City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Power of Fake News

The problem of fake news is rapidly becoming one of the defining issues of the day. As our ability to generate, broadcast and circulate news has grown exponentially, so has it become increasingly difficult to tell if the news we are receiving or transmitting is in fact the truth. In a highly polarised time, each side seems to have their own version of facts, which it believes in passionately.

The dramatic rise in the acceptance of fake news can be attributed to several factors. For one, receivers of news have become more aware of the fact the idea of ‘the news’ as a definitive and singular formulation is a flawed one, and they have begun to look behind the news rather than be satisfied by what appears at the surface. They recognise the fact that the apparently objective reality presented to them so persuasively, is a constructed one that is determined in part by the outlet’s own perspectives and slants. They can see that every media title assembles news differently, in line with its own alignments, interests and worldview. Who is providing the news and why are questions that are asked far more often today than they were in the past.

Traditionally, the media has worked hard and successfully to build an aura of authority around itself through a variety of devices (the kind of self-important names newspapers have, the mythic status of the editor, the attire of news presenters, the finicky insistence of factual accuracy and the precise and correct use of language etc). While media could never truly be objective, this aura of authority has been vital in creating institutional strength and credibility for it has defined the values that journalism should aspire to.

The coming of digital media has accelerated this distrust of a definitive version of news and that the implicit authority vested in the press is getting dismantled. Once the carefully constructed idea of the definitiveness of news has been punctured, the openness to many different versions of reality has ballooned. The sense of being

manipulated and made to see the world in a certain way, has made audiences much more open to alternative versions. Once there is no automatic sanctity to the idea of news, the tendency is to latch on to versions that are aligned with one’s own perspectives.

But the real problem runs even deeper. As human beings, we do not value the truth that much. We have many needs that take precedence over the need to be confronted with reality as it exists. We want to feel better about ourselves. We want to outrage at things that annoy us. We want to be reassured that what we are hearing is the truth, but even when sometimes we know that it isn’t, we can make do. If we were to look at our own lives, we can see that no two accounts of an event are identical, nor do two memories of a conversation converge. Everyone has their own story to tell, each embellished a little, adjusted a tiny bit to make room for their own selves and amplified to make the account more interesting or flattering. And it is always the other guy’s fault. More often than not, truth is what we seek to escape, not find.

News in its non-journalistic avatar, is a loose robe that billows around an event, part poetry and part prose, some reality housed in a fair amount of fantasy. In most cases, what happens in the external world does not really matter to us, so why not construct a version that serves us better? What is allegedly happening in say Kashmir does not change our everyday lives in any way, so why not just believe a version that makes us feel better about ourselves?

The idea of news as objective fact was a journalistic invention. In an information scarce and loosely connected world, it was a necessary one, but an invention nevertheless. The quest for an authoritative account of events gave the world a common yardstick to wrap itself around. It gave us a single point of reference that aligned disparate communities along certain agreed upon verities.

In a market-led world, which is arrayed around an individual’s desires, the primary function of news in society has changed. It does not need to be universally true; it needs instead to be attractive to each individual consumer. Inconvenient facts are not useful in this world. News needs to be suppler, bending more easily, arching towards what people want to hear. News becomes lighter, frothier. Entertainment sells as does crime. It becomes more value-loaded; narratives take precedence over facts.

This shift was well underway before the advent of digital. But social media is in effect a network of millions of relay transmitters, each recirculating its version of what was once a centralised version of events. In a bid to retain relevance in this new decentralised world, journalists have gone along with this idea of news. Paradoxically, by abandoning the regard for objective facts that they had so painstakingly constructed, they have deeply compromised their own profession, and made themselves redundant. Once the necessary illusion of the institutional credibility of journalism is shattered, nothing remains. They are now performers, actors with audiences that feast on their mannerisms or ideological positions. When they play by the script, they get rewarded by the ecosystem that pushes them away from their traditional quest for objective fact. The fact that we need fact-checkers is by itself telling, for wasn’t that why the institution of journalism was created- to present facts?

The biggest problem with fake news is that increasingly, for too many of us, it is not a problem. We simply don’t care. Governments can make up numbers, channels can invent, exaggerate and mangle news. Fact-checkers can be dismissed as motivated bores. As consumers at the centre of the universe, what really matters is that we are satisfied. If this fact doesn’t do it for us, another will.

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