Q&A recap: fake news panel gets caught in the 'misinformation ecosystem'

On Monday night, Q&A took a deep dive into the world of fake news. What happened? Well, you really couldn't make it up.

This happened: at 9.35pm - one precise minute before Q&A went to air - the patron saint of the fake news movement launched into one of his famous tweet-storms on the subject of??? what else? Donald Trump even put it in all caps, and added to the fun by referring to himself in the third-person: "James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!"

Then this happened: at 9.36pm, Q&A arrived boasting a panel about fake news that included veteran media identity Mark Day, who once owned a nudge-nudge, wink-wink newspaper called Truth - an acronym of "Tits Right Up To Here" if you focused on its notorious boobs-ahoy pictorial offerings, or just plain old Truth if you favoured its take-no-prisoners, scandal-heavy take on the news.

And then came this: one of the audience questioners in the fake news discussion turned out to himself be an actual news story - a real one. Though this salient fact was not shared with the Q&A audience or panel, the last time Australia heard of Edwin Nelson it was as the subject of headlines such as "MP's staffer compares homosexuality to incest in Facebook post". That was only 11 months ago, and it was very much not fake news.

In short, there was much to scratch your head over, though from the kick-off Mark Day was keen to remind elderly viewers - those around 600 years old - that they had been through this kind of thing already.

"You have got to remember we have been here before when the printing press was invented," Day ventured. "All sorts of people came out and started writing stuff and printing pamphlets and disseminating it. Most of it was false and made up."

Tony Jones: "Were you around when that happened, Mark?"

Day: "No."

This cleared up, Day noted sagely that in such circumstances first came the revolution, later the rules.

"That is where we are at now. We need now to define the rules that Facebook and Google and Twitter must follow or else."

Day may not be 600 years old, but he has certainly been around a while. Long enough, he said, to have been on the ground at NASA HQ in Houston when man landed on the moon - and now to have relatives who reckon man never did any such thing. "Even in my own family we have people who don't believe we went to the moon and it was filmed in Arizona."

One longed for Tony Jones to have explored more of Day's career highlights, not the least of them being his stewardship of the long-defunct Truth, once a Melbourne institution. The most infamous front page in Truth history: the 1987 screamer "SNEDDEN DIED ON THE JOB", about the passing - in flagrante delicto - of former federal Liberal leader Sir Billy Snedden. In this case as in others, Truth's stock in trade was not fake news as such, but news you sometimes didn't want to hear even if it was true. It may well be that a line can be drawn between the two.

Into another category - true news, but news not mentioned on Q&A - fell the curious case of audience member Edwin Nelson, who was invited to ask the panel the following: "When Trump called CNN and The New York Times 'fake news', I believe what he is saying is that there is a left-wing bias that exists across the mainstream media and it applies to the ABC as well. I feel that you fend to focus on left-wing issues. You focus on things like climate change or homosexual marriage or feminism and there's very little engagement with things like Judeo-Christian values, family values, the role of the nation state or some of the problems with multiculturalism. So it is almost as if you, I feel, perpetuate by your choice of topic, a bias."

Nothing wrong with the question - which prompted a long panel discussion on the issues raised - but it would surely have been better had the panel, the audience and the viewers known exactly where Mr Nelson was coming from.

And to judge by his series of Facebook posts last April - equating same-sex marriage with incest - where he is coming from is somewhere to the far right of Loonville. That he was a staffer for NSW MP Kevin Connolly and a prominent member on the wilder side of the NSW Young Liberals might also have been of interest. And, by the by, just how biased is an ABC that not only lets Mr Nelson ask that question, it lets him ask it without telling anyone of his recent personal and scandalous engagement with the news business?

Another panellist, Clare Wardle, an American authority on the rise of fake news, said she preferred another term to summarise the phenomenon: "the misinformation ecosystem".

Sure it's clunky, but it covers more ground - and it's a reminder that the problem is not just about the things that are made up. Sometimes you need to watch for the things that are left out.

This story Q&A recap: fake news panel gets caught in the 'misinformation ecosystem' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.