Society’s trust in the media has reached an all-time low. The public is hugely sceptical about digital media and often even more suspicious of mainstream publications. Many are calling the time in which we live the era of “post truth” but what is interesting is that misreporting isn’t new. From the incarceration of Sir Isaac Newton for trying to tell everyone that the earth wasn’t flat, to witch hunting, to the propaganda behind the Vietnamese war, mankind has been promoting inaccurate messages for a long time. So why is it only now that we are all demonstrating such outrage at our media outlets?
The heightened political divide between the Left and the Right is one component, people are keener than ever to point out the polarized standpoints of different news publications and equally the algorithmic confirmation biases within our own Facebook newsfeeds. Then there is the world’s new favourite phrase, introduced to us by Donald Trump: “fake news” one of the few notions uttered from Trump’s mouth which has managed to gain identification from an erudite crowd. Compelling articles about the rise of fake news and the implications are now easy to find. On top of this there is the preposterous click bait, which litters our internet. Sensationalist headlines about what the authority has apparently done now, whether you believe that authority is a scholar, a conservative or your doctor. There are endless “secrets” sitting loudly at the bottom of our screens, making a mockery of today’s primary research tool.
But is there any logical reason for why we should be more concerned than ever? Or are we just getting caught up in a new hype? One interesting thing about hysteria today is that it can spread wider and faster than it ever has before. In some ways widespread information is a great thing, we can quickly be alerted of any emergencies and missing people can be found more efficiently, however, there is also a problem, and that is because there are differences in what travels and what doesn’t. Scandal travels faster. Russia’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, reached across America in no time, and may have had a huge impact on her number of votes, before the slightly less juicy conclusion that she was cleared could get a look in. This biass of social media favouring scandal is a dangerous one.
All that any sufficiently roused constituent must do to make an impact is click share. Today being a “slacktivist” or an “armchair activist” works. A study published by Plos One in 2015 found that online shares can play a pivotal role in making change. This may sound like a great thing, but when you team it with another recent statistic, found by Columbia University and the French National Institute, that 59 percent of people share headlines without clicking on the link, you can see why there is reason to feel concerned.
The same study found that most of the online articles, which we read, are “cloud curated” meaning that they are supplied, via social media, by our friends as opposed to the original site. Social media has taken over from news publications as the main provider of the content we read online, as of 2014. Having our friends act as the editors of our news means increased personal biases and group think; each community is more likely to all be reading the same thing which means without “playing devil’s advocate” we are left with very little to argue about, and often afraid to disagree with the strong and empowered zeitgeists within our group. We would be better off taking our own unique directions instead of all going on Facebook and clicking on the things that our friends have also clicked on.
There are concerning problems, which we would all like to fix, and this new attitude of cynicism towards our Internet, in many ways, might seem like progress. We need to be more sceptical, and positive steps are now being taken; news publications, such as the Guardian and the Telegraph, have begun providing tips on how to spot fake news at key times, such as during the lead up to the election. Even Facebook is concerned because its reputation is on the line now. Facebook released a three-day educational campaign in April, across 14 countries with tips, reminding people to check the URL, the date and the ads on their online articles before trusting them. Meanwhile Angela Merkel has outdone us all. She recently introduced a new policy in Germany, which threatens up to a 50m-euro fine if social media platforms do not remove illegal content within 24 hours.
But checking the date and the URL isn’t going to clear everything up and our media scepticism comes with dangers. Just because the public is more sceptical does not necessarily mean that they are becoming more discerning. Scepticism can work to suit the individual. Today many will write off anything that does not fit in with their own views as “fake news”. Just like Trump did when he first coined the term. If you don’t believe in climate change then you are likely to call anything which stresses the dangers of CO2 emissions as “Fear Mongering”. Anyone today can be dismissed as a mere fear monger even if they have carried out years of scientific research. Katherine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian warned last year that the conflicting tugs between opposing stand points is leading to a “diminishing status of truth”. It’s information overload and there is no longer an established authority that the majority of us seem to trust. The worry is that we’re giving up on deciphering fact from fiction.
The main reason for why we now feel so outraged today about misinformation could be that we’re disappointed in society’s inability to progress. We learnt about propaganda from our history lessons. It always seemed to come from dictators, or a biased authority. The internet, we thought, would thoroughly democratise our world and keep any authority in check, it was impossible to imagine how access to a surplus of information could have such a downside. We never thought that Aristotle’s quote “the more you know, the more you don’t know” could ring true in such a concerning way for us all. But the marriage between human nature and the internet turned out to be a complex one. We give in to our basic instincts of anger and outrage meaning that words of hate dominate the web. Our brain loves shortcuts so we opt for less informative summaries, and we prefer to stick with our “in groups” when it comes to forming our opinions because we like validation.
What the public needs more than ever, is self awareness; the ability to recognise its human flaws and biasses. We shouldn’t be as suspicious of the media, as we should be our own thought processes. Do more reading and less sharing: it’s the modern version of listening instead of speaking.
My original article was published with Blu-Digital. Find it here