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The Age of Fractured Truth

Subhash Dhuliya

The “headline journalism” is meant to ‘drag the attention” and leave out important details isolating the news from its context. The truth gets buried.  In the process of selecting certain stories to report on while not selecting others or selecting certain details of a story while omitting others, the truth is the causality. What media don’t report has not happened for us. Only those events happen for us what the media report. Multiple and reliable sources of information are missing and we do not get to know an authentic view of the reality

This first phase of the information and technological revolution was facilitated by the integration of computers, telecommunication, and satellite. A networked global ‘village’ had emerged. People had access to diverse sources of news and information. The Internet created numerous platforms of political, social, and cultural interactions. There were high expectations that information will be democratized because of the advent of the internet. It was partially so in the first phase but later the emergence of global information giants in the field of news and information, the democratization process got reversed. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft have huge amounts of data of users to the extent that these companies know more about us more than what we actually know about own self.

The present phase of this information and technological revolution is the integration of information technology and biotechnology and the advent of artificial intelligence which has acquired immense power of control and influence. The era of colonialism of the industrial era has now acquired a new form of data colonialism with immense power to contrail and influence minds or people. Age of the New Media has been transformed into the Age of Digital Media in which data reigns supreme. This is a much higher degree of concentration of media and information power and drastically eroding diversity and plurality.  In the process, dominant voices have suppressed the dissent voices. Dominant giants and the dominant voices are dominating the online spaces. Diversity has become a camouflage to hide the concentration of media power resulting in the marginalization of the truth as we have known it before.

They collect data over a period of time which can be used to influence our behaviuors for various purposes including political preferences. The very act of “Like” on Facebook is enough to analyze our behaviors, preferences or attitude through and artificial intelligence and algorithms. We share data about ourselves the very moment we get connected to the Internet.  They are continuously gathering and exploiting vast quantity of data and through vast resources for the Research and Development can anticipate the future.

The volume of information that is at our disposal is so massive that it is impossible to process it and find out what is authentic and originating from reliable scours or what is fake, disinformation, and misinformation. We are virtually drowned in the ocean of information and not in a position to make any sense out of it.  People keep on accessing their smartphone number many times in a day (according to one study youngsters in developed countries accessed their mobile phone 150 times in a day). Most of us are always on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, or Google News. We face an intense bombardment of information and advertising messages.

Information and data from multiple sources flow at an unprecedented speed and engulf us creating chaos and confusion to the extent that we cannot sort out the truth from lies and facts from fiction. With millions of Web sites, blogs, Tweets, there is an enormous quantity of digital information of suspected reliability and suspected origin. Information Overload takes such a huge toll that most of us often fall prey to rumors, half-truths, and downright lies.

The initial phase of digital media provided diverse sources of news and information to people. It multiplied choices leading to an increase in pluralism. But next phase, drastically witnessing manipulated “choices” and artificial intelligence and algorithms used by social media platforms and search engines expose people of revealing there choices and preferences and also their political orientation. Differing viewpoints and various perspectives of real issues that concern our lives have been marginalized. The diversity and plurality of media is drastically eroded.

Technologies advancing at a pace unheard of before but those who are inventing technology are not aware of its political, economic, social, and cultural implications. It falls in the domain of social sciences which needs to rise to the occasion and address the issues and generate a global wave of awakening

The news as we have known before is dead in dominant media. There exist some dissent voices on some social media platforms but they are drowned in the noise of information flooding by big corporates. The news and information we receive is filtered, selected, slanted, and fabricated. What is left out is often even more important than what is included. The journalism of headlines, clicks, hits, and circulation has diminished the real news. At times, what is in news is not real news but what is left out is the real news. The “headline journalism” is meant to ‘drag the attention” and leave out important details isolating the news from its context. The truth gets buried.  In the process of selecting certain stories to report on while not selecting others or selecting certain details of a story while omitting others, the truth is the causality. What media don’t report has not happened for us. Only those events happen for us what the media report. Multiple and reliable sources of information are missing and we do not get to know an authentic view of the reality.

The very foundation of democracy is an informed citizenry. With the massive amount of fake news, disinformation, and misinformation and the fractured reality that is reflected in the news media, the future of democracy and the future of freedom is a hotly debated subject as of now. Secondly, in the recent past because of the kind of information bombardment people are subjected to, it has become easier to play with their emotions at the cost of rational thinking. Misinformed people cannot make informed choices.

Voting in a democracy is increasingly tilting towards what people “feel” rather than what they “think”. “Free Will” is not free in the traditional sense but can be manipulated in the desired direction by those who control levers of power (the digital media in the present context) and direct people’s feelings and emotions in the desired direction. Democracies thrive in a diverse and pluralistic flow of information through various channels of information which is getting eroded in the new media landscape of the era of digital media. Media freedom and pluralism are at the heart of any democracy which is continuously eroding and getting blurred.

