The pliability of perception

Above: Is the pen mightier than the fact? Illustration by Lightsource/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1088 for April 11, 2017

There’s a real danger facing traditional media as it struggles to come to grips with the widespread distribution of factoids based on varying levels of untruth.

Much of this confusion began years ago with the social media fuelled growth in satirical and parody news items that increasingly bore a convincing patina of fact. 

There are now dozens of news parody sites vying for eyeballs and the cost of creating a website that clones the feel of news authority has essentially dropped to zero. 

Three decades ago, I created a newspaper parody programme for the Tent Theatre production SnoKone and the Seven Douens. 

To do that, I had to photograph and write the two pages, pay a typesetter and designer to do the artwork and then beg the Guardian to run it on newsprint end rolls after the day’s paper was done. Two pages took two weeks and considerable support from accomplished professionals. 

Today, a web designer with a good idea and Google could create far more than that overnight.

The success of funny on the web alerted anyone with a serious agenda to the ease with which it was possible to create a digital facsimile of a functioning news organisation. 

There’s a useful infographic online (http://i.imgur.com/kP4Yax1.jpg?FB) that charts the startling spread of online news outlets and their positioning on the shifting scale of political “truthiness.”

Layer in a new level of executive dissembling in the White House and the rebranding of outright lies as “alternative facts” and you have a heady brew of fictional factoids fighting for limited consumer attention.

The challenges that traditional media houses face are significant. The Internet has encouraged the preservation of information and ongoing scrutiny of it, which has placed many news publications in the position of undergoing an unusual level of sustained evaluation even as they face focused competition from information producers with clear agendas looking to create opinion echo chambers.

This is happening while traditional media works to meet the demands of responding to a hugely accelerated appetite for news, fuelled by newsfeeds on social media, where reporting is not governed by fact checking, multiple sourcing or even common sense.

Publishers and broadcasters must either be unfashionably late with their reporting or run stories that haven’t passed the normal tests for public consumption. When the public doesn’t seem to care either way, it can seem like overkill to run stories through the usual gauntlet of gatekeeping.

But when a media house doesn’t do that and gets it wrong, it’s going to be pilloried far more vigorously than some guy who made up a silly and fictitious caption to accompany a cool photo.

Everyone expects to find a pig in the mud, as it turns out, not a respected journalist.

Some of the blame for this state of affairs belongs properly at the doorstep of the media managers running modern journalism. A publisher or broadcaster knew when creating a media property that it needed to distribute it. Whether the medium was an antenna or newstand, the job did not end with creating the day’s edition.

But on the Internet, that responsibility for bringing stories to the widest possible audience was first taken over by search engines and then, more decisively of late, by Facebook, which has overwhelmingly assumed the task of deciding what information its considerable user base should see.

Don’t look to Mr Zuckerberg for relief on this front. And don’t depend on his current promises to manage fake news to decisively change much.

Facebook thrives on user interaction and engagement and clickbait headlines do as much for its popularity and longevity as it does for the dozens of garbage news websites that produce that material.

Facebook recently introduced two-click reporting for false news and produced a ten point guide for its users titled “Tips to spot Fake News.”

Produced in partnership with a journalism nonprofit, the guide belongs more usefully taped to the cubicles of every working journalist than it does the dorm rooms of the consumers more likely to be duped by propaganda and parody journalism.

Normal users scrolling through their feed aren’t going to “check the evidence,” “investigate the source,” or “watch for unusual formatting.”

Facebook doesn’t like fake news to the precise extent that it makes its users uncomfortable and no further.

The website of local political positioning news website TT Whistleblower. Click to enlarge.

I’d consider the Facebook guidelines for fake news evaluation baseline working rules for a practising journalist, but they will prove too complicated for the average Facebook citizen to embrace during a daily browse through their feed.

Technology as an enabling tool brings a kind of double-edged democracy to formerly professional processes.

When photography evolved from being a complicated chemical process into pixel manipulation, it became possible for almost anyone to not just make a good photograph, but also to fake one.

The accessibility of once elite publishing tools has now brought the same changes to the news gathering and distribution process. When anyone can create news, any type of news is what you’re going to get.

T&T has its own flavours of both of the most popular styles of faux news.

A satire site, The Late O’Clock News enjoyed significant attention in 2015 and 2016 but most recently appears to have petered out to a placeholder page.

TT Whistleblower, features sharp post artwork and clever infographics, but wears its opposition credentials on its sleeve with every propaganda nuanced post.

Journalism cannot hold the old line. It must redraw a new one, staking out higher ground as verifiers of absolute fact and curators of sensible, orderly and balanced opinion.

But media managers and editors cannot pursue such goals as if the old rules of journalism, governed by authoritative filtering of the firehose of news, still dominated information distribution.

The grapevine is now mainstream and to proceed as if 2017 was just the same as 2007 is to make a terrible and ultimately fatal mistake in strategic planning.