Posts Tagged ‘fake news’

More thoughts on social media

March 23, 2021

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the problems with social media, given the attention it gets nowadays. First of all, I think we need to be aware of several distinctions:

There’s using social media for personal/friend/family contact: WhatsApp messaging, Facebook and the like; we are communicating with people we know (pretty) well. This is different from reacting to posts from strangers/ casual acquaintances/ friends of friends that also pop up in such things as our Facebook feeds: how well do we know that person and their attitudes? Does this/ should this matter? And think about how the platform shapes your communication: Twitter limits what how much can say, Facebook algorithms choose which of your ‘friends’ will see a post, Instagram heightens the competitive in you…

What about the audience: is it private (WhatsApp and the like) or more generally public (Facebook, Twitter &c)? Does this make a difference?

What device are we using? Because we all know about fat fingers, it being harder perhaps to type accurately on the tiny keyboard on a phone, and so we may tend to write shorter, curter, less subtle messages or responses. I know I may be showing my age here! But it’s different writing something with the relative comfort of a table with a laptop and fully-sized keyboard, imho… So, an e-mail or a blog post like this one is an open-ended communication, not limited by the platform or the device, only by my reader’s attention-span (tl;dr?)…very different, as I can try to explain and nuance my ideas and opinions when I’m allowing myself five or six hundred words.

And this ought to be linked to things like the limit on the number of characters on a platform like Twitter: how subtle can you be? This should matter.

There are broader issues, such as the fact that mobile phones are not often used for talking: they’re mini pocket computers, offering all sorts of comms possibilities. But think about the difference between a conversation and a text exchange: you don’t hear your correspondent’s voice, its tone, the pauses, the noises they make as part of their reaction to what you’ve said; you don’t pick up cues from them. The entire interaction is shaped and developed differently. And don’t imagine that emoticons help: it’s like letting someone else make all those non-verbal communications for you.

There’s also one’s attitude to responding: psychologically the ‘ping’ announcing the arrival of a message primes us to make an instant – unconsidered? – response. Why does this have to be the case? I’ve lost count of the number of times some one has told me of a message and said, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ and I’ve found myself replying, ‘There’s no law that says you have to reply instantly!’ An instant response with no thinking time may be too angry, too emotional, too simplistic a response, and damage is done instantly; it will necessarily be brief because you’re typing on a phone… When someone’s there with you, or you’re talking to them on the phone, if you put your foot in it you can often verbally backtrack and correct things: in a text exchange, someone can go off in a huff and ignore your messages…

And, of course, phones have always replaced physical social interaction, where you can actually see the other person and pick up all sorts of visual cues and messages from body language.

At some level, none of the above is rocket science, if you think a little about it; the problem is that the media do not allow that sort of reflectiveness easily, and it seems to me that this is how misunderstandings from throwaway comments, whether to total strangers or someone we know well, arise and do damage. And no, I don’t have any wise advice to offer, other than ‘Switch brain on!’

There’s also the question of fake news, false information, propaganda or whatever you want to call it; messages sent out en masse by organisations. Perhaps this was not anticipated in the early days of social media, but once it became apparent that enormous amounts of money could be generated from all kinds of advertising, it was surely inevitable. The structure of social media encourages brief, simplistic messages, whether advertising or political propaganda, and because these messages are jumbled in with more personal stuff, our critical faculties are disarmed or at least less attentive, in that we are more likely to view and judge them with the less critical eye that we use with more friendly messages. And anyway, how are we able to check or to verify? How do we know – how can we find out – who is behind that unexpected post or message that appears among more innocent material? And the more we try to lockdown our privacy or shut out unsolicited material, the more it impacts on the communications we actually want to have.

Final, broader and perhaps more cynical question/ reflection: did the builders of all these social media platforms know the full implications of what they let loose? Did they care? Or was/is it all about money?

One thing is for sure: we need to think seriously about how social media is changing us, our opinions, and how we relate to the rest of the world…

Not the news

February 13, 2020

The_Times_04_09_39_460    I know I’m not the only person who’s concerned about what’s tritely labelled ‘fake news’. I’ve tried to think through what is actually going on, from the perspective of someone who’s kept himself well-informed over a lifetime.

