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On Monday EvolvePolitics published an article and it turned into something of an experiment.
Our comment piece entitled ‘Millions of Muslims just marched in defiance of ISIS, and the mainstream media’s response is pitiful’ was not entirely as it seemed.
The aim of posting this particular piece was not just to highlight an issue we felt needed to be more widely publicised, but also to see whether or not we were accused of posting ‘fake news’.
Back in November, many alternative media outlets across the United States and the UK picked up on a story that tens of millions of Muslims partaking in the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage were openly defying the threat of ISIS to do so.
It was characterised by some publications as a march against ISIS that had been the subject of a media blackout. After some research we realised this wasn’t the whole truth. Whilst the reporting of these global processions was patchy, there was no orchestrated censorship involved.
In publishing a comment piece on these events we were perfectly aware of sites such as Snopes and Buzzfeed crying foul on claims that these marches were a direct protest against ISIS. But the pitch of our report carefully navigated those concerns. Although judging by some of the initial responses, it seems the nuances of the story weren’t fully appreciated.
The Canary, Unilad and MSN News all reported the story as being a march specifically aimed against ISIS. Even though they may not have been strictly correct in terms of attribution, the underlying story was open to that explanation. This was a massive movement of people in support of a principled position against the violence and intolerance that are the foundations of most terrorist organisations.
ISIS in particular, as a Sunni group, have a theistic divergence with the Shia Muslims behind the Arbaeen commemorations. ISIS believe the Shias to be apostates and so essentially condemned to death. A march by Muslims dedicated to Hussain, the father of the Shia faith, in what was until recently an ISIS heartland is by its own virtue a slap in the face to ISIS.
Certainly it was evident that similar demonstrations across the world represented direct opposition to groups that use the Islamic faith as a justification for acts of terror. One only needed to look at the placards being waved during the London marches to see that. So both Snopes and Buzzfeed calling foul on the claim that these were marches against ISIS were simply matters of interpretation and on this occasion we think they were wrong.
In many senses the argument from such quarters that this was not a defiance and rejection of terrorism by Muslims does a huge disservice to a large group of people who have put their very lives at risk to express their discontent with the weaponization of faith. On occasion, websites like Snopes are guilty of a decontextualized misinterpretation of the facts. In such cases one might ask who fact checks the fact checkers when stories like this are really simply a matter of perspective. These sites may claim to be impartial, and in most cases they are, but there’s a fine line between impartiality and indifference.
Yes, there are websites that peddle obviously fabricated news stories. Some perhaps not so obvious. In the most part these are mere parody and those that take them seriously should have a serious word with themselves. For the rest, it’s a case of caveat emptor. The internet is a big scary place and sometimes you’ll find some distinctly grey shades of truth, along with outright lies and deceit. The trick is to apply our own intellect to what we read and make judgements based on facts and intuition, rather than preconceived beliefs.
What it does show us is that news is not a binary concept and we need to be deeply suspicious of any channels that claim it is. Stories like the one we ran are springboards to discussion and debate. That’s something that’s healthy in what we like to believe is a democracy. If we’re going to be constantly second-guessing ourselves for fear of being called liars by other sources with different agendas, one has to wonder where the truth really lies or how long it will survive in such a combative environment.
In that sense sites like Snopes can be equally as dangerous to real news reporting as fake news is said to be, especially when they allow their own impartiality to creep into stories that are open to speculation. Confirmation bias is a powerful driver in such cases and does nothing more than harden opinions that are already preconceived, rather than uncovering whatever grains of truth may lie behind the clever debunking of a perhaps overzealous headline.
In the world of new media we have to realise that sometimes telling what’s real and what’s not is not always as simple as finding a convenient reference point in another part of the web to back up our own innate prejudices and preconceptions.
I suspect that there are very few overtly fake news sites out there, just some rather pronounced shades of opinion. But in a world where events are taking an increasingly unbelievable course, we have to be prepared to be both suspicious and open-minded in almost equal measure. Simply writing off news reports we may not agree with as ‘fake’ is as bad as accepting everything on face value. Moreover, allowing politicians, social media companies and corporate news outlets to set a binary truth will be just as corrosive to open journalism as outright censorship.