The need to do something about written media

Part 1. Fluid facts, fluid sources, and narrowness

Reading about fake news, polarization, mainstream media, advertising click-traps, social networks and so on makes one seriously question what to call the content that comes out of our well recognized news outlets and what this all means for our perception of ourselves and the rest of the world.

The questions that bother me are:

  1. to what extent is reliability of information fluid,
  2. what does this fluidity mean for us,
  3. how does an unfirm foundation affect written content in general.

The first part is about the real tinkering with facts and perspectives, and the question of where those perspectives come from; the last part, about the spillover to all written content, and since this is still the primary way of learning in general, the spillover into real, actual knowledge and awareness.

Fluidity of facts

What makes a fact? Among current events: Wikipedia’s back and forth with the Daily Mail, how the former banned the latter as an unreliable source and the latter critiqued— something that was meant to strengthen a free, volunteer, fact-check focused encyclopedia — backfired and, with that, became a symptom rather than an isolated occurrence (the same symptom that ‘alternative facts’ belongs to).

Wikipedia calls into question the reliability of a source. First, Wikipedia isn’t an organization per se but a large group of volunteers, and it’s just a few people that did the calling-into-question and a few that made the decision. Second, however, Wikipedia, as the online encyclopedia (= source of facts), has become in this way an institution. So it’s the institution of facts that was second-guessed by a source, which throws us right in the middle of the real news — distorted news — fake news debate. And this spills right into real, actual knowledge — since Wikipedia is, again, a source of facts.

I naturally ask myself how I decide what a credible source is, and, in light of Wikipedia, what if the credibility and reliability of the source isn’t so clear cut; how is the decision made then, and what about the other sources that are swayed e.g. by own agenda or by governments.

What in, say, Russia, China, Turkey, eastern Europe, etc. can be considered a reliable source (not saying they are or aren’t)? Is that different today from a decade ago; would it change in the next decade? Part of the whole idea of Wikipedia is that it’s alive — the best of our knowledge today, so by implication whatever is referenced ought to reflect current collective trust in the credibility of the source, past and present. So what happens if I see a Daily Mail reference from ten years ago; trust it since it’s in the past, when they were more credible? Then do I keep a list of the now unreliable sources and double check just in case?

This problem of credibility has always existed, we just looked for the latest edition of the book — a foundation to step on, agreeable or not but firm nonetheless; but now the book is alive and constantly changing. Kind of like every time Google search is a bit different, every time Facebook algorithms are a bit different, every time Amazon recommendations are a bit different. That’s all fine, but this isn’t leisure and ecommerce, it’s about facts. So trust is fluid, just like credibility. Which means I have to think hard before I trust, even those whom I trusted yesterday. And frankly I don’t want to think that hard every time I read something.

Fluidity of source

What’s a source of truth and trust? To stay with current events, Washington Post reveals ties of Mike Flynn — same Washington Post that posted news on spyware in US utilities to then correct the detail the next day and same Washington Post that’s in the midst of ‘the war on the media’ of the current administration. Then CNN reports that it’s not just Flynn but several advisors and not just once, but regularly — the same CNN that is weekly called fake news by the President himself. So at what point do we say to ourselves ‘forget it, it’s fake news; they don’t check their stories and the government says they’re crooked’ (this may not be the critical mind, but how many among the broader public are critical, and how many of the critical have/take time to really be critical). Then you see the Flynn story; now do you believe it?

This is neither new nor particular to the US. These attacks are happening in other countries independently. Spiegel, just a month ago, did vignettes from the ground in Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, China, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea. Not something new either; not an exhaustive list either. But faced with these problems, news outlets then focus on pushing through their home problems to some exclusion of a broader perspective. After all, you can’t be attacked for being fake at home by the President himself and write about, say, the situation in the Philippines; you have to defend yourself or attack back, else you’re gone. There are three issues with this, which build on each other:

  1. People suffer from the shrinking perspective — e.g. media in America is preoccupied with the administration; right or wrong, temporary or not, this is shrinking awareness of the rest of the world, what larger problems exist beyond the home front, and how actions at home affect others. Trump meets Abe, Trump meets Trudeau, Trump meets May, Trump talks to Merkel, Trump talks to Turnbull. Question: are we aware of the sensitivities these leaders bring from their home problems or priorities; do we actually care? The same is happening in European media — preoccupation at home (with elections, right/left populism, corruption scandals, protests, etc.), preoccupation with the US (over issues of trade and security), and both to the exclusion of neighbors. Two thing are certain, the less we hear these neighbor perspectives, a/ the less we care — out of sight, out of mind; b/ the more we isolate in our own echo chamber. Can this be good?
  2. What happens when domestic media can’t push through — what if confidence in CNN and WashPo does in fact erode beyond reparability (we thought the financial system couldn’t flop in 2008, but it did); and what about the many places where this has already happened (of authoritarian governments, where government is too cozy with the media, places where the media is persecuted). How do you recover from there? 
    At some point, if domestic media can’t bring the right light onto domestic events and issues, you will have democracy itself abused. And for the same reason that I don’t want my rights abused at home, I shouldn’t stay quiet when the rights of others are abused elsewhere. Call it reciprocity, pay-forward, solidarity, duty out of principle, either way it makes for a better world. 
    That means that you can’t leave domestic media to drown, at home or abroad. Your eyes and attention, even as a foreign reader looking in, actually matter; it is you that supports independent, objective reporting and vigilance over rights through your very attention. But this same global attention and vigilance is now crowded out by news overly self-focused and with shrinking perspective on domestic issues—the result: the more you focus on yourself, the harder it is to care about someone else. So an Aleppo human rights story, or a Turkey putting journalists in jail story, eventually seems terribly out of place in the sea of Trump news (and he likes news and news like him, so the sea is unlikely to go away; plus some are indeed important for the world). This needs balance.
  3. It brings a healthy level of realism to know, read, see how your actions are perceived by others, and this applies to people and societies equally. If our sources are narrow, if our sources are not credible, and if our sources are preoccupied with them-/ourselves, then we continue to fuel the echo chambers talked about today. Our larger society becomes an echo chamber, and this had its equivalent in the nation state a hundred years ago. Where did that end up? Therefore bringing perspective is important, and in some ways today it is much easier to bring perspective to bear. We use a lot of the same products, brands, and services around the world — everyone knows Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, BMW, Coke, Tide, GE, Pfizer, Boeing, etc. etc.; and if the brand is different, the product generally solves the same problem. So it isn’t a nation state echo chamber offering perspective on the habits and products of another nation state echo chamber one hundred years ago; it is one social/user group commenting on itself. So we have to offer perspectives in a new and better way. More on this in another post.

Where does this leave us? Among problems of trust, problems of narrowness, and problems of isolated perspective. The issue of fact is deadly to knowledge and democracy. You can’t build an edifice on a fluid foundation. And this has to do with the business of media, distribution, business models, and human psychology; to be discussed in the next post. The issue of perspective goes beyond our home, favorite news source, friend circle, and social network — it is these that we need to transcend and illuminate. The obvious, go-to answer — education is both the cause and the solution — may be fine. But it takes decades to improve education at large and for the people going through it to become productive in society. While the social problems we have today are here and now. So while we work on the 20 year solution, we need to also work on the here and now.