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Is the Information Age providing the information we need? How propaganda and entrenched beliefs weaken democracy

The weakening of traditional media – both self-inflicted and by forces outside of their control — poses a serious threat to democratic societies, and is already reducing our ability to protect our freedoms.

Despite the ease with which we can now access news and information, the primary role of news media – to serve as an independent watchdog against corruption, incompetence and other wrongdoing – has been undermined. This weakened role has allowed propaganda and lies to proliferate.

For the last two decades I’ve worked for an advocacy organization that defends and promotes press freedom, and the economic independence of news media as an essential condition of that freedom. When I began this work, the organization was led by a publisher from Brazil who was persecuted when the country was a military dictatorship, and by a Spanish editor who remembered the dark days of the Franco regime. That might seem like ancient history now, but not for them. Even after their rights were restored, they continued the fight wherever threats to press freedom occurred, and they continue to fight to this day — because they do not take press freedom and freedom of expression for granted. They had suffered from a lack of freedom first hand.

Over the years, this work has brought me into contact with many courageous men and women who have been censored, persecuted, attacked, imprisoned and even murdered merely for trying to do their jobs in countries that do not respect freedom of expression. No matter where they came from – from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Cameroon, Vietnam, China and Russia – they all are similar in that they refused to bow to repression, and they all had a stubborn streak, refusing to give up the fight. We owe such people a debt of gratitude for defending this right at great personal cost – their societies, their countrymen and women and each and every one of us are the beneficiaries of this dedication.

It is worth mentioning, and it comes as a surprise to many people, that even today, the vast majority of the world’s population are denied the basic human right of freedom of expression.

I mentioned this to put things in perspective; we who are lucky enough to live and work in mature democracies sometimes take our rights for granted – we hardly give it a thought, we consider it like the air we breathe. But while we generally don’t face prison or physical attacks for speaking our mind or writing our opinions, that doesn’t mean we should complacently believe that all is well. Our rights can be slowly eroded without us really noticing until it is too late.

It is self-evident to say we are living in a world fraught with change – much of it good change, what we call progress, but much of it disturbing. Endless wars and aggression, terrorism, millions of refugees, the fracturing of the European Union, the rise of blind nationalism and sectarianism, not to mention the polarized environment of the US elections. And we need to understand this world, so we can cope with the difficult decisions it presents. So in the context of this discussion, the question for us is really, “are citizens getting the independent, credible news and information they need to make informed decisions in democratic society?”

You would think the answer would be clearly yes. The rise of digital and social media should have guaranteed it. Never before have citizens had greater access to information and tools to engage in debate. But unfortunately the availability of information is not necessarily translating into better informed citizens.

Consider:

  • After the UK voted to exit the European Union, a survey by the Electoral Reform Society found that the public felt ill-informed about the vote. How could this be? No European issue has received more attention, and yet voters felt ill-informed. The polling showed that despite the flood of information, people felt they lacked clear insight about the vote and that the leadership on both sides failed to engage or convince them. In other words, they felt that most of what they were hearing was suspect; they lacked credible information to help them make a decision.
  • A similar situation is occurring around the US presidential election. Research conducted by the Gallup Organization in conjunction with the University of Michigan and Georgetown found that seven in 10 Americans are reading, seeing or hearing something about the US presidential candidates on a regular basis. But again, they have little insight into essential issues. With the exception of Donald Trump’s views on immigration, they recall little about the policies of the candidates. In the case of Mr Trump, his accusations and statements are what they remember. For Hillary Clinton, it is her character, her past behavior, and her health.
  • Most Americans, in fact, don’t seek out news and are not heavily engaged in it, according to research by the Pew Center. In the digital news environment, the role of friends and family is prominent for many – and for some it’s an echo chamber, Pew found. Not surprisingly, many rely on one-sided news from family and friends – and conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are very much alike in this regard – they’re more likely than moderate voters to rely on one-sided information.
  • And ignorance can be dangerous. In a recent survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by researchers from Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton, two-thirds of the respondents said they were following the situation in Ukraine at least somewhat closely. This is what they say, but it is utter nonsense. The survey found that, despite their claims to be paying attention, they had little knowledge of Ukraine. Only 1 out of 6 could find Ukraine on a map. And this is why it is dangerous: the farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the US to intervene with military force.

