Post No.: 0094
Expanding on Post No.: 0064 – on the one hand, the Internet is fantastic because it liberates information, allowing it to be easily and freely shared (e.g. public interest news, facts, lessons), but on the other hand it is worrisome because it liberates information, allowing it to be easily and freely shared (e.g. private information, pirated materials, misinformation, bull, lies, propaganda, trolling)!
It also hasn’t gotten rid of the centralisation of power – it has arguably made this problem worse when we see a small handful of incredibly powerful and far-reaching (ever increasingly into more areas and moments of our lives), global technology/media giants who are hard to practically avoid in our daily lives, even if we don’t want to use their products.
As it currently is, this Internet and social media age is not quite the utopia for truthful and factual information – the truths can be found but in large parts it’s the Wild West. Too many who know too little publish too much, and too many have self-interests that conflict with telling the complete truth and only the truth. It can be very difficult to discern between truths and lies, hence why we all need to learn about news literacy.
There’s no self-correcting mechanism to ensure that only the truth survives on the web – for every one truth, fact or best theory, there can be multiple falsehoods, dominated theories, misunderstandings or bull; and all that’s on the web can last there indefinitely too, hence all these falsehoods, etc. will just keep on accumulating on the web and polluting or obscuring the truth, waiting to be intentionally found via confirmation-biased searches or accidentally stumbled upon. They don’t die off – they just pile up and up there in ever-greater webpage numbers and comments, influencing people’s thoughts on a daily basis. If anything put on the web can last there essentially forever then all these lies just won’t die!
Natural selection on the Internet is based on popularity or who gets the most attention, rather than the truth. There’s no survival pressure for even the most blatant nonsense, for things on the Internet can potentially last there as long as the Internet exists. So the Internet, and all that knowledge released into the world, hasn’t actually made people believe in less rubbish – in fact, in many areas, it has led to people believing in even more rubbish (e.g. extremist religious rhetoric, pseudoscience, conspiracies, climate change denial). And that’s because a lot of information on the Internet is rubbish, and is put up there by individuals, governments, corporations and other parties with particular self-serving interests, biases and agendas.
Search engine algorithms also aren’t designed to bring the most truthful or impartial webpages to the top either – they are generally ranked based on the number of (natural) backlinks i.e. according to popularity. Or, because some results positions are paid for – those who are the richest/can afford the highest bids will get preferred positions on the first pages of search results rather than necessarily the most truthful, informative or impartial sources. Search engine algorithms evolve, different search engines use different algorithms, and I’ve oversimplified search engine optimisation, but certainly whatever the case – no algorithm so far can work out what’s the most factual or which opinions are the most impartial. (And whatever rules they use, the rules of an algorithm will likely always be eventually worked out and gamed, often first by well-funded and/or well-supported bull merchants.) Searching for the truth is often difficult in the offline world too though – it can take a lot of time effort. It all speaks about the general human social world of the value of deception, counter-deception, counter-counter-deception, etc..
For example, there are a lot of ‘astroturfing’ websites that are set up purposely for mudslinging the opposition and casting doubt on scientific findings – they masquerade as independent grass-roots campaigns but they’re actually sponsored by large corporations or political organisations for their own profit maximisation interests and/or agendas.
Wikipedia is generally a brilliant and indispensable source of information, but we must be aware that a Wikipedia entry can take information from a source that is itself incorrect, and people who use this Wikipedia entry as a source will therefore spread this misinformation around, thus misinformation can easily propagate and perpetuate throughout the Internet via amateur, or sometimes even professional, journalism. Anyone can author or alter almost any Wikipedia page at any time too. Most readers will assume that it’s a faultless source of factual information but pages can change depending on the input of the user who last changes it. It’s therefore not always a reliable source of information – particularly biographical information, which can often be sourced from unreliable gossip magazine and tabloid stories themselves if one checks the references at the bottom. We must all still conduct our own detective work by cross-examining different primary sources. (And if it’s biographical information, then put far more weight on official sources or the words of the persons themselves unless you can find hard evidence of why they might be lying.)
Therefore just because a lot of people believe in something because of what they’ve read on the Internet, and even if there are seemingly numerous independent sources saying the same thing, that popularity of belief alone doesn’t necessarily make it true – they may have all simply followed and republished the same misinformation. (The word ‘loosing’ instead of ‘losing’, or ‘loose’ when trying to say ‘lose’, is an example of how a meme, belief or understanding (or in this case a misunderstanding) can permeate and be perpetuated and thus reinforced across the world, even amongst otherwise excellent speakers and writers of the English language. This is a relatively harmless example but it’s an example of how a misunderstanding can become incredibly popular and taken as correct by many.)
