A few Sundays ago, I found myself relaxing on my couch watching an episode of Carte Blanche, shaking my head at the concerning picture that is often painted of South Africa. For many South Africans, catching the weekly news updates on South Africa’s most pressing issues is very much part of their Sunday routine. Some South Africans even keep a daily watch on things like exchange rates, stocks and shares, crime reports and other pieces of daily happenings through various news outlets. Needless to say, our news outlet of choice becomes our way of knowing about the intangible ebbs and flows of markets, events happening in far away places, or what trends we can expect in the near future. But as much as daily news is incredibly enlightening, it can also be debilitating to independent thinking and investigation. The purpose of this blog-post is to illuminate what happens when citizens have access to reliable and fact-based information, and what happens when citizens’ access to this information is compromised by intentional distortions or bureaucratic inefficiencies.
“Since an informed citizenry is the basis of a healthy democracy, independent, non-corporate media are more crucial today than ever before” — Dahr Jamail
Understanding the link between democracy, freedom of the press and unbiased media is absolutely crucial to understanding why media monitoring is so important. If you take elections in the United States as an example, so much of a candidate’s campaigning is done through the media. With extreme bipartisanship in government, there is a sense that many media outlets are, to some extent, partisan. The most recent elections generated a whirlwind of media attention, with two very contentious candidates vying for power of one of the most influential countries in the world.
If you know anything about American politics and the two-party system, you understand the divisiveness of Republicans and Democrats and that the two parties differ quite intensely on quite a number of issues. It’s not uncommon for candidates to personally attack their opponents’ overall decision-making abilities, value systems and viewpoints rather than policy point by policy point. So when a media outlet endorses a candidate, they are to some extent endorsing an entire way of thinking. Hillary Clinton was endorsed by over 300 news organisations, even some that were traditionally Republican. Donald Trump was endorsed by 13 and was given heavy negative coverage by many leading news outlets. This means that across many news outlets, both Republican and Democrat, Donald Trump’s entire way of being was heavily attacked and denounced. Many Democrats, although not thrilled with Hillary, definitely did not believe Trump was fit for the position and were sure that a Trump win was next to impossible. How could they be so wrong?
Some analysts say it was social media’s doing with their smoke-in-mirror algorithms that manipulate media coverage to favour one candidate more than another in certain circles. Donald Trump far surpassed Hillary Clinton on social media outlets, and claimed that it was his “power in terms of numbers” on social media that “helped him win without needing to spend as much as Clinton.” While many Americans still do rely on TV and newspaper for their news, more and more people are turning to social media for their news, and relying less on traditional media stories. Why does this shift matter? Trust me, it matters. Beyond endorsements and media coverage, there are much larger imperatives for US media outlets, especially those reporting on political processes, and larger imperatives for the citizens who make decisions based on media outlets’ framings and angles of issues and debates.
The first imperative is understanding how news from social media is generated and what the “filter bubble” can do for information and knowledge generation and sharing. The filter bubble is a concept and tactic developed to both capture and predict the “clicking” behaviour of consumers to guess what other items/stories they’d be more likely to click on in the future. Coined by Eli Pariser, the term “filter bubble” has raised some contentious debate around whether this tactic can have negative impacts on civic discourse. How? Based on personal searches and clicks, websites with filter bubbles (e.g. Facebook, Google) generate an algorithm based on past click behaviour, location, and other personal details to basically say “if you like this, you’ll like that.” Applied to news about political candidates, the filter bubble has the power to “isolate us from opposing viewpoints leading conservatives and liberals to feel like they occupy separate realities.” Throw in some extremely slanted news outlets or even fake news outlets into the mix, reporting on falsehoods, but still getting clicks, and there are some pretty serious implications for how citizens make decisions about their leaders when getting most of their news via social media. Some critics of the filter bubble say that Facebook and Google need to play a role as an “arbiter of truth and an editor” of what gets published on their site as a potential click. But others debate that the actual amount of fake news is minimal, and there is an element of human nature influencing these clicks as well in that people are less likely to click on something that doesn’t confirm their beliefs, and often tune out to opposing views.