A huge amount of data is being collected on each one of us whenever we visit a website or use social media. Our political orientation, reading habits, consumption pattern, etc. are analysed through algorithms and we can be influenced to behave in a particular way. The information giants have acquired immense power to play with our emotions virtually converting voting patterns in a liberal democracy to be governed by what people ‘feel’ rather than what they ‘think’. The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018 revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of peoples’ Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes. According to new research from Mozilla most videos that people regret watching on YouTube come from YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. The new aggregators manipulate our preferences by overplaying the news that gets more hits.

It is being argued that truth is dead and now we live in the post-truth era. Truth is not what truth is but it can be manufactured. The post-factual or post-reality era, politics are being framed largely by appeals to emotions, disconnected from details of the policy. Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotions and personal beliefs. Global media giants are well equipped to collect data and conduct micro-targeting to play with people’s emotions and beliefs and to take them in the desired direction.

There is huge volume of information at the disposal of a journalist and general public as well. Digging truth from this huge volume of information has been subject of intense debate. The term post-truth era has been coined in 2016 which was termed as Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionary where it is defined as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” “Post-truth politics is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.”

Stephanie Hankey, Julianne Kerr Morrison and Ravi Naik write in a report on “Data and Democracy in the Digital Age” published in Britain in 2018:  “Data has become an increasingly valuable asset for those that control it.  Our interconnected world has become ever more pervasive, ubiquitous and prominent. As personal data has taken an increasing role in all of our lives and our lives translate ever more into electronic media and data, the challenge of who controls that data and what rights we have over that data are not just questions for those in the IT world. They become problems that are as fundamental to us as any other human right.

Yuval Noah Harari stated that “once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, the authority will shift from humans to algorithms. Whilst we have not yet reached a level where human authority cedes to algorithmic decision-making, we have entered a world where personal data allows for micro-targeting with macro effects. Almost everything we perceive and do will end up recorded somewhere. For the most part, this time is spent on social media platforms. This data, in turn, allows the entities that collect it to build extremely accurate psychological profiles on both individuals and groups.

Indeed, entire studies have been written about the possibility of utilising Facebook ‘likes’ alone to understand our psychographic details. Amongst the concerns about such technologies is that the data needed to produce such profiles can be bought and collated from various entities, without involving the individuals concerned. These entities, therefore, have the power to develop extremely personal profiles about our most sensitive personal beliefs without individuals having ever known that they were profiled. The personal detail and accuracy of the results can be remarkable. Facebook ‘likes’ enable algorithms to assess your personality better than your own friends could.”

All these developments pose a danger that we are heading towards a kind of digital dictatorship where few information giants will control the world. The future of liberal democracy is being debated hotly in the context of the power of information giants to influence people to vote in a particular direction.

The rapid proliferation of ‘fake news’- both my mainstream and social media- has disrupted healthy democratic public discourse. The massive outpouring of fake news is eroding the process of democratization of information and creating misinformed public opinion. The question arises that are ordinary people equipped with intellectual skills to evaluate and verify the accuracy of the information and judge the reliability and credibility of the sources from whom the information has originated?

This has given rise to information dissemination systems that have an algorithmic basis and artificial intelligence, controlling access to news and drastically reducing diversity and plurality, and shrinking space for varying and dissenting voices. Historian Yuval Noah Harari has put it in this way in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”: “false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. Commercial firms also rely on fiction and fake news.  Information is becoming highly specialized and complex. It implies that despite the huge volume of information available to people more people know less. The resource information is far more difficult to exploit than land and capital. It requires the highest level of intellectual skills.

The drastic decline in plurality and diversity in the digital age, the unprecedented acceleration process synchronization of political, economic, social, and cultural life has created an entirely new scenario and it is difficult to anticipate the implications.

Technologies advancing at a pace unheard of before but those who are inventing technology are not aware of its political, economic, social, and cultural implications. It falls in the domain of social sciences which needs to rise to the occasion and address the issues and generate a global wave of awakening. The future is uncertain and difficult to predict. The answer is taking shape in the womb of the future. Nothing can be said as of now.

References:

 Anand, Bharat (2016): The Content Trap, Penguin Random House India

Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor and Cukier, Kenneth (2017): Big Data, John Murray (Publishers)

Kovach, Bill and Rosenstein, Tom (2011): Blur: How to Know What’s True in The Age of Information Overload, Bloomsbury, New York

Harari, Yuval Noah (2018): 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Jonathan Cape, London

Charles, Alec and Stewart, Gavin eds (2011): The End of Journalism: News in the Twenty-First Century, Peter Lang, Oxford

Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin and Hanitzsch, Thomas (2009): The Handbook of Journalism Studies, Rutledge, New York

D’Ancona, Matthew (2017): Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, Penguin Random House, UK

Web resources:

https://mondediplo.com/2021/09/13digitisation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-truth_politics

https://ideas.ted.com/are-we-living-in-a-post-truth-era-yes-but-thats-because-were-a-post-truth-species/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_pluralism

https://www.slideshare.net/CmpfEui/new-threats-to-media-pluralism-in-the-digital-age

The author is former Vice-Chancellor, Uttarakhand Open University & Former Professor of Journalism at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Central University of Rajasthan and  Distinguished Professor & Dean, School of Creative Art, Design and Media Studies, Sharda University

 

 

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