Once Again on the New Journalistic Renaissance

09.03.2017

There is No Truth on Earth, no Truth Above Either.

Alexander Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri

There is No Truth on Earth… Nearly two hundred years ago this was clear to Pushkin’s Salieri as “a simple gamma.” There is no doubt that this idea was more or less obvious long before Pushkin’s birth. So current groans on the topic of never-before-seen but now real times of “post-truth” and a stranglehold of a deceitful and inaccurate information appear to be somewhat naïve manifestations of this very “post-truth.”

The discussion of characteristics of the new information and communication environment, in which we ended up in after the emergence of the Internet, has been conducted for a long time. The 2016 US presidential elections and further polemics between Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Media only added acuteness and actually put forward a number of very important questions.

The first and most important one is the balance between influence and impact between “professional” media and what could be called amateurs, bloggers and the like, relatively “new” agents of communication.

The second issue is how the character of communications influencing everyday behavior has changed. For example how and why they vote.

The third issue is understanding the character of information circulation in the modern world. What information, transferred by whom, is determined by the reader to be trustworthy or, on the contrary, false.

The fourth issue is that of the possibilities of manipulating the audience in modern conditions, when billions of people are already submerged into the new information communication environment and actively spread information in it, about themselves, about the surrounding world and on their impressions of what various other sources of information tell them.

A lot is said on the topic of what social networking sites and the messengers replacing them now mean. As a poet wrote, “if it is true at least by a third, there’s only one thing left to do, lie down and die.” According to Pew Research, roughly 60% of Americans received information on the elections from social networks, up from 49% in 2012. If this is correlated with the fact that in most cases people exchange information on social networks with those who they consider close for various reasons, as well as the fact that algorithms for search and display provide the user with information similar to the kind previously consumed, supporting existing views, it may seem that we are entering a sort of information apocalypse. As a result, the audience would be forced, as in Dante’s hell, to walk circles behind a set of ideas it once chose. Today this is called a “filter bubble,” a rather fashionable but at the same time more figurative than precise phrase.

The BBC, in an analytical article on last year’s US elections gives the example of a Facebook group that consists of 56 thousand people. All of them are Trump supporters. Naturally, this large number of people generates an entire special world for each other, in which it is comfortable and natural to support Trump. A world, in which each of the group’s Trump-sympathetic members receives both approval and a stream of messages supporting their view form the group’s other members’ perceptions. The issue here is not Trump, but the peculiarities of the new environment, new technologies that we live in, which allow us to create a warm and cozy world of kindred spirits with relatively low effort.

In addition, describing the examples of omnipotence of social networks, many cite claims, usually based on big data that in social networks, fake news are more widely read than real news, although there is an issue of how correct such calculations are. For example, it is possible to argue, what should be compared, reposts, repeats of the same article or original messages of various origins. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the issue of malignant multiplication of false or even fantasy messages exists, it there is a reason why Mark Zuckerberg is trying to create systems that allow for the monitoring and blocking of “fake news.” The only question is how possible this is in principle. Without a certain level of freedom, it would be impossible, for example, to post messages like videos of the falling Chelyabinsk meteorite.

Possibly, everything is not so frightening and greatly exaggerated, as funny as it could be, in the spirit of fake news. I do not deny the importance of the problem. However, it should not be perceived as something never before seen or heard, same as its overrated influence on human behavior. It is not all so new.

Paul Lazarsfeld formulated the theory of a two-stage spread of information. The meaning of it is that most people are not capable of independently parsing and formulating their opinion to a news message. For this, they need a public opinion leader, who would explain it to them. In social networks of the past this meant a colleague who would explain in the smoking room, how to interpret messages about the plenum of the Central Committee or even Watergate. This local authority would joke that there is no truth in Pravda (the Russian for truth), no news in Izvestia (news) and the only thing that remains is Trud (labour) for three kopecks. Today, new technologies have mechanized the process of communicating with the public opinion leader. Social networks have made the two-stage process practically ideal. Today, everyone can easily and relatively safely find his own mini-guru and local prophet without limiting themselves to their circle of close friends. The ease of choosing idols has grown greatly. Any charlatan can collect hundreds and thousands of fans for whom intellectual independence is difficult.

In addition, although the ease of rejecting the self has grown, it should not be forgotten that even before, people stewed in their own juices, peppered with surrounding idols and ended up in groups where their views were formed and then supported.

