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.

Crowdfunding for Fiction

A new source of funding, but will it last?

I have been following this new phenomenon as it relates to fiction writers, and have often wondered where it would lead. On the surface, it looks like a pretty cool thing – a funding source that never existed before, a replacement to the publisher’s advance, this time, paid forward by readers. But then I tried to look at the pros and cons (I’m cautious by nature) and this is what I came up with:

Pros

a)Money paid up front to recognize the writer’s effort.

b)A vote of confidence by readers on the success of the book.

c)Advance publicity for the writer and her work

d)The opportunity to create new followers from the crowdfunding space.

e)A yardstick to measure the book’s potential before going through the expense of publishing it.

Cons

a)Publicly perceived failure if the sum of funds targeted is not raised.

b)An expectation of performance by readers that can put undue pressure on the writer.

c)Intrusion by readers through discussion forums (some call it collaboration) on the writer’s idea and delivery, thus cramping his style or forcing him to make tough choices.

d)Withdrawal by traditional funding sources (i.e. publishers, grants organizations etc.) when they know that this public funding source is now a mainstream event and should be a writer’s first port of call for financial assistance.

e)Withdrawal by crowdfunders when the space gets “crowded” and choices have to be made, or when diminishing returns accrue.

Crowdfunding, or any other patronage model for that matter, had to happen, as traditional sources began to dry up. But as it relates to fiction, where we have created a culture of “content is free” I am finding it hard to understand why consumers will pay it forward to fund a book, and pay far more than the price of a copy (which they were reluctant to buy in the first instance due to the “free” thing we cultivated) when they do not know its outcome. When the faddishness dies out, will crowdfunding for fiction dry up? Or has crowdfunding opened readers’ eyes to the plight of writers who spend lives of quiet desperation on their creations that have then to go through myriad channels of gate keeping and rejection before a lucky few spill out through the front doors of traditional channels? Are crowdfunders fighting the battle on behalf of writers?

Whatever the outcome, this new development in the world of writers is a welcome one and I shall follow it closely, perhaps even dip my foot in the waters when it comes the time for the release of my next book.