Fake news in echo chambers

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

The introspection journey that looks at the limitations of a mainstream, broadsheet newspaper like The Hindu in the age of digital disruption has generated an interesting mix of responses. While those who repose faith in the legacy media endorse the ideas shared in the last three columns, those who differ even question the earnestness of this exercise. Their alternatives, unfortunately, seem to prefer ‘what-the-public-is-interested-in’ to the idea of what is in public interest, which remains the core of journalism.

A reader from Chennai, M.D. Ravikanth, wrote: “Your introspection (“ > Journalism’s return to oppositional roots,” Nov. 14) was not as frank and outspoken as it was expected to be.” He then, rather ironically, cited an article by pulp fiction writer Chetan Bhagat, making five sweeping observations as a starting point for multifaceted sustained dialogue on media.

At a deeper level, this column tries to repudiate Mr. Bhagat’s reductionist interpretation and attempts to bring nuances to the relationship between the news gathering experience and the readers’ perception of truth. I have no problem in accepting the first postulate of Mr. Bhagat, who calls Indian and the U.S. media ‘elitist’: “You are not as smart as you think.” I never looked for any exceptionalism for media professionals. But, his other four postulates betray the lack of understanding of the process of journalism.

His second postulate is: “Find out what people want. Discover the truth. Then articulate. Don’t think you know better and you will ‘tell’ them. Listen to them first. They would have told you about Trump.” Journalism’s attempt at discovering truth is not a populist exercise but a rigorous analysis of facts and figures, and it cannot be reduced to an opinion poll. Then, he comes up with this unsubstantiated statement: “If the media were more balanced about Trump, and then brought out his follies, they would have had more impact and credibility. Instead, their hate only created sympathy for Trump.” Where is the question of hate when one reports about factual inaccuracies, blatant misogynism and phobia against migrants? Isn’t there a difference between the real balance where differing opinions are weighed and placed on record and the false balance, where principles, law and civility are pitted against bigotry, lawlessness and majoritarian demagoguery?

Mr. Bhagat’s fourth and fifth points, respectively, are: “Discuss and engage. Don’t patronise.” and “Get out of the bubble.” To discuss, we need to know the issues well as knowledge is central to engagement. Countering rhetoric with facts, figures and a keen understanding of institutions is not a patronising act. It is the first rule of good reporting. However, the idea of bubble is a reality that needs to be addressed first by identifying who are within the bubble and who are outside, and the role of social media in reinforcing stereotypes and making these bubbles a safe haven for misinformation.

The problem with the mainstream media, including The Hindu, is its intrinsic limitation in dealing with the post-fact, post-truth narratives that are bred, nurtured and valorised by the technology companies. The bubble in the social media now encompasses more people. Whether it is Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in the United States, the bubble is providing them with a new Teflon coat in which none of the mud that comes from traditional investigative reporting sticks. On the other hand, facts that emerged from systematic investigations are cast as dubious evidence for some well-entrenched hatred of the media.

The recent empirical analysis by Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed News, who has been cited earlier in this column for his brilliant blog “Regret the error”, found that hyper-partisan political Facebook pages and websites are consistently feeding their millions of followers false or misleading information. The fake news has reached such a proportion in the social media that you will believe that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton had commissioned murders, and the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for brutal burning of a White man.

We need to seriously analyse President Barack Obama’s recent observation: “And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it… And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.” It important to remember that the Facebook news feed algorithm has no faculty to distinguish the fake news and the real news.

However, the good news is that some of best minds in journalism are looking at the havoc created by the technology companies. The systematic analysis by not just Mr. Silverman alone but also by writers like John Lloyd ( The Financial Times), Jim Rutenberg ( The New York Times), David Fahrenthold ( The Washington Post) and Emily Bell ( Columbia Journalism Review) is forcing them, for the first time, to acknowledge the problems with their platforms though not accepting responsibility. For instance, on November 19, 2016, Facebook CEO > Mark Zuckerberg announced new steps to eradicate fake news in his platform. “Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously,” he wrote in a post.

Even as the technology giants like Facebook and Google are grappling to address this huge ethical issue, it is vital to understand that the social media-inspired, echo chamber-type news ecology creates a new class of people who are dangerously ill-informed and self-assured and have no common public sphere to provide contrarian views.

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