Interview

James Ball: ‘Bullshit’s taken over the world, and you need to fight back’

By Oliver Smith 11 May 2017
Image: Getty/Jack Taylor / Stringer.
Summary

Fake news isn't just a fad, James Ball explains, it's causing real harm.

Bullshit, James Ball tells me, can get you into the Oval Office.

The former Guardian journalist and now special correspondent at BuzzFeed is well versed in separating fact from fiction.

As a young reporter fresh out of university he started as an intern at WikiLeaks, working on the verification and publication of confidential US documents in 2010, and then on the Snowden leaks in 2013 during his time at The Guardian.

That’s all to say he’s developed a sixth sense for what is, and isn’t, bullshit.

With this in mind, today Ball is publishing his debut book as a solo author on the fake news phenomenon which has engulfed the world of politics over the last year.

We sat down with Ball to find out how half-truths, untruths and outright fakery took over:

Fake news, post-truths and bullshit, is this a new phenomenon?

This definitely isn’t new: newspapers have run questionable stories for as long as they’ve existed, and fake news has circulated the web for just as long.

But things have changed a bit – fake news got political last year, because that was the way to get huge audiences.

And we’ve got a new wave of politics and politicians – particularly Donald Trump – who deploy and weaponised bullshit and “fake news” in a way we haven’t seen for a while.

So it’s some old trends that have suddenly really come to the fore.

So who’s to blame for fake news?

Russia! More seriously – all of us.

Fake news is just the most visible bit of what is a whole ecosystem of half-truths, untruths and outright fakery, or in other words, of bullshit.

When we share a story without thinking about it or checking, we’re part of that system. When a hyper-partisan news site (think Breitbart or The Canary) over-hypes and spins a kernel of truth into something much bigger, that’s part of it.

When mainstream outlets run too-good-to-check stories, they’re part of it. And when Facebook and others profit off this whole system, they’re part of it too.

Are there examples of fake news causing real harm?

The Pizzagate conspiracy – an alt-right theory that pizza parlours were harbouring secret child abuse sites used by leading democrats – led to an armed man storming a DC pizza parlour.

So the consequences of this stuff can be very real.

Polling shows Republicans believe Obama wiretapped Trump (there’s no evidence he did), while many Democrats believe US election machines themselves were hacked (there’s no evidence of this either).

Fake news – and bullshit – fuel conspiracy theories, and fuel political polarisation.

When we all believe different facts, we can’t have a public conversation – we can only have a shouting match.

So what’s the solution? Will we ever be free of fake news?

The upside of all of us being part of the problem is that we can all be part of the solution.

We’ve got to get savvier in spotting fake news, and hyped news, and think before we share. We’ve got to look at the funding models of fake news and try to break them down.

We need to find ways to make corrections reach as many people as the initial bad reports and hoaxes do. We’ve got to find new ways to cover politicians and campaigns which deploy bullshit to win. There’s no one big fix, but there’s lots of little things all of us can do.

The fightback can start whenever we like.

Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World is available now on Kindle and in paperback.