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Breaking silos, regaining trust

Apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone. File

Apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone. File   | Photo Credit: AFP

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With propaganda growing on social media, it is time for people to come out of their comfort zones and talk to one another

Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, have been monitoring the digital space over the last three years to study the organised manipulation of social media. Their latest findings, published in a study titled ‘The Global Disinformation Order’, is very disturbing. The study shows evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns that have taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017. In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes domestically.

The findings further state that social media has been co-opted by many authoritarian regimes. In 26 countries, computational propaganda is being used as a tool of information control in three distinct ways: to suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions. The study explains how a handful of sophisticated state actors use computational propaganda for foreign influence operations. Facebook and Twitter attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries. It is important to remember that India is among the seven countries. The others are China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The study is particularly damning of Facebook. It reads: “Despite there being more social networking platforms than ever, Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation. In 56 countries, we found evidence of formally organised computational propaganda campaigns on Facebook.”

Good information

Former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger’s reflection on the current Brexit mess in the U.K. seems not only to endorse the study but also points out a new lurking danger. He wrote: “Most foot soldiers in journalism do the job because they absolutely believe in the role of good information in good democracies. Something is stopping them: and the sooner we can fix that the better.” Rusbridger has a simple proposition: “good democracy relies on good information.” He defines good information as the one “that is not only true but also believed”. His short article, “End front-page falsehoods and regain the public’s trust”, explains how we stopped trusting: “We’re no longer very willing to believe almost anybody. Most surveys of trust find very little faith in what government or politicians tell us. But there are also extraordinarily low levels of trust in most media. Nearly two-thirds of people say they can no longer tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods.”

I became a journalist in an era of certainty. Everyone in the profession loved to quote the famous playwright Arthur Miller: “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Digital disruption has created many silos in our public discourse. Instead of dialogue we have been reduced to becoming recipients of the noise generated by echo chambers. They have become so powerful that they deny the space to even give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Initiating dialogue

The time has come to break out of these silos. There is a need to talk to people outside our comfort zones and initiate dialogues. Prime-time television debates have no dialogue; they may be best termed as concurrent monologues. The Readers’ Editor, as an interlocutor between the newspaper and its readers, has a moral obligation to support initiatives that bring back the sprit of the “nation talking to itself” not just among journalists but also among citizens.

In the U.S., the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the SPJ Foundation launched a project in Casper, Wyoming, because it wanted to get “a deep understanding of the reasons so many people distrust news organisations and their reporting.” The SPJ made it clear that its fundamental assumption was that journalism plays an important role in a democracy, so it is of concern when citizens don’t trust the media’s news coverage, particularly reporting that holds elected officials accountable for actions that can impact the public. For six months, a small group of residents in Casper, Wyoming, set aside two hours every few Tuesdays to discuss the press. Though the study was not a scientific one, there was tremendous value in hearing participants honestly and it paved the way for a mutual exchange of ideas.

Next week, I will share some of the initiatives at The Hindu aimed at strengthening trust.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 1:25:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/breaking-silos-regaining-trust/article29550240.ece

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