Monday, December 5, 2016
Fake news -- the euphemism
In the field of communication, my profession, we have seen several instances of technology upsetting the apple cart. In some ways these technological advances were GOOD because they took production out of the hands of specialists and enabled more widespread use. In other ways they were BAD because the specialists were the ones who previously provided quality control.
So look at the invention of movable type in Europe. Gutenberg figured out how to print cheap multiple copies of books and pamphlets; if you wanted a Bible, now no need to hire an army of monk/scribes to write it out by hand. All over Europe printers sprang up, ready to produce their own versions of the Bible or devotionals or theological commentaries. But that meant the church no longer controlled the dissemination of scripture and theology, and the next thing you know, printing enabled the Reformation and Christianity was forever fragmented.
In my lifetime, the personal computer led to the development of what was termed desktop publishing. Instead of sending your employee newsletter or your advertising flyers or your wedding invitations to the printer for typesetting, you bought a clunky computer, taught yourself or your secretary to use it, and cranked out your own type. And you SAVED MONEY! Whatever you produced and pasted down, the printer would print. Of course, since your secretary didn't know beans about typography or readability or printing quality, many of these works looked like crap. We saw the proliferation of ugly fonts, unreadable gray-on-black layouts, type set in curves, and other kinky practices that no self-respecting professional typesetter would ever allow clients to commit.
A few years later, the development of digital photography allowed anybody off the street to buy a camera and produce print-ready pictures, no need for expensive film or messy darkroom processing. And you SAVED MONEY! So instead of hiring a photographer to shoot your employee retirement banquets or fundraising galas or family Christmas portraits, you handed the camera to your secretary or propped it up on the mantel, hit the delay button and raced to get yourself back in the picture. As a result, we got blurry photos showing too much background and too little of the subjects, plants growing out of people's heads, guests lined up grimly like watchers at Stalin's May Day parades, boring grip-and-grin shots. Not to mention sexting and selfies.
Arguably these two latest technological revolutions have not threatened the foundations of civilization. So what if employee newsletters and wedding invitations have that clunky, crappy do-it-yourself look? So what if there were typographical errors? So what if a lot of professional photographers and typesetters were put out of business?
But that leads me to another revolution that is far more disturbing if you care about civilization and democracy: the supplanting of professional journalism by social media and other content-churning internet providers. If you see a bunch of buses parked near downtown, and you later hear that people were protesting against Trump, you do a fast google search to "discover" that no conferences were being held, so obviously the buses brought the protesters. Then you whip out your phone and tweet same, and next thing you know, it goes viral and maybe a million people read and pass along a blatant untruth. (The google search failed to reveal a software conference with 13,000 participants; the hapless tweeter later said "I'm also a very busy businessman and I don't have time to fact-check everything that I put out there.")
"Fake news" is the euphemism being used to describe the lies carelessly or deliberately disseminated through social media and low-end "news" purveyors these days; Obama was born in Kenya or Hillary Clinton led a ring of child molesters. The quality control provided by professional reporters and editors is disappearing, not just from the free-for-all of Facebook "news" but from formerly good local newspapers who have fired their editors and required their reporters to practice 24/7 you-see-it-you-post-it babble without sufficient investigation. (And they SAVED MONEY!)
Perhaps in some cases this is GOOD. The wide availability of cellphone video has exposed lots of police brutality and fueled useful grassroots movements of many kinds. But on balance I think it's BAD -- terribly BAD -- that a huge proportion of Americans cannot distinguish between facts and lies, that the "news" driving our public policy and voting decisions may have been manufactured by teenagers in Macedonia or manipulated by the Russian government. And worse yet, a huge proportion of Americans, including some at the very highest levels of our incoming government, seem to believe that facts are irrelevant and lies are OK.
If there is no such thing as truth, there can be no functioning democracy. As a former journalist and a current and passionate small-D democrat, I am in despair.