When it comes to false and deceitful information, this is not a recent discovery either. Humanity has for practically all of its history lived in a world of illusions, imprecisions, myths and legends. Even Lucian of Samosata in the second century laughed at the gullibility of his contemporaries, who believed in the stunning abilities of Hyperboreans, who were said to fly on shoes made of ox leather and were able to influence contemporaries’ behavior. Lucian describes a rumor that excited the Samosatans during the heyday of the Roman Empire, of a Hyperborean who convinced a woman to give favor to a young man. The mocking Lucian noted that a small sum of money could have influenced the woman much more than the persuasion of a much more expensive Hyperborean.

The above is very visible in the entire history of humanity. Chronicles and annals, compositions of early historians give us a lot of information, but confirming it is very difficult. This even concerns the most important events, such as the Battle of Kulikovo and the Battle on the Ice. In a sense, the situation with history much improved after the emergence of periodic print, although this is also not an always reliable either. But in either case, Gutenberg helped us. Thanks to his invention, a new class of professional observers of ongoing history appeared, journalists. I do not idealize the past or the present journalist corps, but its existence is very important.

Of course, it could be said that bloggers and mass internet users can fulfill the role of fixators of events even better. Nevertheless, I think this is not very much so. Mostly because much of the content discussed in the social networks is created by professional media. Information on social networks is created by professional media. Information that was discussed on Trump and Clinton came mostly from professional media. CNN, so rebuked today, broadcasted a great amount of Trump’s statements, giving the audience a chance to discuss it. Even tweets from Trump himself, who made a personal commentary media, which is simple for a presidential candidate, had contextual success because they were a reaction to real events or messages about them, broadcast through media. In his time, Nixon, not trusting the media, recorded programs that he participated in, giving TV channels prepared media content.

With all of my skepticism on the topic of the might of communications technologies, it would not be prudent to deny the radical changes in the system of communications, and therefore the behavior of people. However, a sense of moderation is important. An analysis of Trump’s election campaign evidences that traditional methods of agitation played an unusually important role, whether tweets or more traditional rumors played an assisting role. At least two hundred years ago, Queen Victoria had the same issue. Rumors, surreptitious images, nervous and hysterical media surrounded her and influenced her decision-making. Stories of this are well-portrayed in the recent television series Victoria, produced by ITV.

Therefore, it is clear that the audience does not care how the signal is delivered, whether through over-the-air broadcasts, satellites, cable networks, broadband internet, images on the wall, Chinese big-character posters or some other way. Moreover, it is clear that not only professional media operate on the market. Many non-government organizations and even trade companies have become de facto media, with one level of popularity or another. In some sense, this depends on the level of funding and the enthusiasm of the participants of the project.

As a result, we have ended up in a situation, where on the one hand, the number of sources grows, as if it were an avalanche, and on the other, the same information reaches the audience through a countless number of ways with a countless potential for distortion.

One of the results of the new information abundance is the scattering of the audience, its growing inclination toward a sort of cohesiveness and a search for a local self-identification. As has been said, the audience falls into a cognitive dissonance, taking an opportunist position toward the growing number of messages. This leads to a desire to simplify the incoming information as much as possible, refuse difficult decisions, doubts and so on. This cognitive dissonance is not cause by a flood of information, but the last puts the dominant part of the audience in an almost inescapable position. It is impossible to figure it out, but having opinions and making decisions, electoral ones, for example, is imperative. In addition, the majority of the majority chooses simplification, a refusal of its own critical approach and the choice of leader, trust toward whom becomes almost religious.

However, the issue is not in information by itself. The idea is that the current stage of development is characterized by a fear of the future. The success of many so-called populist politicians is the result of this fear.

As has been the case before, the general public is incapable of using the incoming information. Nevertheless, today the problem is intensified by an incredible growth in the volume and speed of the incoming information and the dramatically growing frustration from the inability to understand what is going it. Many don’t see themselves or even their children in the future, and do not understand how they will live, earn money, enjoy themselves and have fun in the world of industry 4.0, in a world with no customary work, customary borders, customary forms of what in the USSR was called “confidence in tomorrow.”

The denial of complex and self-contradiction information, the striving to get closer to the leader, shift responsibility to another, and, most important, evade the future and even thoughts about it. The distribution of fantasy-like dreams of it and various depreciations and mocking it is an example.

Again, this is not so new. It can’t not be said that in the past, the majority was conservative, as a rule it opposed novelties. Relative successes of communism and fascism in the middle of the past century were a result of persistent and agile propaganda, a mix of manipulation and direct intimidation.

Today, there is a new factor, direct mass interpersonal communication, which game new opportunities for the expression of the darkest instincts and other results of frustration: neurotic contempt for the public, bitter envy, nearly physiological contempt for everything new or simply different and unfamiliar. As was once said, prejudice is the expression of wickedness over virtue. However, one of the strange peculiarities of the new world of communications is that hypocrisy is not the outcome of a desire to imitate virtue. Hypocrisy has transformed and become self-sufficient, something like modern pseudo-truth, unlike truth, which has a place everywhere.

