Social media, traditional news media and fake news

Sunday, December 10, 2017

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Last week, one of Jamaica's most senior journalists raised the issue of the veracity and accuracy of information purveyed by social media and suggested that the better option is to rely on the traditional news media because they adhere to standards which do not constrain social media.

This issue raised by the founding editor of this newspaper, Mr Desmond Allen, has belatedly been debated in public in Jamaica, although it has raged across the globe, especially in the United States where President Donald Trump has brought attention to what he calls 'fake news'.

The traditional media of television networks, radio stations and newspapers is no longer the main source of information. It has been dwarfed by the rapid proliferation of social media sources of information.

The massive increase in the ability to create, record, video and transmit information has resulted in an exponential growth in the amount of information being disseminated. The result is that the establishment media no longer has a monopoly on the latest information.

The modern information ecosystem has come into existence by the convergence of several technological and cultural factors. Modern culture, thanks to communications technology, is one of speed, instant gratification and micro-bits of information: a 'sound bite'.

People, especially the young, read several instant, short one-liners instead of a few long articles. Consequently, there is superficial information with a correspondent sacrifice of analytical depth. This favours social media instead of established news media.

There is an information overload and hence the only way to cope is to ruthlessly edit incoming information, and the selection is based on the first few words from sources which are randomly chosen, to avoid the impossibility of too many sources.

The consequence is that the majority of people know of events without knowing much of the underlying ideas and causality. They know what events have happened, but not why and how. More information does not necessarily translate into being more informed.

Unfortunately, the information ecosystem includes 'fake news'. The professional media, especially in the US, has helped to create the current situation by inviting non-professional individuals to submit video or audio to be used in established media outlets, often from their cellular phones, thus inadvertently legitimising social media as a source of valid information.

What now exists is an open information system in which individuals are both receiving and putting out information, and there is no filter by professional organisations and experienced journalists.

News and information on the Internet all look the same to those receiving. This receptivity is building on a distrust of established institutions, politicians, established newspapers and TV. The information eco-system's failure is feeding on national and global distrust and discontent with political elites, democracy, institutions, and gatekeepers. People select what sources they listen to and that selection reflects their values, biases and prejudices.

The real danger is that people not knowing who or what to believe will begin to develop even more distrust of media in general, thereby promoting greater ignorance and uncertainty about developments in society.




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