The push me/pull you pursuit of truth
Experts are evenly split on whether the coming decade will see a reduction in false and misleading narratives online. Those forecasting improvement place their hopes in technological fixes and in societal solutions. Others think the dark side of human nature is aided more than stifled by technology. – PewInternet.org
The internet was projected to be the greatest benefit of our social structure, and while it has brought about incredible progress, it has also been the near-death of journalism. Where once we relied on investigation and research to help in offering background and details, we now find that these traits have been replaced with the ability to have clickable headlines and misinformation. The credentials, sweat, and tears that were shed by yesterday’s reporting have been substituted with the idea that anyone can be a writer, say whatever they want, and wrap it around the misguided concept of “truth.”
Journalism and truth have morphed into a constant battle of attention versus credibility, and the attention economy has been winning.
Making this sort of comment is not to say that the idea of profit versus reporting has never been in play. Anyone that has worked in a newspaper knows that there was always a constant fight between editorial and advertising. Each side made the credulous claim that readers bought the publication because of them; with the editorial staff on a constant edge to keep from appearing as if any story was affected by advertising revenue. It’s also clear to indicate that not all publications have held themselves to good standards, as has been demonstrated with “yellow journalism.”
Experts from a broad range of genres are taking a good, cold, hard look at what is now known as the “post-truth” era; and it has been a cause for alarm on many levels. As a society, we base our opinions, ideas, philosophies, and even political voting on the information that we receive. A democracy relies on the ideologies of those that can use critical thinking to separate fact from fiction and report without bias. When everything that we read must be questioned as to whether it is true or not, there is a potential for the social structure to crumble.
The PewInternet.org article addressed this head-on in The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online:
“When BBC Future Now interviewed a panel of 50 experts in early 2017 about the ‘grand challenges we face in the 21stcentury’ many named the breakdown of trusted information sources. ‘The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,’ said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. ‘Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.’”
The Loss of Print was Just the Beginning…
One might view the age of misinformation as the blip that changed the world. As newspaper publications around the country began to struggle, fail, and then close, new online opportunities opened up but lacked the same qualities. In essence, the loss of print was the symptom of a greater disease that infiltrated the U.S. and then around the globe. Where we once had a trusted sanctuary to view the latest data, we now have subject lines more akin to the grocery store tabloids.
The generations that are growing up in a net-based environment never experienced the kind of trusted news reporting that was part of the essence of our very economy. Instead, they are surrounded by short attention span, often untrue memes, click-bait headlines, and conspiracy theories that are only bound by the writer’s imagination.
The idea of credibility is strained even further when you add the latest technologies that involve neural network machine-learning algorithms that can synthesize images and voice and create videos that are entirely fictional. With the twist of a dial, environments and backgrounds are added, and facial features and emotions can be controlled. Popularly known as “deepfakes,” these horrendous creations are now a threat to privacy, security, and reputation.
Real journalism has historically been held to higher standards, and these are exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, whose preamble states:
“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.
The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.”
The ability to create what is being called “fake news” that attracts and maintains the public’s interest is based on the talent to appeal to humanities deepest instincts. We have a natural desire to be drawn to things that are easier, and in this short-attention-span time, very few will examine or even question whether something is true. This attitude lends an air of false credibility to misinformation that has been blatantly designed to lie.
Seek Out and Report the Truth…Unless it interferes with Profit
A business model cannot include both honest journalism and unfettered profit. These two philosophies are diversely opposite, relinquishing quality for quantity, and is the basis for the popularity of misinformation. Media sources have become divisions of marketing, seeking out and creating the filter bubbles that they know will bring the big pay-offs, while ignoring any relevant news that may be important, but is less profitable.
Where media was once the baseline landscape for the formulation of opinions and ideas, we now see that social media and the trends for the moment are influencing all. Misinformation has become commonplace, and as a result, the public not only doesn’t trust what is being reported, they have become deeply suspicious of the polarization of bias. Attention equates to profits and consumers are now learning exactly how they are being manipulated.
The “attention economy” has overtaken every bastion of honesty and as we incorporate more technology into the mix, we see sophisticated data mining that can slice-and-dice the information being spread to optimize the biggest dollar gain. The problem with this kind of landscape is that it is based on distrust which will ultimately lead to the threat-actors being exposed. A society cannot survive in an environment of uncertainty, and it is in this single thread of hope that we are beginning to see a shift in the awareness factor and the dynamics of the players.
As exposure is being revealed, the people-behind-the-curtain are admitting to the falsehoods. Experts, including government officials, are recognizing the use of weaponized technology as the tool for misinformation and profit, and the social engineering of how we think. Companies have been formed and are being hired to use psychographics to wrap stories around what interests the public, instead of the news that is happening. The fact that these organizations have designed an emotional leash to control the public has been moving from a slow boil to a more massive outrage.
A Rebranding Tipping Point May Have Been Reached
The effort of fact checkers to try to distill and remove all that is misinformation has been beyond a great challenge. According to Facebook and Feedly, the deepest and largest news aggregator, it’s estimated that nearing 100 million pieces of new information is launched on the internet on a daily basis. A close assumption would be that around ninety percent of the information is repetitive, this leaves about 5 million pieces of data that require checking for confirmation of truth. Sadly, the professional fact-checkers only have a combined ability to fact check a couple of thousand articles each month. This volume equates to the leaking of millions of pieces of misinformation that is not only on the internet but is also shared on almost an exponential basis.
The answer to the battle between attention and credibility economies may be in the creation of entirely new entities that can craft the kind of technology that can win this war. Turning to technology to right the wrong can be an opportunity that brings a number of elements into the arena. Addressing the demand, these organizations need to help to rebrand what is considered to be ethical and what is not. Rewarding those that specialize in offering well-researched and honest dialogue can be a kind of return to well-proven methods of operation.
Social media giants Google and Twitter have already begun the process by partnering with organizations to assist in the fight against fake news in the EU. In a Reuters article:
“European Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said on Wednesday that Facebook, Google, Twitter (TWTR.N), Mozilla and advertising groups – which she did not name – had responded with several measures.
‘The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and …we welcome this,’ she said in a statement.
The steps also include rejecting payment from sites that spread fake news, helping users understand why they have been targeted by specific ads, and distinguishing ads from editorial content.”
The era of attention economy may be continuing to lose as additional companies are formed and software developed. The will seek out and reveal the bad guys using AI technologies that can put our minds at ease. These will be the superheroes that the public will look to for “saving the day.”
And after all, we all love a hero.