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The Fourth Estate
Wisdom Letter #44 | The One About Media
“A collection of facts is not the truth”
How do you know if a piece of information is true or false?
Do you take it at face value? Just because its “published” in a book, in a newspaper or on a page on the internet?
Or do you go to the source yourself and verify it?
Verification is easy if the information is within your circle of influence, if it pertains to places and people you know and care about deeply.
Of course, this strategy is not scalable.
What happens when the information is regarding events from across the world? What do you do when you’re told that a leader on the other side of the planet is planning to sabotage your country?
And what do you do when you find out that a deadly virus is spreading across the world which can potentially harm your own life someday?
How do you verify this kind of information?
Do you rely on the “publisher” of the information then?
And how do you judge the efficacy of the publisher? Her incentives, biases and down right incompetence may cause her to distort the information, right?
Heck, the very process of her trying to explain an event in her own words will miss some of the tiny nuances of a story. The nuances that may be critical to understanding the event better.
Journalists had been the purveyors of information since the invention of writing and the proliferation of the printing press.
Over centuries their role evolved into becoming the gatekeepers of truth, as well as the perpetrators of falsity.
Journalists were all we had for a long time.
Rest of us mere mortals relied upon them to tell us how to think and even what to think about a particular issue. We had to trust them to tell us what was right, what was wrong, and more importantly, what was true and what was false.
Sometimes we were well guided, but at other times we were misled.
The internet has changed that. Massively.
Today everyone on the internet is a publisher. We all have a large megaphone in our pockets that we can use to shout out to the world what we think is the truth.
This has led to a sea of misinformation, disinformation, rumor mongering, conspiracy theories and fake news on the internet.
Of course amidst the vast sea of falsehood there are still some islands of truth. Some islands still guarded by old time journalists, and some by brand new fact checkers.
The nature of the dissemination of information has changed completely over the last 20 years, and our journalists must adapt with it, or they risk becoming obsolete. More importantly, we need them to step up right now more than ever, in the middle of an infodemic.
Today on The Wisdom Project, we take a look at how to tackle viral news in the times of a pandemic. We try to understand why the news industry is failing, and what can we do about it.
And we see how we can protect the truth in the age of misinformation.
Fighting the Infodemic
Back in March American President Donald Trump tweeted this—
Now, I don’t trust the guy, of course, but I read about HCQ’s efficacy from a couple of other handles as well, handles which I do trust.
And so I, along with millions of other gullible “followers” of social media influencers were lead to believe that we finally have a drug that works.
Of course, the drug is anti-malarial, not anti-viral, and it is not yet proven to be working against COVID-19. 3 months and 10 million cases later, research is still on.
A vaccine or drug will take time, we all understand that, but the deeper issue is the spread of mass hysteria because of false information like this.
Apart from wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and frequently washing our hands, we also need to learn how to deal with misinformation about the virus. And how to help stop its spread.
Checkout this article from ‘The Atlantic’ that does a great job of explaining step by step how we should be dealing with this infodemic.
One important learning—
Fake news is not a technology problem, its a human problem, and its as old as human civilization. It is only augmented by technology.
So the solution will also not be a technology solution, it will be a human solution, just augmented by technology.
Check out the article—
The News is Dead
Well, it certainly is dead in its traditional form, be it in print or in television.
It’s dead on TV, because it has been replaced with shouting matches to grab more and more eyeballs. It is merely becoming a series of attempts by panelists to speak faster than you can press the next button on your remote control.
It is dead in print, because there are no eyeballs on print media. The traditional advertising it relied upon to fund its reportage has moved online.
Facebook and Google are taking in all the advertising money to fine-tune their attention harvesting algorithms, while local newspapers are forced to vacate their office buildings because they can’t make rent.
News is not breaking, it is broken.
Watch this video from Hasan Minhaj’s show ‘Patriot Act’ where he explains how the news industry is being destroyed. And go support your local newspaper.
The State of Journalism
Journalism used to be an idealistic profession, a quest for truth. It was believed that the job of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But the advent of 24 hour news channels first, and the internet and social media platforms after that, have changed the landscape of traditional journalism entirely.
The pace and rhythm of news have changed so drastically, that it can be said today that the more news you watch, the less informed you become.
Nidhi Razdan has been a TV journalist in India for over 21 years now. And she has witnessed this change first hand from behind the camera.
Listen to this episode of ‘The Seen and The Unseen’ podcast where she discusses the current state of journalism with host Amit Varma.
Her experiences and opinions shed an interesting light on the challenges of a modern journalist.
Check it out—
Protecting the Truth
“A lie travels around half the world before the truth can get its boots on”
- Mark Twain
Might I add, with the wheels of the internet, a lie travels all around the world before the truth can even get out of bed.
Sinan Aral is a data scientist, he has studied the spread of fake news on social media platforms over the last 15 years.
His research is interesting, and in his Ted Talk, he proposes some solutions to tackle this challenge as well.
But what is most revealing to me is that fake news doesn’t spread because of Twitter bots or Facebook algorithms, instead, it spreads because our brains crave novelty. We forward unverified information just because its new, out of the ordinary, and we want to look cool in front of our friends.
That explains a lot.
Check out his complete Talk and the results of his research. Its fascinating—
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote worth pondering
No one is going to tell you the truth. They’re only going to tell you their version. So, if you want the truth, you have to seek it out for yourself.
— The fifth Estate
Is there such a thing as objective truth? or is all information just a subjective interpretation of cherry-picked facts? That’s a philosophical debate we park for some other day.
But today we must realize that the onus is on us to seek out our truth for ourselves. Our quest for truth will take us in places we might not be comfortable in going. We will have to seek out varied perspectives on the same piece of information, hold contrary opinions in our head at the same time, and try to make sense of what is going on.
And in the process, we might come somewhere close to the truth.
Think about it.
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This was Wisdom Letter #44. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 43 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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Aditi & Ayush
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