Truth is stranger than fiction, or is it the other way round nowadays? Whenever one looks at, or listens to the news today, one ‘s immediate tendency is to lightly absorb any political news since the following broadcast will provide alternative facts to it, or dismiss the prior announcement as fake news. So, what source or who are we to believe?
Long gone are the days of handwritten telegrams emanating from news stringers, delivered to cable offices by messengers on bicycles, to be forwarded to news agencies, initially by the rapid finger tapping of manual Morse code operators, later on replaced by the chatter of telex machines, and then the quieter fax machines. Today, major breaking news stories are disseminated almost instantaneously via the internet around the world. Political news, more and more seems to be acquiring the properties of metal elements, as stories now appear to have ductile and malleable characteristics, and acquire new dimensions as the day progresses. Rumours spread faster than bush fires, and are even more difficult (often times nary impossible) to contain once unleashed on an ever expanding, increasingly gullible and unsuspecting populace.
Technology morphed into the form of social media continues to reform the transmission landscape as it refines the specificity of recipients, to whom to direct decisive (mis)information. Is this the 21st century’s version of George Orwell’s Big Brother presented directly to targets for immediate consumption (and unfortunately) with very little analysis and interpretation? The vehicle of politics which plies its trade of manipulated information ‒ white lies, half-truths, call it what you will ‒ is the perfect ally for this misdirection whirlpool of the truth campaign which mankind finds swirling around itself. Ironically, politicians, masters at fear-mongering have excelled at this art of mental manipulation for their own selfish aggrandisement.
The American presidential elections and the UK Brexit referendum of last year were rife with examples of this misdirection. In the former instance, there was the story of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump’s candidacy, whilst in the latter case, one source claimed that the UK was paying the EU £350 million per week when the correct amount was in fact £276 million. Scientific data, long considered a reliable resource of information, is now dismissed in some quarters as fake information, eg climate change is a rumour. Is this the achilles heel of democracy, and is the availability of correct information to the public for their interpretation being threatened?
The conundrum of this plague of misinformation confronted by fact-checkers, researchers and tech companies is a complex problem without an immediate band aid solution. At present there is no control or reference centre to verify or check the veracity of the daily tsunami of information pouring onto the information highway. Stefan Lewandosky, a research scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, sums up this dilemma with the following words, “Having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to deal with.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” according to Oscar Wilde. Where do we find the truth? How do we differentiate truth from deception? Media organisations such as the British Broad-casting Corporation (BBC) have their own fact-checking departments, in the BBC’s case, Reality Check. Independent firms such as the UK’s Full Fact, try to verify persistent claims made by politicians and the media, but understand the immense difficulty of confronting social media, with its ability to reach billions within seconds. The big names in social media appreciate the dilemma created by their own success and have tried taking steps to limit the damage that can be perpetrated through their entities.
Facebook and Twitter both claim to have stringent rules on what can be advertised politically. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook ‘s founder, recently went to great lengths to express his concerns on the abuse of social networks to spread false information, as Facebook updated its advertising policies and supplied its users with the means to flag fake news. Google has stated that it is striving to improve its algorithms so that accuracy is taken into account when search results are displayed.
“On Facebook political bodies can put something out, pay for advertising, put it in front of millions of people, yet it is hard for those not being targeted to know that they have done that…We shouldn’t think of social media as peer-to-peer communication ‒ it is also the most powerful advertising platform ever built,” according to Will Moy of Full Fact.
On the other side of the coin, should powerful internet companies filter what the world is allowed to view? Do people really want to know the truth? Are they comfortable with discovering the fact that the persons whom they trust and like and want to believe, are lying to them? Or do they prefer to remain in a bubble of alternative facts? Do people want to accept facts that are in conflict with their personal points of view? Do they really understand that by signing up for Facebook they have relinquished the right to the privacy of their information on that medium?
Researchers around the globe are currently developing automated fact-checkers that will monitor the outpourings of the internet, television and the newspapers. Can these monitors assist in solving the problem? Time will tell.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything,” said Mark Twain.