Social Media is for idiots

Welcome to the post-truth era !

Hong Kong is an incredibly dense city. so dense that sometimes, you will have to queue for several minutes to get out of a metro station. One year ago I found myself in this situation, having to wiggle my way out of the crowd at Mong Kok station to finally be able to breathe some fresh air. Something struck me at that time. While there was probably less that a centimetre between every individual queuing to get out of this hell, everyone was finding the necessary space to have a smartphone in hand. Like a game of Tetris if you may. While my only concern was to flee the crowd, nobody else seemed much distracted by the suffocating ambient moist heat that was among us. “What a bunch of idiots” I first thought.

But it had me thinking. This is not just about Hong Kong, every part of the world is confronted with this massive upsurge of communications and technological advances. And as a news-junkie type guy, I wondered how the world of information was evolving. Are these new social platforms beneficial for transmitting informations ? How do we relate to these various exchanges ? How are we to use these new technologies to produce the best outcomes ? A few days before, the terrorist attacks in Paris nearly made a collateral damage : my own phone, which since then was continuously providing me with ludicrous amounts of informations in every direction.

The advent of the internet and the rise of social medias drastically changed the way informations are produced, and distributed. Today, we all are potential producers of informations and at the same time the end users of this information. Social medias have also allowed informations to be transmitted worldwide in several hours. All this created a momentum for mass medias to be confronted to a problem of quality: as we live in a time where broadcasting live informations seems crucial, being the first one to produce an information is crucial. And in such a world being able to differentiate what is true, and what is false has been increasingly difficult.

In 2016, the well-know Oxford Dictionary introduced a new term to the list: ‘post-truth’, as the advent of an era in which information is consistently called into question. Indeed the fact that we tend sometimes to believe our own experiences rather than facts that somebody else throws at our face is not new. What is is the way everybody can manipulate information, and the interest of doing so is widespread. From populist leaders to bloggers (i.e. the ‘Pizza-gate’ episode in the American election), false informations are created and disseminated for multiple reasons. One of them might be to gain the reader’s conviction at the cost of lying to him or her. But interestingly sometimes false informations are shared on the basis of derision, because they are too funny to be true, or to make the peers of a community react, as a mean to educate somebody else about something untrue.

Since the 2000’s the business of false informations steadily grew. Internet and social medias have transformed mass medias and touched upon the quality of journalism itself, partly because the supply of informations modelled the demand for information, and popular tastes seem to have eroded the journalistic deontology, outran by the flow, the immediacy and the race to be the first to ‘inform’. But this ‘post-truth’ era has had another contingency: the rise of fact-checking. Between 2006 to 2016, fact-checking spread out in Europe, 34 fact-checking dedicated sources are available across European countries. Journals have also devoted resources to fact-checking, like the section “les Décodeurs” from le journal “Le Monde” or similarly with the Washington Post.

While this is pretty amazing for the future of journalism, it enlightens how social medias have shaped how we are approaching or how we could approach informations ourselves. In January 2017, CNN, and subsequently BuzzFeed, had two very different approaches for dealing with Donald Trump’s sexual escapades in Moscow. While CNN, a more traditional media, had a traditional way to handle the information by not publishing the leaked documents (because too many informations were not yet verified), BuzzFeed did the opposite. Born out of the rise of social medias, BuzzFeed published the documents and argued that they were the information itself: that it was up to the receiver of this information (i.e. us, social media, interconnected people) to treat it accordingly. Even more stunning was the defence presented by BuzzFeed editors, that for reasons of transparency they ought to publish the documents.

And here we are, again. Us, connected people divided into micro-publics more and more wiling to voice out our criticisms about everything. The more criticisms, the less confidence there is about the capacity of the established medias to interpret our informations. However we ought not to be foolish, and to face those trends responsibly. Sharing is caring, but trust nobody’s word on the internet. Not even mine.