The second imperative, and related to the previous point, is in understanding how the role of media and information is changing in our society. The term “post-truth age” has recently gained traction in describing how and why Donald Trump was able to win the privilege of being the United State’s 45th President. Post-truth broadly means that there are varying angles to the “truth” that one can present, making the actual facts “less influential in shaping public opinions than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This means that the pursuit of truth is less important than our beliefs being confirmed or appealed to. In this sense, post-truth perpetuates close-mindedness. In journalism, post-truth contradicts principles of impartiality and objectivity and breaks down trust in the medium as a reliable source of information for citizens to understand the inner workings of government and hold government accountable to its citizens. “Impartiality and objectivity have been what separates journalism from propaganda, entertainment, or fiction.” But America abandoned the “fairness doctrine” decades ago, and the progression towards the post-truth political environment has followed swiftly with decades of lies or “alternative truths” being told, reported on and published in the media. For some reason, the “alternative truths” of Donald Trump have hit a nerve with a large proportion of American society — both those who were moved by and appeal to his “make America great again” rhetoric, and those who feel embarrassed and outraged by his rhetoric towards immigrants, women and overall demeanor to anything “other”. There is no doubting that Donald Trump operates in a somewhat impulsive manner, that he has been caught lying on television, and does not tolerate media coverage that is critical of him. But the reality is that this attitude is not new to Donald Trump, and many Presidents have also lied for their own gain — perhaps just less blatantly. Perhaps it is not so much the Trump administration “alternative truths” that has enraged so many but more that we are finally seeing how mainstream media and government have already tricked us a thousand times over.
The somewhat existential debate about how to deal with a post-truth political environment from a journalistic point of view is difficult. It is easy to say more transparency, more diversity in opinions, new regulations and more objectivity is necessary, but to ensure this on such a large scale is next to impossible. Where to even begin? Well, for one, we as citizens can begin with ourselves by seeking out diversity of opinion and clicking on the opposing view. But this alone won’t fix the way in which media outlets tell their stories, and we have to always question the degree to which news sources are reliable based on a number of factors. In light of the recent “fake news” mania, some journalists have attempted to map out where different media outlets fall on the impartiality/objectivity spectrum. The first chart below, developed by attorney Vanessa Otero, has generated a bit of debate around whether this is an accurate depiction of media outlet leanings. Other charts have popped up in response, indicating even further the murkiness of how media outlets subliminally communicate partisan perspectives.
Now, I know that I’ve mostly discussed media issues in the United States, but the truth is that these issues are global and play out in different ways internationally. In South Africa, there have been countless contentions regarding access to information about government decisions, policies and practices. The Bill of Rights declares freedom of expression, but the government has been accused of skirting this constitutional right through over-use of the National Key Points Act and also concerns and debate around the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB), both of which have been scrutinized as opportunities for the State to exercise undue power withholding information from the public and hindering “investigative journalism that seeks to expose corruption and injustice.” In 2013, Reporters Without Borders laid into South African national assembly’s adoption of the POSIB, saying that “it poses a serious threat to transparency, freedom of expression and accountability” because it exposes journalists to “draconian penalties” and “[forces] them to censor themselves” with threats of up to 25 years in prison if classified state information is revealed. Critics of the the bill say “it was designed to prevent or dissuade journalists from investigating allegations of corruption within the government” which basically criminalises whistle-blowing and investigative journalism that could reveal information in the public’s interest. What is even more concerning is that previous versions of the Bill had a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) provision which allows anyone to request for a piece of information and if “there is no ground for withholding the record, it must be declassified” but this has since been removed, making it easier for the State to withhold crucial information and also prosecute journalists who pursue stories based on leaks or classified material.
It’s easy to see that the relationship between media and administrations is a tricky one across many contexts. Some believe that the media should play a “watchdog” role of the government, while others disagree with that point. Some countries/governments use the media to prop up regimes or communicate propaganda to citizens. Needless to say, as citizens, we must be weary of what media we read and what decisions we make based on media.
While we aren’t proposing that Durban Answers will fix any of these issues as they are complex and contentious, Durban Answers does have the potential to spark an active citizenry that could hold government and media more accountable. In our ongoing partnership and projects with Media Monitoring Africa, we are exposed to the challenges in ensuring an accountable, accurate and fair media, the most extreme recent example being the various national media house’s treatment of the removal of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister. The Durban Answers project is about making sure that citizens, especially the most underserved, have access to the information that can help them participate in their community, their city, and in our democracy. Previous “Answers” projects focussed on giving citizens access to civic information, and while that is a key focus of our project, we intend to expand the reach to include “democracy in action” topics and themes, potentially through the guides feature, which could contain toolkits from partners on anything from how to spot fake news, to how to lobby or protest, or examples in toolkit form of how citizens or groups solved a particular issue within their community documenting each step taken and how one could repeat this process. In this way, we see a link between our answers project and the accountability stack concept.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we are busy planning for our Ask Durban campaign where we will ask you, the citizens, what you want Durban Answer to answer for you. The online “Ask Durban” campaign will be a month-long crowd-sourcing initiative to collect questions that citizens have every day about government services. These online campaigns will lead up to a write-a-thon event where Open Data Durban will host citizens to come hack for answers to the real questions of real citizens. Stay tuned for more information in the next blog for how to participate in the online campaign and write-a-thon.
That’s it for now!
Your blogger for all things Urban and all things Durban,
Sophie McManus is ODD Inclusive Cities Fellow
Originally published at Open Data Durban.