My interaction with news dates from my earliest years. We took the Daily Mail at home, and listened to the news on the BBC Home Service. That was what was available all those years ago. My earliest memories are of my parents’ anxious faces as they listened to the news of the Cuban missile crisis, their shock at President Kennedy’s assassination, which came in a newsflash just as we children were being sent off to bed, and the news of the death of Pope John XXIII.

I was fascinated by other newspapers and regularly took myself off to the reading room of Stamford Public Library to leaf through the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and take in The Christian Science Monitor (which arrived there daily) and India News. At boarding school we read the Times and the Guardian, and the latter soon became my lifelong newspaper of choice. And when we finally got a television at home, we watched the news.

The thing was, in those days you couldn’t really avoid the news. Most households took a daily paper, often two on Sundays: we took the Sunday Pictorial (which eventually became the Sunday Mirror) and the News of the World, until our mother vetoed it because of its salaciousness. If you paid money for a newspaper, you read it, or much of it, and were consequently reasonably informed. If you listened to the wireless (I love that word!) you got the news whenever it came along. And there were regular news bulletins on the TV, too.

Now, think through what has changed. There are so many TV and radio channels where there are no news bulletins. There are enough TV and radio channels for enough people to avoid the news completely, and if you consume your music through apps like Spotify, there’s no news, just like there’s none on Netflix and other streaming TV channels.

The internet has massacred the printed newspaper: papers like the Mirror, Sun, Daily Express that used to sell four or five million copies a day now sell a tenth of that number. People do not read newspapers, by and large. News has migrated to the internet, and most people’s expectations are that it will be free. I do not pay £2.20 a day for a printed newspaper any more, and haven’t done for years. Some newspapers have paywalls; I don’t bother. So even though I have a wealth of free news available to me, somehow I am less informed, because I don’t read everything in that day’s Guardian – I don’t even know the totality of what’s in it. I skim, superficially, like a wasp – because it’s free, it has less value, less significance. Interestingly, the printed news and analysis I pay 5.40€ per month for in Le Monde Diplomatique, I still read from cover-to-cover.

News has become more trivial, more personality focused. Is this perhaps the result of the changes I’ve outlined above? I think the two phenomena are linked. I’ll listen to radio news in the car while I’m driving, for as long as I can bear it, but I don’t bother with television news any more.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed, and yet I’m clear that I graze the news. I’ll also admit this is partly an age thing: I’ve seen a lot of it before, and I know that my opinions and actions aren’t really going to make any difference in what’s left of my lifetime. What about the millions who avoid the news almost entirely?

Newspapers have no obligation to be objective, and so news and commentary or opinion pieces have long been jumbled together. The terrestrial TV stations in the UK are by law obliged to be politically balanced or impartial. Social media can do what it likes, and we know where that has taken us: anyone can post anything they like, pretty much, truth or lies, and nobody can do much about it. For all their hand-wringing pieties, the US giants of social media don’t really have a clue what goes on on their platforms, nor do they care as long as the bucks continue to pour in.

Somewhere it seems to me that all of this ought to matter deeply, to concern all of us if participating in a democracy means anything to us. And yet, apart from a relatively small number, it really doesn’t. And there are plenty of people, organisations and companies who will do very well indeed as democracy dies. It’s not that I think that as a society we used to be well-informed, just that now I feel we are much less informed, and also much more susceptible to ignorance and disinformation. And that cannot end well. Nor do I have a realistic solution to offer.

On fake news and no news

May 24, 2018

I like to keep up with what’s going on in the world, and I’m increasingly concerned at the narrowing of what is on offer in conventional newspapers and other mass media. Radio news is increasingly trivialised, even on the BBC, and as for TV news, well… editors set an agenda but what it’s based on, one is never quite sure. So, given the time constraints, someone has selected quite drastically what we are going to be told. And I remember someone once calculated that if you took all the words actually spoken in a half-hour TV news bulletin and set them out on paper, they would fill the equivalent of a couple of columns of a broadsheet newspaper. Hardly very informative, then.

