Now streaming: post-truth nonsense
As Amazon draws criticism for hosting a documentary about unproven cancer cures, Ray Snoddy asks why we must live in a world with such haphazard editorial quality controls
We now know definitively, thanks to President Donald J. Trump, what constitutes fake news.
Fake news is when thousands of protestors turn up with a baby barrage balloon to demonstrate against a Trump state visit to the UK and - hey presto - they don’t exist, even though they were clearly seen on television.
There might just have been a few who had been put there for political reasons, but Trump didn’t explain who had done the putting or why.
Instead there were thousands of people happy to see President Trump in London and turned up to wave their flags.
Alas no television crew managed to capture this crowd for posterity.
And then the US President was off to Plymouth to mark the 75th anniversary of the thousands who died in the D-Day landings – among them British, Americans and Canadians.
Absolutely nothing fake about that, although one hopes that President Trump, as he paid tribute to the survivors and the dead, didn’t have to stand too long.
Such occasions might be difficult for a man who was ruled out of service in Vietnam by bony spurs on his heels.
The most terrible thing of all is that we, and the media in general, have become desensitised to the inventions of Trump, inured through repetition.
So other than pointing out that there was indeed an anti-Trump demonstration, though not so large as last time, the broadcasters seemed too polite to explicitly call out his lies and point out that the pro-Trump enthusiasts amounted to little more than a visiting American tourist waving a flag.
Shades of Trump’s inauguration crowd, which he claimed, falsely, had been larger than that which had greeted President Obama.
The media now seems to shrug off allegations of being purveyors of fake news as being par for the course, scarcely worth mentioning, and might want to avoid being labelled with that other standard Trump term of abuse “nasty.”
Away from pantomime fake news there is no shortage of the real stuff to get exercised about on a daily basis - today’s edition, the news that Amazon documentaries have been pushing fake cancer cures
And that really can be a matter of life and death.
According to The Times, cancer specialists are concerned that documentaries available to 15 million Prime subscribers in the UK have put forward farcical alternative cures.
If true there can be few more cruel ways for programme makers and publishers to behave – on one side offering desperate people false hope, and perhaps more seriously, encouraging them to chase medical daydreams rather than seeking more conventional treatment.
Search for cancer on Amazon and ahead of properly sourced material, up pops Cancer Can Be Killed which claims that a woman was cured of her cancer in 30 days by taking natural products such as laetrile, which breaks down into cyanide in the body.
Those who viewed that were offered Second Opinion, a film claiming that laetrile stopped the spread of cancer.
There are also Amazon films suggesting that cancer can be cured with natural supplements or about unproven methods developed in the 1970s.
They sit alongside a film claiming that HIV does not cause Aids.
To suggest that antineoplaston treatment or laetrile could cure cancer was described as farcical by Justin Stebbing, professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College London.
More tellingly, Michael Coleman, head of the Cancer Survival Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commented: “We live in a post-truth society, so perhaps we should not be surprised that platforms like Amazon are willing to take money to enable the wider dissemination of such rubbish.”
Amazon has now removed the offending material thereby taking responsibility and admitting that it is rather more than just a neutral technology platform.
But this happened only after an investigation by Wired magazine.
It seems a haphazard form of quality control to wait for a bunch of investigative journalists to happen across and expose what amounts to hugely inadequate editorial controls on the quality of content.
As owner of the Washington Post, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos should know this and take a greater grip on what Prime is publishing - not just on the portrayal of spurious cancer treatments but across a much wider “post-truth” front.
Just as important, if not more so, is the need to take action against the already entrenched monopolies of the social media.
Here at last is some good news.
The US Government is going to investigate how Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon use their power.
Issues to be looked at include breaches of privacy, disinformation and anti-competitive practices.
The House of Representatives Judiciary sub-committee plans to hold hearings and could ask to see internal documents.
It could lead to a more formal anti-trust inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission.
It is certainly not the end nor the beginning of the end, but could perhaps be the end of the beginning.
President Trump has called for greater scrutiny of the social media giants – but from his own unique perspective – accusing Google and the others of suppressing conservative views and Amazon of exploiting the US Postal Service.
But at least even President Trump is learning in some areas of policy when confronted with uncomfortable facts.
He began his Presidency as a vaccination sceptic claiming several times that there was a link between the number of vaccinations a child had and autism – a link that has been repeatedly disparaged by scientists.
In the face of measles outbreaks in the UK Trump finally broke his silence in April and urged children to “get their shots.”
It is evidence of progress by President Trump who might yet learn that he merely makes himself ridiculous by denouncing everything he doesn’t like as “fake news.”