These are just a few examples, but I think it is safe to say that we live in an information world where it has become more difficult to differentiate between independent, credible information and propaganda, where misinformation and conspiracy spread like wildfire. Technology, combined with a lack of trust in institutions – including traditional media — and lack of transparency contributes to this rapid spread.

This has long been a chronic problem where people are kept in the dark by restrictions on free expression; but we’re seeing it now all around us – in Turkey, where the recent coup is widely seen as being backed by the US, despite any evidence; in the UK, where many voters believed exaggerated claims about the cost of UK membership in the EU; and in the United States, where many continue to believe that President Obama is a Muslim born outside of the US and that climate change is a myth.

You may even have heard a term for this – “post-truth politics” – which The Economist defines as a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact.  In a fragmented media environment, where the opinions of family and friends often carry more weight than not-to-be-trusted news sources, strongly held beliefs seem almost immune to contradictory facts.

Ricardo Gandour, a Brazilian journalist who has just completed a study on this very issue at Columbia University, notes that many surveys show that traditional newsrooms – which he calls “stable platforms of journalistic production” — are still the source of significant amounts of news. But he adds: “with newsrooms reeling, and staffing decimated, a weakening of the stable platforms threatens to cause general informational impoverishment, a degradation of the entire information ecosystem.

“Adding to the worry, people today are exposed to news mixed with gossip, opinion, hot takes, and branded content, from a variety of sources but often through a single platform—mainly social networks, which tend toward a clustering of like-minded individuals.”

In short, many people are living in a echo chamber where already entrenched ideas are reinforced. Ask yourself, has a Facebook post every succeeded in getting someone to change their mind? It is probably more likely that people who regularly receive posts that don’t support their views will block the sender rather than be convinced to change their opinion.

This echo chamber effect is being partially blamed for the low turnout among young voters in the Brexit referendum. Young people were overwhelmingly against leaving, and many were shocked by the results – as those in their circle overwhelmingly shared the same opinion, they never thought the leave option had a chance of succeeding. This clearly influenced those who opted not to vote.

This is not to say we should be entirely pessimistic. There is much that can and is being done.

Most importantly, it’s essential to reject the claim that “news finds you.” To break out of the echo chamber, you have to seek out news sources that don’t find their way to you by algorithm or by like-minded friends and family members. Multiple news sources, including those you don’t agree with, are more important than ever.

It is also important to be aware of where news comes from. Far too often, you will hear someone say they “heard it on the news”, when in fact a little probing will determine the source was an e-mail of dubious provenance. Traditional media has their faults, but in the long run they arguably remain the most dependable sources of news. Their newsrooms may be smaller than they once were, but they still have dedicated staffs that are doing much to fulfill their essential role as providers of credible information. No emerging media has yet to fulfill this role on a wide basis.

News organizations deserve your financial support – their decline is no small thing, and their business models are broken. Advertising once largely funded large newsrooms, but today

Facebook and Google take the majority of online advertising – 85 cents of every new dollar spent on online advertising in the US, according to Morgan Stanley. They provide great services, but they are largely advertising-funded companies and they are sucking the market dry. These companies provide distribution platforms for vast amounts of information, but little if any funding for journalism creation – you could say they’ve built their revenue on the back of information created by others, with little or no recompense to the creators. Newsrooms now largely depend on reader revenue to maintain themselves. And society as a whole will suffer if they fail.

Finally, media literacy must be higher on the education agenda – understanding when and how you’re exposed to bias and manipulation should be a priority in schools, and early. It’s important to be skeptical, but not cynical. We are living in an age where we are bombarded with information – what we need to make informed choices is in the mix, it’s just a matter of finding it in all the noise.

These remarks were adapted from a presentation by Larry Kilman at a reception at the American Graduate School in Paris, 29 September 2016.

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