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The Holberg debate: Essential falsehoods and immaterial truths

Why do ordinary journalists react so strongly to media criticism of the kind Assange and Pilger bring to square one? Dagbladet and Bergens Tidende were quick to call the two "conspiratorial".

The fact that trumpeting is the new hit is long established fact. Not long ago, Dagbladet's Marie Simonsen let Kjetil Rolness get a review on Facebook because he – you guys – had called mainstream media for mainstream media! To do such "is trump". So it should come as no surprise that Inger Merete Hobbelstad from the same newspaper claims that during this year's Holberg debate, Julian Assange and John Pilger "proclaimed a conspiratorial view of the media similar to Donald Trumps", or that commentator in Bergens Tidende Eirin Eikefjord in his mention of the debate characterizes Assange as "Trump-like". Not only was the term mainstream media used in the debate. The image Assange and Pilger drawn by the media was also not very flattering, to put it cautiously. If there is any media dislike, there is media criticism. And this was not common media criticism. It was fundamental criticism.

(See also MODERN TIMESs investigation of the case.)

Significant nuance difference. The theme for this year's Holberg debate was "Propaganda, Facts and fake news". Three prominent guests were invited to discuss the question: "Is there an escalating war of information that is threatening our democracy and our ability to make informed decisions?" Hobbelstads and Eikefjord's articles are excellent sources.

What we do not see, we cannot discuss, and what we cannot discuss, we cannot change.

Both reproduce the debate in short, tabloid sentences reminiscent of Trump. "News has always been fake" is an example of both users of the delicate claims the audience heard. "There has always been fake news" is my translation of the same statement. The devil is in the details. The first sentence appears absurd, the latter should be a rather uncontroversial claim. "Conspiracy theories" are further mentioned at Eikefjord, while "conspiratorial" is Hobbelstad's characteristic. One would almost think they had looked over each other's shoulders. However, Eikefjord surpasses its species trap with the claim that Assange "portrayed journalists as murderers". In reality, he pointed out a connection between media involvement, war actions and loss figures. And so I could have continued. With approximate representations taken out of context, both Eikefjord and Hobbelstad paint a fundamentally false picture of what was actually conveyed. This is not fake news, but "fake journalism" – to borrow an expression from Pilger.

Strong claims, yes. Maybe you have to be a journalist to see Trump in Assange or Pilger. I myself am not a journalist. Instead, I have studied subjects such as language, literature, philosophy and the history of ideas. Listening to Assange and Pilger was challenging for me – but challenging in a good way. Because both, each in their own way, in an intellectually stimulating way, challenged the worldview and the description of reality we get through the traditional news media. This was not done with trump slogans and banalities, but with coherent reasoning and documentable facts.

Sure, Assange and Pilger made sensational claims, but in return provided thorough reasons for their views. For example, Assange argued that the media is "one of the most destructive forces (forces) that has ever existed ”. These are strong words, and hardly anything neither Hobbelstad nor Eikefjord would find to say. But Assange justifies the point of view, pointing to how the media has repeatedly been used as a spokesman for the government's war interests. He mentions, among other things, the Second World War ("to a certain extent"), the Vietnam War (the reader can google the "Tonkin episode") and the Iraq war. Had the press in these cases critically verified the government's false claims to legitimize these wars, millions of lives could have been saved.

Fake news apocalypses. Not only did Assange emerge as a keen analyst of the past and present situation, he also had interesting and frightening thoughts about where we are headed. In that sense, he is a modern day doomsday prophet. One of the things that makes Assange particularly worrying is its potential Artificial Intelligence to manipulate information. According to Assange, this represents the biggest threat to humanity – and not climate change. Each time we are on the internet, each and every one of us posts lots of information about ourselves: what we search, what websites we visit, what YouTube videos we watch, what we post about ourselves in social media – for not to talk about the information we voluntarily provide in exchange for a useful app. Together, this constitutes a more than sufficient amount of information to create and train artificial intelligence systems (AI systems). This can be used to, and is used to, create web resources that we all enjoy, such as Google translate. But it can also be used to, and is used to, manipulate human behavior. Who decides what we are exposed to in this new Internet publicity, and who gets to see what we have to report ourselves? The new gatekeepers, who have taken over from the editors, are the algorithms – or rather the ones who control the algorithms, namely large Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook. What people are exposed to online effectively manipulates people's behavior – far more than fake news. If development happens too fast, and the AI ​​systems become sophisticated enough, we can reach a critical point where humanity is no longer able to detect what is happening. What we do not see, we cannot discuss, and what we cannot discuss, we cannot change. And then we will be far within what Assange calls the "fake news apocalypse".

This is not fake news, but fake journalism.

Two types of prophets. While Assange, among many others, acted as the Judgment Day Prophet, John Pilger recalled more of an Old Testament judgmental prophet – that is, who with moral authority reveals injustice. Pilger is a highly decorated and award-winning Australian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker who has covered wars and conflicts for over five decades. In his thorough historical review, Pilger showed that fake news is by no means a new phenomenon. In particular, acclaimed BBC and The Guardian were revered for their historical role as propaganda tools for British authorities. Like Assange, Pilger was keen on the media's role as war agitators. What made NATO's interventions in Kosovo, Libya and Iraq possible, to name a few? Pilger's response was over and over again: "fake news."

British Jonathan Heawood was the least controversial of the three participants in the debate. Heawood is the founder and CEO of IMPRESS, which according to Wikipedia is "the only press regulator to be recognized as independent and effective under the Royal Charter in the United Kingdom". He provided an interesting analysis of Google and Facebook that directly affects 70 percent of all Internet traffic in the world. The new gatekeepers largely control who gets to see what on the internet, but is not themselves subject to regulations and nor transparent – that is, it is possible to see in the cards. Another of Heawood's concerns was how the private sphere is currently merging and being swallowed by the public sphere. What is most frightening to him is the possibility of a community close to what we find in Orwells 1984, where the characters have no privacy. And without a privacy, they can never express themselves freely.

Colliding realities. Return to Eikefjord and Hobbelstad. Why do ordinary journalists react so strongly to media criticism of the kind Assange and Pilger bring to the square? Some of the explanation may be that two fundamentally different worldviews collide with each other. In both, disinformation and fake news represent a democratic problem. In the opinion of the journalists, media critics such as Assange and Pilger are conspiratorial fanatics and dangerous public enemies who should preferably not be listened to and at least not be allowed to speak unreservedly, as they undermine trust in the media and thereby also undermine democracy. In Pilger's and Assange's worldview, on the other hand, mainstream media is an integral part of the problem – in which the media to a great extent conceals essential truths in favor of material falsehoods and immaterial truths. The mainstream media ends up as a useful tool for anti-democratic interests.

Both before and after the Holberg debate, I had the impression that in many important matters we cannot rely on the media. After reading BT's and Dagbladet's coverage of the debate, this impression has only gotten even better.


See also MODERN TIMESs investigation of the case.

Øivind Nygård
Nygård has a master's degree in Nordic language and literature.

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