Relying on social media and 'fake news' will hurt society, imperil democracy
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.” – From Plutarch’s “Lives”
In Ancient Greece (and in other locales), rulers would sometimes kill the messenger for upsetting them. Psychologist Sigmund Freud later said that was a way of a king or ruler combatting a feeling of helplessness.
Today in the U.S., we are killing the messenger in our society. And we’re offing legitimate messengers while supporting the fake, the outrageous, the salacious and the outright false. It’s disheartening and challenging to traditional media workers.
A big part of this is our affection for social media, which combines the feel good with the ridiculous, all presented as if it were legitimate. During our election, a few entrepreneurial souls even began to produce fake news and sold advertising around it based on the number of eyeballs it attracted. “Pope endorses Donald Trump” was a prime example, completely false, yet it spread like wildfire through social media channels.
“Mainstream media” became a fashionable phrase to describe the major news outlets that set an agenda, which then filtered down to smaller outlets. But that is a simplistic phrase for a huge industry.
Just the phrase, “the media,” is misleading when used as a collective noun. There is financial journalism of The Wall Street Journal, big city and global views from The New York Times, conservative publications like the National Review, local newspapers in every nook and cranny of our nation, as well as opinion-based TV coverage from Fox News to MSNBC. Lumping all these together as organizations conspiring to take down the nation is lazy nonsense. Yet it is a popular past time.
CBS news anchor Scott Pelly, winner of the 2016 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, listed some threats to journalism and democracy:
“First, news aggregators, or websites and channels that just report other people’s reporting without bothering to verify whether those stories are true or whether the facts are straight.
“Second, the purveyors of bias that lull viewers into a partisan coma on the left and the right.
“And finally, and most insidious, are the charlatans who publish and broadcast outright lies with no regard for the values of journalism. Is terrorism the greatest threat to our country? A recession? I suggest the quickest, most direct way to ruin a democracy is to poison the information.”
Facebook doesn’t care if its users get legit information. Only after the very real possibility was revealed that fake news and outright lies could have influenced the election did they even acknowledge it was an issue. They care only about sucking up as much time from our lives as possible, under the guise of selling advertising.
Sometimes, people complain they didn’t know about something, even though we had it in the newspaper at least once. We sometimes joke that these people want an engraved invitation to pay attention. Many of these same folks can often be found with their face in their smartphone.
Democracy is not easy. Yet we all have a responsibility to inform ourselves and make the best decisions. We are losing sight of that and letting the path of least resistance do our informing.
We don’t cover national topics because we consider Fredericksburg and Gillespie County our “beats” and other outlets handle state and national news that affect you. We will continue to do that, as it is our mission to be the fair, local information source of record.
But we encourage everyone to read a variety of material from legitimate news sources. We asked last year’s high school graduates to read things with which they disagree, to gain a new perspective and deepen respect.
Killing the messenger may be a familiar, emotional way of dealing with bad news. But it is no way for a society to stay well-informed.
NON-FAKE NEWS OUTLETS
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts addressed the threat to democracy that is posed by fake news in a recent column: “But the good news is that anyone who wishes to avoid fake news can do so easily. There is, in fact, a news platform that specializes in gathering and disseminating non-fake news. So committed are its people to this mission that some have been known to risk, and even to lose, their lives in the process.
“Granted, this platform is imperfect — sometimes it is guilty of error or even bias. But hardly ever will you find it trafficking in intentional falsehoods.
“So what, you ask, is this miracle medium? Well, it’s called a ‘newspaper.’ Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
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