In the early 1920s, humanity entered an era of electronic communication. Of course, the level of activity among radio enthusiasts is a bit comparable to the rampancy of social networks today, but even then, concern over the growing potential of communications was great. Understanding that communications anarchy, besides amazing opportunities for self-fulfillment, was also fraught with great risks. The European civilizational response was what is called public service broadcasting. The idea was simple; society should have the ability to oversee media, without limiting freedom of speech and distribution of information. The idea was that rules were abided by. For example, the rule of fact checking, the rule of transmitting all existing points of view, the idea of the impartiality of media itself.

Of course, the model of one hundred years ago is unacceptable. But submerging into information chaos and the disappearance of criteria for distributing information is equally dangerous. A fake news item of a politician’s statement is capable of provoking a conflict. As was the case with the fake statement of a so-called Israeli minister on nuclear weapons.

A recent Washington Post article tells of recent public opinion surveys regarding the role of professional media. It’s interesting that in the US, professional media still enjoy more trust than the tweets of Donald Trump (52 versus 37 percent). It is even more interesting that around two-thirds of those surveyed believe that the activity of professional media plays an important role in preventing what can be called abuse of power.

This is not the first time I speak of this, but perhaps there needs to be a new journalistic renaissance, the appearance of new and transformation of old media into new “public service” media. The word renaissance implies a reconstruction, a re-acquisition of the lost. Here it is clear that lost is the role of the media as a trustworthy and navigating source of information that can be trusted and relied on.

Unfortunately, the most delightful and disgusting foci of information, the ones that can be observed in the social media, were invented in the most professional of media. Distribution of rumors, compromise through unchecked facts, invented lies are a frequent occurrence in media. However, this is not what brought media fundamental success. It was the satisfying people’s basic demand for information, exact information that allow one to make reasonable decisions and make exact deductions about what is happening in the world.

Realizing the known naïveté of my claims, I think that the successful navigation of the audience in the modern information ocean is impossible without reestablishing the hierarchy of trust in the sphere of communications. At the height of this pyramid, are currently are and should continue to be professional media.

Of course, if I am not mistaken, for this there needs to be a brilliant mastery of work with information. As a rule, this is only accessible to people constantly engaged in collecting, preparing and transmission information. In addition, this kind of media demands the talent of aggregating a wide spectrum of opinions, views and facts that circulate in the new information communication medium. Finally, this requires following clear and fair principles of work with information.

We live in a new information and communication environment. In it, it is important to understand the nature of professional media and separate them from other agents of communications. Of course, and non-government organization and even supermarket has turned into a media. The World Wildlife Fund, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and other respected organizations have de facto editorial bodies. New possibilities of communication give these editorial bodies the ability to distribute information with the same effectiveness as the most successful media. However, this does not make them media because professional media are engaged in informing the audience, giving the public an opportunity to look at a problem from all sides and hear different points of view. Non-government organizations like the aforementioned are engaged in promotion only their point of view, their own discoveries and accomplishments. The issue is not the importance of their work but in that, the role of traditional media is not in convincing the audience, but in letting it figure out what is going on.

This is becoming increasingly difficult. By itself, the information chaos moving toward us is not news, but the scale of the flood should not be underestimated. The chaos that the greater part of confused humanity, and the fear and confusion accompanying it are a fruitful environment for manipulation, turning people into an obedient and aggressive mob.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg said that he believes that it is important to turn social networks, Facebook in particular, into an instrument of organizing the new public life, in a planetary scale. According to him, 100 million people across the entire world could radically change control of international processes. They could influence decision-making, create effective trans-border communities for creating new decisions and correcting old ones. If I understand Zuckerberg’s idea correctly, besides all of this, he considers it important to monitor the reliability of information and the process of correctly using it. As it seems to me, the question is still at large, whether people from social networks can monitor the reliability of information and the process of it being used correctly. However, the question is still at large, where does information itself come from? Social network users themselves are incapable of creating it. The creation of information is a very expensive and labor-intensive process. Only professional media can use this process, operating, of course, in the social media space as well.

In other words, even if we allow for the idea that in the space of internet communications a new, truly international society is created, it will need new public media capable of generating information that they themselves acquire and create, and exactly aggregate and confirm this information, which communications participants will offer to everyone else.

It is the possibility of a new worldwide society that demands new worldwide media, which are fit for the complexity and diversity of the emerging communications universe.