to the Attorney General’ — i.e. Ernie the shoeshine boy in front of the DOJ building


    ‘some have suggested’ — i.e. water-cooler talk or something bruited on Twitter


    ‘authorities now believe’ — a retired cop who tends bar part time says this

    Mostly though they just make crap up, pull it out of their ass and throw it out there for your edification.

    Strip away the rumors, insinuations, wild-ass speculation and outright lies and you’re left with nothing. Leave them in and it’s just bad fiction.

    • drlorentzdrlorentz says:

      True, sometimes they are more transparently biased. What I found interesting about Eco’s tutorial is that there are even better and more effective methods. The book is basically a send-up of fake news, published back in 2015, before fake news was cool.

  3. DevereauxDevereaux says:

    And yet we have been treated to several “reporters” who were hailed as doing ground breaking reporting, only to be found out to have completely fabricated the report. I think of the NYT guy, but there have been others. And these were predating all the fanfare about fake news.

    So one can probably conclude that this has been going on for a long time and that a moderate amount of what we have been fed is garbage.

    • drlorentzdrlorentz says:

      Oh, no. You misunderstood. Reporters have been fabricating stories forever. The trick is to use innuendo and half-truths with plausible deniability. Eco explains with examples how it’s done. And, course, he is just reporting practices that were already in play but not widely known.

      Eco was not a journalist. The novel is satirical. One can not satirize something that does not exist.

  4. RightAnglesRightAngles says:

    MLH I read Scoop. Journalism as we used to view it is dead. When I was a kid, there was a huge story about a reporter in either NY or DC, I forget, who had been found to have fabricated parts of a human interest series. She had made up a composite character (a black kid) and presented him as an actual person. She was found out, and it was front page news for days. She was disgraced and fired. I can’t imagine that happening today. These people not only don’t see anything wrong with it, but they actually feel righteous and on the side of the angels.

  5. RightAnglesRightAngles says:

    Oh that was hilarious.

  6. RightAnglesRightAngles says:

    Oprah single-handedly made a best-seller out of The Bridges of Madison County too.

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