This is about research in the USA, but an article to be published in The New Scientist this week extends the warnings to Europe too. Be aware. Be warned. Be careful ‘out there’.
Most of my readers will know where I stand on Donald Trump, but the words “Fake News” in the title of this blog shouldn’t mislead them to think this is another anti -Trump piece. It isn’t.
Donald Trump points a giant searchlight of criticism at the media, but it obscures as much as it illuminates and I want to explore where, hidden in the glare, there is some truth in what he says. In my opinion it’s not the truth he claims, but I think it is important nonetheless. Let’s start with defining “News”. What do we mean by “News”? Here are a couple of definitions:
- Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.
- Information not previously known to (someone).
Self evidently these definitions of news say that “news” informs, that it is about recent events, that it is noteworthy, and that it is not previously known (i.e. it is “new”). In my opinion much of what is presented as news by the media frequently fails one or more of the tests applied by these definitions. Now we must add the test applied by Donald Trump, ironically in a way which also fails these tests: factual accuracy. My own personal experience is, and has always been, that any news story of which I have personal, first-hand, knowledge (in many cases having been present at the event) have been misreported. Historically I could point to two reasons: laziness and “mischief”. The latter of these is shorthand for an agenda driven by the owners of mainstream media.
Today we have the alternative media driven by the internet. It feeds an increasing appetite for instantaneous gratification. It encourages promotion of, and response to, stories and, simultaneously, a diminution of reflective and analytical capacity in the audience. I’d go so far as to say the rise of “social media” is the single biggest threat to democracy in that they feed the insatiable need to say “Look at me”, “This is what I think”, “I’ve heard this happened”, and to share it with the entire internet connected world as if our knowledge reflects well on us. I know, and you don’t, therefore I am superior. Now I’m well aware that, in writing this blog, I’m doing the same to some extent. Defenders of social media argue that their very immediacy, and relative lack of censorship, is a great strength in democracy. Unfortunately, and referring back to my earlier definitions, a lot of what we see is a) not new, b) not accurate (or even completely false, i.e. fake) or c) not really noteworthy.
There is another dimension: commercial gain, the financial imperative. Many posts on social media are, in fact, a kind of “Trojan Horse”. They are titillation. Little wriggling worms on hooks, that encourage ‘bite’ on a story whose purpose is really to expose us to embedded advertising or, worse, embedded political messages
Caught in a seemingly endless competitive media storm the mainstream outlets (including dear old “auntie” Beeb) trawl through, even encourage our engagement with, social media for “news” so they aren’t left behind. “News”, by definition, has a short life. You’ve either covered the story or it has gone. The trouble, in my opinion, is that far too much “news” should just be left to wither away for failing the test of lacking accuracy, lacking news worthiness, lacking information. Far, far, too much of our mainstream news comes from television where the lowest common denominator of populist interest is frequently presented to us by people who haven’t an independent journalistic brain cell between their ears and skip from sport to nuclear energy to government policy to entertainment, like bees gathering pollen. They read the “news” from text on an autocue, often (it seems) written for them by someone who can’t spell or fact check, but they blithely read it uncritically anyway.
We need more discernment than that.