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.

Citizen Journalism vs. Traditional Journalism – which should we trust?

I have been following this ongoing debate as to whether free journalistic content on the Internet and real•time amateur photos uploaded from the world’s flashpoints will outpace traditional journalism. No, say the traditionalists: our investigative journalists go deep and cover many viewpoints. Wrong, say the citizen journalists: our information is current and we have no profit motive behind it. We are impartial, counter the traditionalists. You are paid by advertisers, so you have to be politically correct, say the rebels. Our personnel risk their lives in the world’s hotspots and many of us have died in the line of duty, say the traditionalists. We are in the line of fire, says a rebel, poking his head out of a bombed•out building to snap the latest atrocity on his iPhone and upload it for the world’s viewing pleasure (or horror).

I am not sure who is right. Certainly, Internet 2.0 has provided for an instantaneous dialogue between writers and readers and we are not satisfied any longer with just the bare presentation of facts, arguments, propaganda and lies. And the very static “letters to the editor,” – that is, the traditionalists’ old fashioned attempt to stimulate audience participation – pales under the online world’s “like” and “comment” buttons that accompany most e•journal pieces these days. “Going viral” happens faster on the Internet than in traditional media. The fact that most traditionalists have embraced the Internet to issue e•versions of their paper editions means that they don’t want to be left behind. To make matters worse for the old guard, the recent telephone bugging scandals of the traditionalists have not endeared them to readers. Traditional content providers are out to sell advertizing – we all know that – so mass appeal is where their interests lie and the citizen journalists are left to cover the niches. Therefore, one could argue, how comprehensive is traditional journalism if it is shaped by a powerful sponsor with vested interests?

Not getting paid for citizen journalism, while this indicates purity of intention, could also include poorly written pieces and content emanating from those with undisguised axes to grind. But we have also heard of “right wing” or “left wing” newspapers in the traditional space. On the other hand, traditionalists are lifers and insist that their journalists are immersed in their subject, and provide accuracy, structure, responsibility and voice, while citizen journalists are scattered in their presentation and may quickly get bored and move onto other pursuits once they have had their fill of saving the world or exposing its underbelly.

I too have dabbled in citizen journalism and like the fact that I do not have to pay obeisance to an uncaring editor who may edit, alter, or reject my submission because it is not to his liking or displeases his sponsors. It has allowed me to view the world and comment on its idiosyncrasies while maintaining a paid career elsewhere. I do not entertain ads on my website or blog for the privilege of being free of interference. I have thus managed to escape the moniker of “jaded journalist” or “corporate lackey.”

I am not sure which side is better for both have pros and cons. I am grateful that Internet 2.0 has allowed many of us who care, to share our views with the world without relying on the narrow portal of traditional journalism to showcase us. It has also given the reader a wider spectrum of opinion to consider and a bigger headache in sorting out the wheat from the chaff.