So-called serious ewspapers in the UK have become increasingly focused on celebrity and lifestyle, which is cheap froth and fills pages, and also opinions on every subject under the sun written by the yard by people who know not very much about a subject. So newspaper now have several times the pagination they had three or four decades ago, but far less actual news. And if you think about the difference that getting your information from a website makes: it’s potentially a bottomless pit of links and clickbait: how do you actually know what’s there, compared with being able to turn over the  pages of a physical newspaper and glance at ALL the headlines?

Our newspapers also – perhaps inevitably, but also because it’s easy – focus on the anglophone world. We’re an island, and even though we’re only twenty miles off the coast of Europe, news of that continent impinges relatively little.

Where is one to turn for reliable and in-depth information?

I cast my net quite widely. I keep an eye on the New York Times and the Washington Post online, and Le Monde as a window on Europe. There’s a weekly digest from Der Spiegel in English which is often quite interesting, picking up on things I’d never otherwise come across, or offering a different take on matters from the British press.

I’ve kept up with the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books as they both offer very detailed and lengthy comment and analysis of topical issues, sometimes linked to newly-published books, sometimes just because the topic is of moment.

My main go-to for its breadth and scope of coverage of world issues, from a left-wing perspective, with an environmental slant and a recognition of the entire world rather than just parts of it, for the last 20 years or so has been the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. Despite its title, it’s not written for diplomats or about diplomacy! It is published in numerous languages including English, and seems to me to offer a comprehensive coverage that I’ve so far not found anywhere else, and I judge that it has kept me informed about aspects of world politics, society and the environment that I’ve rarely seen covered in our press.

What I find most alarming about all this, is that not many people realise the subtle and gradual changes taking place, and also how very much easier it is for everyone to avoid news altogether now, if they wish to, never mind being bombarded by fake news…

H G Wells: Star-Begotten

December 16, 2017

51jfygNYWNL._AC_US218_Another book bought twenty years ago and not yet read… and I can see why. Just a bit of tidying-up in my SF collection and this pot-boiler from late in the writer’s career can definitely go. He still has a bee in his bonnet all those years after The War of the Worlds.

The narrative style irritates, for a start: that of a slightly superior parent talking patronisingly to a child. And then there’s the plot – or total lack of it, for it’s no more than a series of conversations, that grow ever more didactic, and insane. It’s the story of a rather dull bourgeois man, who grows up questioning the world as a boy – as most children do – and this spirit is inevitably squashed out of him by all the usual pressures: growing up, study, work, family and so on, turning him into a conformist like everyone else.

Among his circle of friends, he latches on to the idea that cosmic rays are being deliberately directed at Earth by Martians – probably – who are seeking to convert the Earth and its inhabitants slowly and gradually into creatures more like themselves, in order to take over our planet, having failed with their direct invasion tactic; there are backward self-references to his own novel here, as well as to Olaf Stapledon‘s rather more serious work Last and First Men. His hero is clearly certifiable, as are the friends with whom he colludes, and yet the idea spreads and has its brief moment of media fame; he spends time ‘researching’ his idea, and even goes as far as to suspect his newborn son and his wife of being Martian changelings…

But, if you have reached this point thinking, why is lit.gaz wasting time even writing about such tosh, pause for a moment and reflect that Wells hasn’t completely lost the plot: there are several quite clever twists in the thinnish plot. Researching his crackpot thesis, he meets schoolchildren – whom he suspects of being changelings – who are exactly the same as he was at that age; we make the connection, even if our hero doesn’t, right until the very end of the novel, when he is about to crack up.

And again, although I wondered initially how Wells could waste his time with such meanderings in 1937, he does explore the idea, still relevant today, that humans have lost their grip as a species, that the world is now too complex by half for us to know what we are doing to it or ourselves, and certainly not to be in control of much of it. What does the future hold for us? Wells visualises a new kind of human, superseding all the baggage of the past, rather than one galloping towards the horrors that would arrive two years later. But interestingly, too, fake news rears its head: when the crazy Martian takeover by cosmic rays theory goes public, the notion that the media can and will be used to tell a credible public anything and to manipulate them shamelessly, is there, eighty years before our time…

It’s not a good book; it was a waste of eyeball time, as I like to put it. And yet, the Wellsian prescience is still there, and the notion of our limitations as a species is stronger now than eighty years ago, I think.

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