Thursday, February 22 2024

In the last two years the debate on fake news and how they influence public
opinion in the most unequal fields, from medicine, to politics, to
meteorology, has spread widely. Conventional media wisdom puts the blame on
new media, especially on social networks. Nowadays most people follow the
news on social networks, and so most people click on, share, and tweet
articles, posts, and images.

The impact of the fiasco of the traditional news media regarding Donald
Trump’s nomination and the vote for Brexit in Great Britain has prompted
the post-truth and fake news debate. The international dictionaries elected
these new words of the year, respectively, ‘post-truth’ for 2016 and ‘fake
news’ in 2017. The definition of post-truth proposed by the Oxford
Dictionary emphasizes the contrast between the “objective facts” and
“appeals to personal emotions and beliefs,” highlighting how it is
precisely the emotional and personal component that plays a fundamental
role in the formation of ‘public opinion.’ Fake news, on the other hand,
are considered as the main manifestation of post-truth. According to the
Cambridge Dictionary, the expression in fact indicates, “false stories that
appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually
created to influence political views or as a joke”.

These definitions focus their attention principally on the message, which
becomes the fulcrum of a communication in which the role of the broadcaster
is clear, even though his role is not exempt of bias or manipulation.
Meanwhile, the recipient of communication seems to be put on the sidelines,
viewed a passive subject of his innocent spreading of fake news. Yet, what
role does the public have or could have, in this new scenario, in which
social networks seems to have no limits, no guidelines of fairness, and
where ethical rules have not yet reached “cyber citizenship”?

One answer, in the form of in-depth reflection, comes from an article
published in the winter issue of Nuestro Tiempo, a cultural magazine
published by the University of Navarra (Spaign). Its author, Miquel Urmeneta,
journalist and lecturer of communication at the International University of
Catalonia, addresses the issue by focusing precisely on the last element of
communication, on the recipient, inviting the reader to reflect on the role
he has not only as a receiver of the message, but also as a protagonist in
the flow of news.


Objectivist journalism and algorithms, a struggle for power to win over
the general public

In his article, Urmeneta reminds us how Donald Trump’s communication
electoral campaign and also Brexit campaigners did use dubious statements
or even actual lies. Certainly the phenomenon of fake news is neither new
in the history of humanity, nor in the history of communication. But,
unlike the past, it is truth and our understanding of truth that makes the
difference.

In 2017 the monthly Time magazine publishes an edition with the cover
titled rather provocatively ‘Is Truth Dead?’ But even earlier, in 2016, the
director of The Guardian Katharine Viner had written an article entitled
“How technology disrupted the truth”. Viner explains how “news publishers
have lost control over the distribution of their journalism, which for many
readers is now “filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque
and unpredictable.” In short, the relationship between those who produce
and those who consume the news no longer has intermediations, being
substantially dependent on the algorithm. And, in the case of fake news,
the algorithm goes much faster than true news. This is demonstrated by a
study carried out by MIT (Media Lab Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
and published by the journal Science in March 2018.

The study took into account 126 thousand news articles disseminated on the
Twitter platform from 2006 to the end of 2016, before the election of
Donald Trump. The fastest ‘race horses’, let’s say, are about politics, and
they win over terrorism, natural disasters, finance, and science. The
reason is that fake news conveys new messages that at the same time have a
strong emotional impact on the recipients that become, however, the main
people “responsible for the dissemination of false or misleading
information.” It happens that the instantaneousness of sharing beats the
reflection, zeroing the time, but behind the click and its impact on the
algorithm, there is always a person. Moreover, another significant fact
that emerges in the MIT study is the fact that the relevance of the
phenomenon of fake news is inversely proportional to the level of awareness
of users/public/recipients.

We are then in a scenario in which technology and truth combat between
themselves with every share, like, and re-tweet. It is actually a contrast
that has been holding for some years now, let’s say from the first half of
the twentieth century when it was brought to everyone’s attention by the
famous essay by Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical
reproduction.’ In this case as well, therefore, there is nothing new, apart
from the globalization added factor.

The truth can be counterfeited by the technique, and this applies to art as
well as to communication, but above all, it is no longer a question only of
artists and experts. It concerns each of us, in everyday life, in the
simple act that has now become normal, social-multi-media communication.
But speaking of post-truth must not lead us to consider that the comparison
above has been definitively won by the technique, or that the truth is
ineluctably algorithmic, as if the whole techno-modifying flow could not be
governed. The main actor in this process, as explained by Urmeneta’s essay,
can and must be the public. In fact, his work aims to analyze and reflect
on the role of the public in the formation of opinion flows. The public is
the crucial element of communication, especially as it is understood in
this particular historical time. “Politicians seek our votes – Urmeneta
emphasizes – the media our attention, social networks feed on our
interactions,” and all this often “runs on the web,” on large platforms
that are not always transparent, and where the interests at stake are very
high, as many as the zeros needed to quantify the clicking value market.
“Citizens can – explains Urmeneta – reverse the intrusion of economic logic
and consumption that, as described by Habermas, has invaded the private
sector through the expansion of the mass media,” they can mediate ‘freeing’
the truth which appears now hostage to SEO, they can help build an
‘adequate’ narrative of reality, one which reflects and respects truth.

Return to the realist concept of truth

The debate on fake news and post-truth is, after all, a problem within the
boundaries of positivism, in the Enlightenment matrix that had
characterized journalism from its birth until today. Galdón López had
already demonstrated this before the dawn of the Internet (Information and
disinformation: The method in journalism
, Armando, Rome 1999) and the
diagnosis is valid for the later, since technology has simply limitlessly
multiplied the holders of power to inform… or misinform.

“We can exert our influence on the media,” Urmeneta says in the essay, but
to do so we need to get out of what he calls a “skeptical-gullible” bipolar
attitude, trying to be critical and honest first of all with ourselves. ”
“Reaching the truth requires a collective effort,” he continues, based
mainly on the willingness to cooperate “to reach empathy,” learning,
striving, to understand each other, to put oneself in another’s shoes.
“Truth is a struggle – he explains – but it is above all against our own
prejudices.”

The goal is to make sure that our vision of the world evolves, but at the
same time, that there is a more practical change, related to lifestyles:
“learning to dialogue through listening and thoughtful involvement,” commit
to building consensus that can also integrate a different vision. This
means, according to Urmeneta, not to abdicate our own responsibility as a
citizen and person. And it also means, “to claim a higher democratic
standard with regard to social networks, both with reference to the use by
political parties, and with reference to the same media.” “The fight
against truth always has an individual and collective dimension” and can be
carried out through the exercise of critical thinking and ethical behavior.
The sincere social dialogue moves first of all from a person’s honesty, and
according to Urmeneta, “has much to do with the conquest of one’s own
freedom.”

And this depends on the assumption of responsibility on the part of the
people and the desire to put the common good at the center of the social
communication network. Only in this way can we assume responsibility for
building the society in which we want to live. “A society in which truth
can be a shield against arbitrariness and injustice, in which respect for
people is a reflection of their true dignity.”

The debate on fake news and post-truth, if it wants to be serious and
fruitful, and not a simple instrumental weapon to delegitimize the
adversary with ad hominem arguments, must return to focus on truth, on our
ability to reach it and tell it, either philosophical or religious truth,
or the more minute and humble journalistic truth. Propaganda
and manipulation are a whole other story, which have nothing to do with
journalism.

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