Freedom of press

Freedom of press and fake news

If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism

February 17th 2017 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward

Illustration by Mike Reddy

Freedom of press is a fundamental tenet of the United States and is even written into its Constitution. Its purpose was to monitor the operations of government, protecting the people from tyranny creeping up on them before they could realize it.

Journalists are often tasked with taking the humdrum language of statutes, bills, and meetings and translating them into common, easily understandable language. This serves the essential purpose of allowing those who would not otherwise be aware of the inner workings of governmental bureaucracy to stay informed – at least to a certain level.


Fake news or no news?

When Thomas Jefferson was asked whether he would rather have newspapers without government or government without newspapers, he replied: “A government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.

In Jefferson’s more eloquent, longer response, he goes on to spell out the importance of honest journalism. In short, it protects people from the government and allows us to actively participate in democracy without having to go through the pain of deciphering the language of bills and statutes.

Tweet by Donald Trump

It is no secret that the Trump administration has its qualms with journalists. Throughout his campaign, Trump consistently berated the media and reporters, calling them dishonest and unreliable as well as accusing them of adhering to a hidden agenda.

Among his insults include mocking a disabled reporter , labelling a reporter as a “sleazebag” at a press conference for asking about sexual assault allegations, and most recently denouncing all media outlets he disagrees with as “fake news”.

The phenomenon of fake news is particularly damaging. It is always good to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, but complete distrust and disqualification is an entirely different story.


Authoritarian tactics

What he is doing is not simply puffing out his chest; he is creating mass distrust against major news sources which do not support his political onslaught. This is destructive, as it delegitimizes an industry that should be serving as a lookout for society.

Trump has long been subjected to an echo chamber of his own bigotry, and he does not like it. From the beginning of his campaign he castigated the media for any sort of negative attention, even when it was simply repeating what he said.

He has instilled a distrust in media to the point where many of his supporters no longer believe the news if it offers a conflicting viewpoint to their own narrative. This may be indicative of other issues plaguing the mind of Trump supporters, but that is another story entirely.

Tweet by CNN

This unprecedented behavior – tarnishing the media’s credibility – is far more destructive than making a mockery of a long-respected career.

Most recently, White House chief strategist and author of a number of the president’s executive orders, Steve Bannon, told the media to “keep its mouth shut”. This is not even a sly attempt at censorship: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States”.

Later, when questioned about his concerns regarding White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s standing with the media, he responded: “Are you kidding me? We think that’s a badge of honor. Questioning his integrity – are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work”. This is dangerous and hypocritical language from a man who once ran a rather questionable publication called Breitbart.


Orwellian atmosphere

Journalists typically avoid cliché as it tends to be less impactful than an original commentary and it can be easily dismissible, but sometimes it is too relevant to ignore.

In this case, the cliché of likening George Orwell’s fantastic novel 1984 to our current political situation is all too easy. It is low-hanging fruit. That novel is not supposed to be a manual, but it seems the Trump administration is hell-bent on giving it a good try.

Barely a week into his presidency, Trump ordered a total media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was suspiciously close in time to his executive order to push forward the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. It ordered all EPA agencies not to access social media or send out press releases, stipulating that any press contact must be approved by a member of the Trump administration.

Photograph from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

“Incoming media requests will be carefully screened”, a directive said. “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.” The Ministry of Truth would approve of these actions, but they are not conducive to a free and open society.

As of the first week of the presidency, Sean Spicer is not as loquacious as a press secretary should be when fielding questions from reporters. He has given a lot of short or dismissive answers, and in his first press conference he was reluctant to call on reporters from major news organizations.

The fine print of this action is far more frightening than it may appear. That is because journalism is more important than some care to admit. This unnecessary muckraking puts a strain on an already struggling industry, but whether you like it or not: you need journalism.

This inherent distrust in the media is dangerous because it allows the new administration to act without discretion. Newspapers, and this newer generation of online publications, should serve as a watchdog for its readers.


Journalism is a flawed necessity

Trump has made a lot of wild, inflammatory claims; most recently that he believes 3 to 5 million people voted illegally during the election. This claim, like most others, is entirely unsubstantiated, and the fact that his investigation focuses on states in which he lost to Hillary Clinton seems to indicate that he is still a little sore about losing the popular vote.

However, his tendency to spit wild, unsubstantiated claims is exactly why we need journalism. His populous following will blindly adhere what he has to say, but the greater American people, and the rest of the world for that matter, have a right to know what he is saying, how he is, saying it, and whether there is any truth to it.

Illustration by Shutterstock

This is not to say media organizations are without flaw. Many popular news outlets are wildly biased and their content adheres to an agenda instead of laying out the facts. A good example of this was Breitbart’s attempt to discredit climate change, which was swiftly refuted by Weather.com. Breitbart cited one organization’s estimates, ignoring the plethora of other organizations giving exceedingly different assessments.

Another example is NowThis, a popular left-wing media source, which chopped up a video of one of Trump’s speeches in response to the Orlando shooting. Put side by side, the NowThis version shows a doctored and somewhat dishonest representation of what Trump said. In reality, it was far more moderate than it was made out to be. It is easy for media to enforce a certain narrative by presenting things out of context.

These organizations, by adhering to a biased agenda, have the same effect as Trump’s media onslaught. They create a distrust in media and contribute to the deligitimization of major news sources, lumping them all together with tabloids and profit-driven sensationalism.


Skepticism vs. deligitimization

It is true that one should approach all matters with a dose of healthy skepticism, and that rings especially true when consuming media in today’s world.

However, to attempt to entirely discredit an industry which was instrumental to sustaining democracy and is integral to governmental transparency stinks of something viler, and much more malicious than the surface level actions would have one believe. While some media outlets do express an inherent bias, trying to paint all conservatives in a negative light, this is not true of many major media outlets.

While the media as a whole is far from perfect, encouraging and protecting honest journalism is vital to protecting civil liberties. If you want to protect society from governmental wrongdoings – not just the Trump administration’s – then protect and support free media.

If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

Digital Bubbles

Digital Bubbles

How social media affects our politics

January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi

Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.

Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.


A polarisation of ideas

As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.

One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.

Diagram by Washington Post

However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.

This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.


Social networks & algorithms

The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.

This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.

Diagram by Dennis Jenders

Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.

Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.


Reinforcement thinking

For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.

My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.

Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.

Photograph by Dominick Reuter

Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?

Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.

They may have seen, for example, an article about alleged sex crimes perpetrated by asylum applicants in Germany during New Year’s Eve, or another article showing ISIS terrorists infiltrating refugee flows and then carrying out attacks in Europe.

The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.


Profit-driven sensationalism

Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.

Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.

Article from Daily Mail

A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.

Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.

The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.


United in diversity

The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.

While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.

There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward