Where are authenticity and accuracy in our “superficial” content consumption habits?

The insurance of authenticity and accuracy in our news has traditionally been a standard practice in journalism, earning various publications credibility and trust from their viewership. However, with the advent of the new media environment, it is arguable that both producer and consumer values are changing in regards to what we demand from our news and information sources, with less emphasis on this authenticity and accuracy. As such, we are immersed in an online environment of “clickbait” headlines designed by a host of content creators competing for our increasingly short attention spans. This reveals an issue that is growing in prominence in our society: are the authenticity and accuracy of our online information being compromised, in favour of garnering page views? Are our media consumption habits overlooking truth in exchange for what seems to be more impressive and impactful content? We may be adopting a culture of online content that forgos authenticity and accuracy based on our changing practices of finding and reading information online, which in turn affects the quality of content that is published for consumption.

Nathaniel Barr, in his Quartz article “Most of the information we spread online is quantifiably ‘bullshit,’” provides a possible explanation for our interaction with online information. He asserts that the internet “may encourage a shallow kind of information processing that facilitates belief in bullshit,” which he describes as content that viewers may find “profound” or impressive upon first impression. He quotes Nicolas Carr to further comment on our increasingly “superficial” media consumption practices, with our tendency to “skim” rather than engage with the content. This underscores our possible departure from a focus on the authenticity and accuracy of an information source, opting instead to discover the “profound” on the net. However, Barr seems to attribute our tendency for superficiality solely to the internet as a medium, but the modern publication of information online also depends on what the audience demands from the content creators, which in turn creates a cycle of content shaped by both sides–the internet is the environment that allows this targeted content creation, but it shouldn’t be blamed per se for the content we might define as bullshit.

Barr further highlights our seemingly growing disregard for the truth by quoting Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit as “speech that is designed to impress but lacks a direct concern for the truth,” noting its widespread presence on the internet. Specifically, he comments on the realm of politics and its related dissemination of misleading claims that are “valued for their persuasiveness in making a point, rather than for their connection to reality.” This presents a possible connection to the popular cultural conception that particular Western news media outlets tend to sensationalize news headlines and reports in order to pique our interest; the content may not necessarily be untruthful or inaccurate, but perhaps there is a certain emphasis on language of persuasion and fixation on specific details rather than a more neutral storytelling style, which in turn influences a particular perspective on the subject. In my own experience, I noticed a pattern in my mobile notifications of news headlines from both CBC and BBC: CBC generally provides a broader, more brief and direct overview of its news headlines while BBC provides more detail in its chosen adjectives or inclusion of particular statistics. For example, CBC reports “Iceland’s PM resigns amid Panama Papers tax haven leaks” while BBC reports “Icelandic prime minister resigns after revelations in Panama papers of his offshore investments — Icelandic media.” BBC’s presentation of the details “revelations”, “offshore investments” and sourcing the “Icelandic media” clearly attempts to promote these potential points of interest to the reader by using these keywords and establishing its authenticity from the Icelandic media itself. To me, this reinforcement of authenticity in the headline also seems to be attempting to counter an emerging online culture of “bullshit” that lacks such authenticity and accuracy, by citing BBC’s credibility in opposition to other publications out there that may only be seeking provocative responses or page views. Ultimately, the authenticity and accuracy of online content is not always evident in our new media environment (both as a result of the consumer “skimming” for the “profound” and the producer promoting for page views and audience interest), but if we are to productively educate ourselves and others we may need to shift our focus on more critical media consumption practices rather than a superficial engagement with online information.