Media in a 'post-factual' age

Do social media have monopoly on fake news? - Part One

8 JUNE 2017,
Do social media have monopoly on fake news?
Do social media have monopoly on fake news?

I have recently seen some of the emails circulating French social networks, some more some less verifiable and believable, receivers asking for opinions on their veracity, themselves being spawned and confused by many such leading opinions and claims aimed at bending and priming the readers' electoral decisions. Like in many of post-modern novels, the gaps between known fact were filled-up by plausible but damning fictitious stories aiming to be alternative reality.

At a recent evening public discussion - “Demockery and the media in a 'post-factual' age”, double-symbolically taking place on 3rd May, the United Nations' World Press Freedom Day and, at the UK's, prestigious, if not even ostentatious London Mayfair based Royal Institute, a monument of British and the world-wide scientific history of search for scientific truths, often through difficult to accept paradigmatic shocks and their slow but eventual changes achieved through long discussions, this one, organised by an Sussex University, conversation was dedicated to a rise of fake news in our pubic life, another issue in its dedication to searching for truth.

As discussion turned out, a lot of fiery words during discussion were aimed at social networks perceived as single source of fake news..., however, those accusations mainly came from the panel of professional journalists, and mainly, one can say already established ones.

There is no doubt that the most of the professional journalists are well trained and dedicated to delivering the fact based truthful presentation of the events. And, surely, asked if is the social media on that effectively have a monopoly on fake news, one of the younger professional participating in the conference affirmed that rather assertively, but some other, those more experienced ones, had a wider spread of views, from over-protective among those still active, to more realistically balanced and, one can say, philosophical ones among those more experienced and at the end of their professional career.

But, if, in the retrospect of that discussion, we take few steps back, fake news have been around for a very long time, from malicious gossips, socially priming myths or false, or mainly inaccurate legends of miracles, to, with thanks to Gutenberg's invention of press, the infamous, cheaply printed absolutions of all sins triggering Protestant “revolution”, or, to many political pamphlets, mainly by those in the money and with intention to influence main decision makers and general public opinions ahead of some up-and-coming new-democratic decision in the local councils or central parliaments, however, not always verifiable.

On the other hand, it has not even been very long since those very same new, internet social media were praised by politicians and mainstream media, e.g. during multiples of instances of the so called “Arab Spring”, for their role of enabler in providing a medium for in rising and facilitating alternative views deemed to be more popular and democratic than those of the establishment in some of developing countries, those not usually associated with the Western notion of free press (however free, or not so it may be [1] . On the other hand, one could ask if it is not in part because those countries were where the commercial western media have not just as yet established or gained “free” market access for building their monopolies in controlling public opinion and manufacturing popular consent for their political but often commercial aims too.

But, few years on, midst heated political battle where suddenly new boys (and, of course, girls) in the block are upending the political scene and taking lead over the still audacious, eloquent educated liberal, one can even say, establishment, but using the very same internet social media to bypass these western mainstream media channels of the establishment, the social media and their users are now accused of being populist and providing platforms for fake or the so called alternative news. Establishment in western societies have now found themselves to be target of social media whilst commercial media (and, to extended, public ones too) have found cheap internet based social media to be their competitors for the market shares of audience, influence, and of course, often that of the revenues.

However, on the other hand, word 'populism' derived from the Latin word “populus” for people, for which 'demos' (as in demo-cracy) is simply its Greek language equivalent and essentially means “support for the concerns of ordinary people” but, as a political strategy, it is blamed for demagogic accusation of the social elites or of the establishment for neglecting those concerns of the ordinary people. But, in societies with increasing income and status inequality, such accusations of the narrowing and distancing elite may not be completely ungrounded.

And, though mainstream media have better trained staff and more rigorous veracity checks, and, thus, have been historically increasingly reliable in reporting facts, particularly those like the three main “W”s : what, where and when , when it comes to interpretations of other such as “who” or, even more controversial issues such as “why”, then the political bias of individual commentator, or the editorial can easily overtake the usual veracity standards.

On the other hand, a truth may be a complex matter and, like in the old legend of a few wise men touching an elephant blindfolded (or in a dark room), each, describing its different part and feature, may appear to be contradicting if not even conflicting each other in the search for veracity, whilst the subject is in fact much more complex for a single person to comprehend or single article or book to represent, and they may so all be in part correct.

This is specially he case when media report from conflict zones where, as it has been famously said, “the truth is the first casualty” and it is difficult if not impossible to find the correct answer and media reporters sometimes turn into being basic, technical media reporting channel for the official feeds which simply reflect strategic and tactical propaganda of the local army-chiefs in charge. For example, one of the panelists described how he was himself exposed to criticism of a major world power army's public relations and communication officer during the recent Iraq conflict, the officer saying (here paraphrasing from 2n hand memory, so not likely to be in those exact words) that “the problem with you journalists is that you live in fact based world, we make-up and live in our own”.

Examples are many. Was the one of the most infamous fake claims, the one by then Nazi Germany of being attacked by Polish soldiers as a pretext for their invasion of Poland and, effectively, starting WW2, a claim that later transpired to be “fake” news as the attackers turned-out to had been Nazi German commandos dressed-up in Polish uniforms [2]..., a possible inspiration for a German soldier recently discovered to be building-up his fake Syrian refuge identity with aim to perpetuate assassinations under that fake identity and so, turn the blame and public anger on Syrian refugees [3]?

However, despite that we can usually rely on accuracy of the mainstream reporting, one of the panel discussants, an editor of an alternative, online media emphasised that the twiter democratises media and that we definitively need such alternative, e.g. the alternative on-line publications media because the mainstream ones, though not usually spreading clear lies, can often be manipulative by being biased in selecting and presenting facts or by simply under-reporting on very important issues. Hence, the alternative media are needed to stay and to fill some of those gaps.

Continues on the 7th of July.

Notes:
[1] e.g. see: Balancing the scales
[2] Gleiwitz incident
[3] German soldier posed as Syrian refugee and 'planned attack' - BBC News