Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

Too much information

I was asked for my opinion on Wiki Leaks and the scandals erupting in cyberspace, where top secret documents suddenly appear to embarrass high•ranking military officials, bureaucrats and corporate barons. Are we justified in having this stuff floating around in the public domain, I was quizzed? Or should we let it all hang out and sock it to these honchos in high places who help each other out by launching wars, who cry for bailouts, and who lock the taxpayer into an “or else” hammer lock in order to fund their shenanigans under threat of terrorism or bankruptcy?

My first reaction was, “Dare anyone speak about this stuff in this day and age? Let’s see • if I am pro•Wiki Leaks, I could get on some nation’s no•fly list; if I am anti•Leaks, the hackers will block my Visa & Master Card accounts, erase me from social networking sites and punish me.” But either way, I could become famous if I go public with my plight. Hmm…

My next reaction was, “Another opinion on Wiki Leaks? Haven’t we made its owner a cult hero already with our nosiness? I mean, don’t we already know that classified stuff exists under any political system? Don’t we keep information protected via copyright, patent and trade secret laws? Aren’t writers agitating to have their copyrights protected and not splashed all over the Internet for free? Okay, and why do we have to have this leaked stuff piled on us in these digital dumpsters, filling our information intake valves faster than the garbage gushing into Toronto’s landfills? Hasn’t anyone learned that “less is more?”

Finally, I caved. “Okay, if you insist, I’ll venture an opinion, but you may not like it.” (Note to reader: Writers are opinionated people)

Disclosing information is good if it makes the world a better place, reveals injustice and leads to its correction – I’m sold on that. Enron was a good example, so was Mount Cashel. But there is a limit to disclosing information, especially if it harms people, property, or both, and especially if nothing good can be salvaged out of the disclosure. Didn’t we only recently coin that phrase “Too Much Information,” one that young people bandy around liberally these days in their text messages? For instance, if two neighbours are getting along, however tenuously, why upset the apple cart by saying to one that the other guy had once called him an asshole? Sure that’s disclosure, but does it advance progress or enhance relationships? Does it make the neighbourhood a better place? Do I need to know what my kids call me when they are mad at Dad?

So my opinion on this business: use common sense, guys! Whistle•blowing and mud•slinging are two different activities, although they both begin with a sense of frustration and a desire for change.

Oh that reminds me—I’d better check the showerhead in my washroom now. Just in case a hacker from either side of the debate, unhappy with my opinion, sneaks in a spy•cam and “captures” me on digital. The fame I have sought as a writer of strong male characters will come to me in the most sudden and unexpected way. I can imagine the instantaneous blurb on You Tube “Extra, Extra: Writer Lets It All Hang Out. Check him out • he is not as hot as his fiction!”