It’s hardly to say that everything is ‘false news’ or ‘fake news’ nowadays. Fabricated news is not a new phenomenon but nowadays it can spread fast, and also a growing number of people now label things as being ‘fake news’ simply because they disagree with them or they’re unfavourable to them, which is not applying critical thinking or news literacy skills at all. They’re applying propaganda techniques instead. Political satire should be taken as satire too. People accuse certain news outlets of being biased, which is often fair, but at the same time fail to recognise their own biases and personally trusted, biased sources of news, and this is all a problem too.
We are also not mere passive recipients of news nowadays – we are also influencers, creators and disseminators of news via social media. We shape what journalists and news outlets wish to report on because they ultimately want to grab our furry attentions, sell their papers/magazines and generate clicks on their websites because that’s what ultimately makes them revenue (mainly via selling advertising space on their papers, magazines, websites, videos and social media pages, usually), because in turn they ultimately want to please their shareholders who invest in their companies. So they want to follow whatever we’re interested in. But this isn’t all good though because a large part of the market will generally gravitate towards the ‘lowest common denominator’, as it were (e.g. banal celebrity news stories rather than far more important and serious global news. We’ll make a knowingly biased exception for cat or dog videos though – woof woof!)
Before the Internet, and when there were only a handful of TV channels, radio stations and magazines, the biases of the major media corporations (or states) shaped the news and they were the gatekeepers of information. But instead of only them nowadays (e.g. the biases of the giant social media platforms themselves when they act as the gatekeepers and interfere with what’s allowed on their platforms, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) – it’s either the ‘lowest common denominator’ biases of news consumers, the biases of groups with political agendas who target social media users, or our own individual biases shaping and filtering the news we choose to receive. If the news is tailored to our own individually personalised interests then it’ll be biased towards only what we personally want to see (or at least what the algorithms of social media and other media platforms think we’re interested in), meaning that we’re only seeing the world via our own filter bubbles and echo chambers, and in turn meaning that we’re not going to see or hear much from perspectives, sources and worldviews other than our own existing ones, and thus reinforcing and entrenching our current worldviews.
This means that personalisation or personal choice (of news sources and/or stories in this context) is not always good for us. A lot of us now don’t get to see a multiple-perspective or wide enough view of the world because our news is so personalised to our own individual interests. This fuels sharp, polarised divisions in opinion in society, and it has been facilitated by modern media technologies. Nuanced views aren’t sensational enough to grab most people’s attentions compared to extreme views in this modern world where everything is trying to grab our limited attention, and so nuanced views (which are typically the most informed views) get crowded out.
Via our personal echo chambers, we not only build a very one-sided story to reinforce our own existing beliefs but build up an over-generalised propaganda-fuelled stereotype of groups who support a different view (e.g. regarding abortion, that all pro-lifers don’t care about women or girls, or that all pro-choicers don’t care about the value of early human life – when in reality, just about everyone cares about both but people differ only in how to weigh one against the other in a situation where there’s no black-or-white objectively moral correct answer).
The social media revolution is liberating, democratising and brings many social benefits to its users. There have been pros and cons but I’m overall glad not to have been that submersed into this world of social media until this blog. I’ve not picked up a lot of false news and misinformation to influence my views on anything. I’ve not even been subconsciously influenced by targeted adverts on social media because I’ve not really been on these platforms much at all. There’s been no reliance on personalised news aggregators or other filter bubbles and echo chambers. I’m moreover glad that, instead, I’ve been educating myself on issues primarily via formal educational MOOCs from reputable world-class institutions, such as Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Berkeley, British Columbia, Australian National University, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Leiden, Edinburgh, The Open University and literally dozens more. And my current news sources include reputable outlets like the BBC and ITN, amongst others, without preference. I’m glad I’ve specifically taken courses on the subjects of critical thinking and news literacy way before the term ‘fake news’ was established.
Now, as I’ve started to properly enter the world of online social media, I’m far better armed to be aware of and to avoid questionable sources of news (well all news sources are ultimately ‘questionable’ – no source is beyond question, so maybe ‘unreliable due to conflicts of interest, a lack of good research or other reasons’ is the term I’m looking for). Indeed this means I am now myself a part of the blogging community and social media world, because I thought it’s finally time to let my voice be heard. I will still likely make some honest mistakes and my thoughts should be critiqued like anyone else’s, but, for you reading this blog, I hope I provide a different kind of voice.
Woof! News literacy is a pertinent topic and more will be covered on it in future posts. In the meantime, please tell us whether you think news literacy should be taught at High school level, or is starting to be taught at this level, where you are in the world, via the Twitter comment button below?