SOME PEOPLE DO BELIEVE everything they read on Facebook: “Social media has swallowed the news, threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. Twenty-five years after the first website went online, it is clear that we are living through a period of dizzying transition.
Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumor, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between an informed public and a misguided mob.”
For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page.
For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page.
These opening paragraphs were gleaned from the bulk of an article titled “How Technology Disrupted The Truth” by Katharine Viner for The Guardian (July 12, 2016). The original story is 5,500 words, and takes 40-60 minutes for normal readers like you and me to wade through.
Between the horizontal lines and the two illustrations below, you will find a truncated version of Ms Viner’s article (1,600 words) intended to make the reader want more, to make you want to read all 5,500 words of the original.
Because it’s worth it.
I repeat: the text between the lines and the illustrations below (Gutenberg and Facebook) are not my work. They are reposted from another article.
“In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable-type press that permitted the high-quality reproduction of printed materials at a rate of nearly 4,000 pages per day, or 1,000 times more than could be done by a scribe by hand. Overnight, the new printing press transformed the scope and reach of the newspaper, paving the way for modern-day journalism.” (History of Newspapers)
Technology Disrupted The Truth
by Katharine Viner
Social media has swallowed the news, ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. When a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and “facts” that are not. The Leave Campaign [in the British Brexit vote] was well aware of this, and took full advantage, safe in the knowledge that the Advertising Standards Authority has no power to police political claims. 1
A few days after the vote, Arron Banks, Ukip’s largest donor and the main funder of the Leave.EU campaign, told the Guardian that his side knew all along that facts would not win the day:
Facts don’t work, and that’s it.
Facts don’t work, and that’s it.
“It was taking an American-style media approach. What they said early on was ‘Facts don’t work’, and that’s it. The Remain Campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.” 2
It was little surprise that some people were shocked after the result to discover that Brexit might have serious consequences and few of the promised benefits. When “facts don’t work” and voters don’t trust the media, everyone believes in their own “truth,” and the results, as we have just seen, can be devastating.
How did we end up here?
And how do we fix it? 3
The troll was long a creature of Norse mythology and children’s books but is now one of the most feared and reviled of denizens on the World Wide Web.
A misguided mob
Twenty-five years after the first website went online, it is clear that we are living through a period of dizzying transition. For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths. Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces:
• between truth and falsehood, fact and rumor, kindness and cruelty;
• between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated;
• between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; and
• between an informed public and a misguided mob.
What is common to these struggles—and what makes their resolution an urgent matter—is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth.
This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.
Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true—and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable even a decade ago.
Social media and false information
There are usually several conflicting truths on any given subject, but in the era of the printing press, words on a page nailed things down, whether they turned out to be true or not. This settled “truth” was usually handed down from above: an established truth, often fixed in place by an establishment.
This arrangement was not without flaws: too much of the press often exhibited a bias towards the status quo and a deference to authority, and it was prohibitively difficult for ordinary people to challenge the power of the press.
Now, people distrust much of what is presented as fact—particularly if the facts in question are uncomfortable, or out of sync with their own views—and while some of that distrust is misplaced, some of it is not.
In the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true.
“Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, even government and security.” 4
Algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are designed to give us more of what they think we want—which means that the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. 5
The personalized web means that:
1. we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and
2. we are less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared.
Facebook has become the dominant way for people to find news on the internet—and in fact it is dominant in ways that would have been impossible to imagine in the newspaper era.
Publications curated by editors have in many cases been replaced by a stream of information chosen by friends, contacts and family, processed by secret algorithms. The old idea of a wide-open web—where hyperlinks from site to site created a non-hierarchical and decentralized network of information—has been largely supplanted by platforms designed to maximize your time within their walls.
Fake news farms
In the last few years, many news organizations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising. The most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon has been the creation of fake news farms, which attract traffic with false reports that are designed to look like real news, and are therefore widely shared on social networks.
It would be a mistake to think this is a new phenomenon of the digital age. But what is new and significant is that today, rumors and lies are read just as widely as copper-bottomed facts—and often more widely, because they are wilder than reality and more exciting to share.
“Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real. The only thing that really matters is whether people click on it. If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.” 6
The increasing prevalence of this approach suggests that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the values of journalism: instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, it creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts.
Too good to check
News media around the world has reached a fever-pitch of frenzied binge-publishing, in order to scrape up digital advertising’s pennies and cents.
Increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories.
“Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to bullshit.” 7
What distinguishes good journalism from poor journalism is labour: the journalism that people value the most is that for which they can tell someone has put in a lot of work—where they can feel the effort that has been expended on their behalf, over tasks big or small, important or entertaining. It is the reverse of so-called “churnalism”, the endless recycling of other people’s stories for clicks.
“ ‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.” 8
The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organizations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth—to report, report, report.
Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy—and the digital era has made that even more obvious.
Torrents of racism and sexism
The truth is a struggle. It takes hard graft. But the struggle is worth it: traditional news values are important and they matter and they are worth defending. The digital revolution has meant that journalists are more accountable to their audience. 9
At the same time, the leveling of the information landscape has unleashed new torrents of racism and sexism and new means of shaming and harassment, suggesting a world in which the loudest and crudest arguments will prevail. It is an atmosphere that has proved particularly hostile to women and people of color, revealing that the inequalities of the physical world are reproduced all too easily in online spaces.
Above all, the challenge for journalism today is not simply technological innovation or the creation of new business models. It is to establish what role journalistic organizations still play in a public discourse that has become impossibly fragmented and radically destabilized.
“[The rise of Trump] is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.” 10
The old gatekeepers were also capable of great harm, and they were often imperious in refusing space to arguments they deemed outside the mainstream political consensus. But without some form of consensus, it is hard for any truth to take hold.
I believe that a strong journalistic culture is worth fighting for. Traditional news values must be embraced and celebrated: reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened.
An editor’s prerogative
Liberties were taken editing the story: thousands of words were removed, but no words were altered—except for abbreviations or other references that might confuse and confound non-British readers (like you and me).
Emphasis was added where I wanted to draw the reader’s attention, and I used American English (AmE) instead of the original article’s British English (BrE).
I also played with the structure of the paragraphs and sentences to make it more palatable to the Internet eye.
FEATURED IMAGE: At 8PM on October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard this rather tame announcement: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.” Well, not all of the heard the introduction; they just heard what followed.
Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater company wrote an update to H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel War Of The Worlds for national radio. It was not planned as a hoax, but a serious performance piece.
“Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. When news of the real-life panic leaked into the CBS studio, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. There were rumors that the show caused suicides, but none were ever confirmed.” (History)
A classic fake news story announced as fiction and believed by countless listeners. As P.T. Barnum famously observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
1 The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. They apply the Advertising Codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice. Their work includes acting on complaints and proactively checking the media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements.
2 Once again American know-how led the way and those bloody limey rightwing bastards had to look to the American rightwing bastards for innovation and leadership.
3 A simple law that makes it a crime to make claims or allegations that are unprovable in a political advertisement or campaign tract would completely alter politics in the US and the UK.
4 Emily Bell, “Facebook is eating the world.”
5 “In computer systems, an algorithm is basically an instance of logic written in software to be effective for the intended ‘target’ computer(s) to produce output from given input. An optimal algorithm, even running in old hardware, would produce faster results than a non-optimal algorithm for the same purpose, running in more efficient hardware; that is why algorithms, like computer hardware, are considered technology.” (Wikipedia)
6 Neetzan Zimmerman in David Holmes’ “Whisper EIC: It’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it.”
7 Brooke Binkowski in Kevin Rawlinson’s “How newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on to the web.”
9 Hard graft is British slang for hard work.
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