I was at the filming of BBC 1’s The Big Questions at Bath Spa University this morning, where one of the questions was whether or not ‘social media is out of control’. The conversation soon turned to ‘fake news’.
I think most of us have picked up that in both the US elections and in the Brexit debates many people were unable to distinguish between stories or statistics on social media that had a basis in reality and those that didn’t.
And I suppose most of us have realised that we create our own social media bubbles where most of the people with whom we are connected, by and large, share most of our own views. This makes us feel like our own opinions are right, but probably isn’t a good approach to finding truth.
Even realising these things, I was a little bit taken aback during the filming this morning when a student a few seats away from me said something like
‘there is very rarely any kind of fundamentally absolutely objective truth underlying any news story, and it’s not clear that it is something that can be obtained simply, quickly or efficiently by anyone.’
(Basically, I think he was saying that it is impossible to know if something is true.)
If he speaks for his generation (and I suspect that he speaks for a lot of them) we really are living in a different world, and this will have an effect even on those of us who grew up in a slightly different era.
I’m concerned about the effect that living in a ‘fake news’ environment will have on my compassion. When I read about horrific things happening in South Sudan or Syria, will I be tempted to think ‘that couldn’t possibly be true’, that it is too awful to be true?
What about information fatigue? It’s possible to go onto ‘fact-checking’ websites and these are really important, but will we have time and energy to keep doing that?
I’m worried about images that pretend to be ‘true’ but in fact are filtered and edited to project a false self.
What kind of world are we living in where people can claim things that they and we know are false, but there are no repercussions? In some cases, not only are there no negative repercussions, but they can use the distraction of ridiculous stories for their own ends.
Is it possible to fight back?
If this world we are living in can’t compute ‘objective truth’, then I guess we are left with trust and experience. This makes choosing who we trust supremely important. It also means that we have to pay a lot of attention to the stories of our day-to-day lives and make the point of sharing those stories with others.
Relying on trust and experience to fight ‘fake news’ might not sound like a battle cry or manifesto but I wonder how counter-cultural it might be?