British politician and broadcaster Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, stood beside a fishing boat and spoke directly into a camera. He suggested that the French navy helped illegal migrants enter British waters. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Farage’s video garnered 250,000 views on YouTube and went out to his 1.5 million Twitter followers. As Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic, the activist political right has recognized and eagerly exploited this kind of “Potemkin journalism” since 2009. Such stories misuse social media and perpetuate people’s distrust of authority and of the mainstream media. Such misleading broadsides have one primary purpose: to sow doubt.
The assertion that the mainstream media won’t cover a particular story fans the flames of conspiracy theories.
When political ideologues deploy the techniques of normative journalism, they often operate under the cover of teaser taglines such as, “the mainstream media won’t cover this.” British politician Nigel Farage’s deceptive video of migrants on a fishing trawler reached hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The story – which the mainstream media had already reported – became a viral scandal. Such scandals work by creating the sense that some larger media conspiracy exists and that an alternative report offers its viewers privileged, exclusive insight.
“Potemkin journalism” has little in common with traditional journalism.
The story Farage disseminated was a false front. It wasn’t so much about the risk of immigrants, much less the French, but about British independence and power and the perceived threat posed by Muslim immigrants. The term for this kind of false front is “Potemkin journalism,” named after fake, movie-set style villages built to mislead potential...
Helen Lewis, former deputy editor of the New Statesman, is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.