Viner, Katharine: How technology disrupted the truth

Katharine Viner

How technology disrupted the truth‘, The Guardian, 12 July 2016 updated

More than 1500 comments on this article by Guardian editor-in-chief about how ‘[s]ocial media has swallowed the news – threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences go far beyond journalism.’

Notes how the Brexit campaign was characterised by wrong information, false promises and, after it was successful, by a lack of a plan for what happened next. ‘When a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and “facts” that are not.’

The Trump campaign has shown the importance of connecting with people emotionally. ‘When “facts don’t work” and voters don’t trust the media, everyone believes in their own “truth” – and the results, as we have just seen, can be devastating.’

Goes on to consider the nature of truth in the era of Facebook and similar platforms.

Publications curated by editors have in many cases been replaced by a stream of information chosen by friends, contacts and family, processed by secret algorithms. The old idea of a wide-open web – where hyperlinks from site to site created a non-hierarchical and decentralised network of information – has been largely supplanted by platforms designed to maximise your time within their walls, some of which (such as Instagram and Snapchat) do not allow outward links at all.

Looks at the changing relationship between journalists and their readers.

Many newsrooms are in danger of losing what matters most about journalism: the valuable, civic, pounding-the-streets, sifting-the-database, asking-challenging-questions hard graft of uncovering things that someone doesn’t want you to know. Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy – and the digital era has made that even more obvious.

The truth is a struggle, hard graft but it is worth pursuing.

We are privileged to live in an era when we can use many new technologies – and the help of our audience – to do that [discover what really happened]. But we must also grapple with the issues underpinning digital culture, and realise that the shift from print to digital media was never just about technology. We must also address the new power dynamics that these changes have created. Technology and media do not exist in isolation – they help shape society, just as they are shaped by it in turn. That means engaging with people as civic actors, citizens, equals. It is about holding power to account, fighting for a public space, and taking responsibility for creating the kind of world we want to live in.

On the same and related subjects, Liam McLoughlin in New Matilda makes the case that ‘objective’ journalism is glorified public relations and this piece by David Pledger in The Conversation looks, among other things, at the overlaps between the future of the media and arts policy. James Rose in New Matilda on aspects of the changing structure and focus of media, particularly the risk of the stifling of progressive ideas.

Later related material came from The Economist on Trump and post-truth, Denis Muller in The Conversation on the same subject, and Katharine Murphy of Guardian Australia in Meanjin on truth and the new politics. And this 2018 book review by Lindsey Hilsum from the New York Review of Books shows the issues are still very much alive, although there is some cause for optimism.

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