Op-Ed

Front Porch | The poison and toxicity of fake news

The American writer and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who lived to be only 40, was the master of the macabre and the mysterious, which enlivened his short stories and poetry.

His works include “The Purloined Letter” and “The Raven”.

A fervent sceptic who helped to invent the detective fiction genre, Poe is credited with advising: “Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.”

He found humorous and alarming the propensity of humans to believe all manner of often dramatic and obvious falsehoods perpetuated in the public sphere by charlatans and mercenaries in politics, the pulpit and journalism.

Indeed, it is astonishing how inherently gullible are human beings, seemingly hardwired to believe claptrap, nonsense and the sensational.

In the social media age it has gotten worse, with falsehoods, typically in the form of “bad news” and negative untruths, often spreading with the seeming velocity of a rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral.

In the song “Bad News”, the legendary Johnny Cash expressed wonderfully the wisdom handed down by the “old people”, as Bahamians like to say:

“Ha ha ha, Come on, bad news, ha ha

“Well, bad news travels like wild fire, good news travels slow…”

One reason that daily newspapers, at home and abroad, typically display sensational and sometimes misleading banner headlines at variance with the actual stories, is that humans delight in the sensational and the schadenfreude or misfortunes of others, especially our political leaders and celebrities.

In the age of the telegram, news, real and false, took a longer time to spread. Today, lies, falsehoods and misinformation go viral in record speed.

In an article entitled “How to Spot Fake News” in Psychology Today, Dr. Sander van der Linden, a social psychology professor with the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, writes: “Facts go viral less often than falsehoods. Virality is not always a good indicator of what’s important. As one recent report put it, lies often spread faster and farther than the truth.

“Viral content that gets shared over and over again is frequently based on things other than factual accuracy.”

Dr. van der Linden added: “Once a headline, video or meme reaches a social tipping point, the fact that it’s been shared a million times becomes social ‘proof’ in itself that it must be important, which sustains its virality, misinforming more and more people.

“Instead of critically appraising content, people often share (fake) news articles because they like the messenger, because the article speaks to their political biases, because the headline is provocative or simply because everyone’s doing it.”

Insularity

And in the echo chamber and insularity of small states like those in the Caribbean, including The Bahamas, fake news and falsehoods are readily and eagerly digested and regurgitated.

Despite the widespread realization that there is an overwhelming volume of false news circulating, Bahamians are caught day after day by fake news.

Our phones sound with a cacophony of beeps with messages from a variety of social media, which we answer with great frenzy, even while eating and driving.

With little thought or discernment, we near instantly resend the message, assuming that what we’ve heard or seen is truthful, no matter how many times we have subsequently learned that what we re-sent was fake, if we are fortunate enough to realize that we have been fooled yet again for the umpteenth time.

Last year, a fake item was constantly resent via Facebook and WhatsApp declaring that a senior politician was about to resign. It was a lie. But many Bahamians fell for it. The object of the fake news ended up laughing it off.

Ironically, sometimes, the more one suggests that a story is fake, the more people believe it. And facts be damned. They often make no difference. A scientist employed by the government was interviewed by a senior journalist on a broadcast program.

Despite presenting factual scientific information, he was told by the interviewer that his science and facts were simply wrong, though the interviewer presented no facts of her own and was unable to refute his facts.

When asked why some commentators and others simply dismissed the science-based reports he produced, this public officer trained in the sciences, simply stated: “We are a very subjective and emotional people. We believe what we want to believe!”

Sensationalist

Last week, a well-known sensationalist made inaccurate claims about the dome housing the government purchased to house residents displaced by Hurricane Dorian. Some journalists and others quickly dismissed the claim. But it went viral, with many people resending the post.

The Disaster Reconstruction Authority quickly responded to the claim through various media, including the press. The press release from the authority noted: “On Friday, January 24, 2020, a fake news story circulated on social media stating that the real cost of the domes is $900 per unit. This fake news post suggested the authority overspent or misinformed the public on the real dome cost.

“This social media post is false and extremely misleading. The cheap domes for $900 referred to in the fake news social media post are of significantly lower quality than the domes purchased by the authority.

“It is unclear if the cheap domes were tested for quality at international standards. It is also unclear what materials were used in their construction.”

The press release continued: “It is irresponsible of anyone to suggest the authority should purchase cheap, untested domes that cannot stand up to the conditions in our country.

“The authority advises Bahamians to get their news and information from responsible news sources. There is a large amount of fake news circulating created by uniformed people.

“The temporary domes the authority purchased are free of charge to those displaced by Hurricane Dorian.”

Despite this release, which was widely distributed, the false post is still being circulated like a virus, which will require the same treatment as other viruses.

Still, despite attempts to refute fake news and posts, many who originally saw a false claim, somehow never get around to learning that a claim or post was false. And some, despite finally getting the facts, continue to believe what they want to believe because it accords with their prejudices and what they want to believe.

We have learned even more strongly in the age of Donald Trump that huge chunks of a population simply do not care about lies and many others simply tune out any facts from those whom they deem their opponents.

Disturbing

We rarely look at the source of the information that we resend through social media or look at its veracity. What is truly disturbing is that a few well-known individuals in the media have repeatedly failed to check their supposed facts.

One journalist at a broadcast station has consistently gone on air and on social media to make baseless and potentially harmful claims.

This individual recently and inaccurately claimed the fee to purchase plastic bags following the single-use plastics ban was a government tax.

This same journalist falsely accused a Bahamas Power and Light board member of a conflict of interest. The journalist, who should have been relieved of his job because of this matter, had to go on air to apologize for such egregious and poor reporting.

Most of the mainstream media try to be gatekeepers ensuring that their stories, commentary and reporting are fact-based and not libelous and slanderous. But in the world of fake news on social media, such gatekeepers do not exist.

It is left to individuals to judge what they hear, see and read.

This is a different world that is now leading to deadly consequences in some countries and harmful consequences in countries such as ours, where many do not have the media literacy and other skills and knowledge to recognize the fake news and falsehoods we are digesting almost daily.

The quantity and types of fake news we are digesting are like the toxic and poisonous levels of salt, sugar and fat in our diet, which are leading to all manner of diseases and ill-health.

Just as we are doing physical harm to our bodies through poor diets, we are doing tremendous harm to the body politic and to our society through the junk and garbage we are mindlessly and addictively digesting from our mobile devices around the clock.

Next week: recognizing fake news

frontporchguardian@gmail.com.

 

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