Does Social Media Increase Our Ignorance in the Current Post Truth World?

By Des Pensable copyright 2016

Social media is driven by maths algorithms designed to mainly send information and news that people find interesting.  Hence if you love a sport such as tennis or football it will predominantly send you information about sports. If you write comments about the sports and your friends like them they will get elevated in your contact group. After a while you will find that the people reading  and responding to your comments generally agree with what you think. You have just created your own media echo chamber. This could be bad for you.

The problem here is that each person only has a limited amount of time to take in new knowledge and if it is mainly spent on taking in knowledge in your favourite area with people that agree with you and think the same way as you do then you start becoming ignorant about other things around you that might be important such as political decisions that might affect you and your family or perhaps information about the severity of Global Warming. So how did it get like this?

Typically the main stream commercial newspapers used to distribute news in a specific way. The front page told you the big news of the day and as you worked your way into the paper it told you dribs and drabs of other things that were happening both locally and elsewhere.

It was here that you became aware of a wide range of issues that may not have seemed important or even interesting at the time. However, it informed you of other things happening around you. TV news was originally formatted to do the same. Social media doesn’t generally do this.

Newspaper editors knew how people read their papers decades ago. If they were aligned with the government or the opposition and they always have been, then they could present information favourable to that political party on the front page with back up stories to compliment that front page story on the next couple of pages.

They often gave alternate points of view either no coverage or buried them deep within the paper.  The TV news became the same. If you only read the first few pages or watched main stream TV then you were most likely being politically manipulated.

Worldwide there has been a massive decline in newspaper readers and  people have stopped buying the newspaper and more importantly stopped placing advertisements in the classifieds in newspapers causing a rapid decline in profit.

The growth of Internet news and social media also caused  massive changes in the news industry in Australia. As the Internet became more popular for adverts and ebay and similar sites stole much of the content from the newspaper classified sections.

The newspapers responded by laying off reporters and journalists, merging with other newspapers until there are only a couple left owned by wealthy conservative plutocrats with strong political party affiliations. They began producing more outrageous front page stories to attract readers back. They became much more blatantly partisan and full of more extreme viewpoints that were often factually false.

The TV channels followed suit presenting politically biased comment and often totally false stories such as on Fox news in the USA. Fox News can be considered a main stream mass media conservative propaganda site.

Mass media outlets in the USA are classified these days by political affiliation and what percentage of their stories are true or false.  As a consequence fact checking sites began to appear as people realised that many of the stories and statements from politicians are biased, erroneous or just plain lies.

Australia’s level of media ownership concentration is one of the highest in the world with a majority of distribution controlled by a pro-conservative government aligned  Rupert Murdoch .

Murdoch publications such as the Australian, the Telegraph and Courier Mail excel in publishing misinformation from the right wing shock jocks like Andrew Bolt and compulsive liars like Tony Abbot, without challenging the factual accuracy of them, allowing misinformation and confusion to reign.  They only rarely publish any alternative viewpoints.  This can’t be good for us.

It seems that we are living in a post truth world where we must be truly sceptical of anything we read as we are being swamped by everything from sneaky, spin-doctored viewpoints to blatantly false stories. A good example is the misinformation industry around climate change which has grown huge from support by large energy companies like Exxon,  wealthy fossil fuel barons and mining oligarchs.

Most people are not stupid but many may be ignorant and it isn’t bliss. It’s simply the lack of valid truthful knowledge on a particular subject or area.  If your mind is filled with reliable factual information then you can make more reliable decisions on how it might affect you and your family. On the other hand if you are influenced by false information then you are more likely to make less reliable decisions.

Polls show that trust in the main stream media whether it is newspapers or TV news has dropped substantially.   Many are seeking to get most of their news from the Internet but this leads to the media echo chamber problem.  So how do we tell the factually correct news from the false news?

The solution is to be sceptical and critical.  Cultivate a circle of friends and special interest groups with divergent points of view. Fact Check ALL political statements using a reliable independent fact checking site preferably NOT one funded by any political think tank, government or commercial organisation.

Check all scientific statements with a reputable scientific association.  Use the Wikipedia to expand your science knowledge.  Don’t trust information from political think tanks, it’s generally politically biased.  Use Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detector Kit.

You don’t have to agree with everyone but the diversity of points of view, a little research and a good dose of scepticism should give you a reasonably good chance to sort the truth from bullshit and make life a little easier in the post truth world.

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Des Pensable

Des is a native of Sydney where he currently lives with his partner Joanne. He has a PhD in neuroscience and worked as a biomedical scientist where he published widely in several areas of science. Since retiring, he’s been a keen writer of poetry, stories and philosophy which appear on his web, blog site and on line literary publications. He is also a performance poet that appears regularly in venues around Sydney.

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