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Are social media contributing to the use of the insult “fake news” in public discourse?

Decidedly yes, say two Kent State professors, experts in the field of business communication.

The two, Mark Whitmore and Pratim Datta, last Tuesday discussed the effects of social media with a group of journalists from the Republic of Kyrgyz, a strategically located Central Asian nation that was once part of the Soviet Union.

The six journalists accompanied by two translators met with the two professors in the College of Business Administration-Management and Information Systems. I had been invited, as a retired newspaperman, to join the discussion.

Ironically, the journalists had heard of Whitmore and Datta because of social media and internet. A research paper about “fake news” that Whitmore delivered at the American Psychological Association Convention in the summer coincided with a virulent spat between President Trump and the mainstream media. Whitmore’s paper went viral and was downloaded by nearly 39 million readers within a week of his delivery.

A generation ago, most of us received a limited menu of news dispatched by respected editors at a limited number of TV networks, newspapers, and radio stations. Limited opinion and news sources resulted in common ground and comparatively easy discussion of political issues.

Today, numerous TV channels, radio stations, and social media of every stripe cater to any interest shown by any consumer that is deemed commercially viable. They support narrowly construed consumer preferences. One result, according to Whitmore and Datta, is that those who are interested in political discourse can’t find a commonly agreed upon set of facts necessary for civil discussion.

Lack of common ground has given rise to the term, “fake news.” This is the insult one hurls at opponents when a news story supporting one’s opponents is damaging. It aims to discredit the source. Popularized by President Trump, the term “fake news” has been adopted by leaders in other countries and is creating worldwide problems for trained journalists in the news industry.

Last Tuesday’s discussion was titled, “21st Century Changemakers: New and Traditional Media in the Digital Age.” Recent statistics show 68 percent of the America people say they receive a good bit of their news via social media.

Here is why that is a problem.

Social media, the two explained, tailor news to please users. Their algorithms systematically record consumer preferences. A profile of what the user likes digitally emerges. The search engines then supply more of the same so the consumer is only exposed to what he or she already believes.

Whitmore, citing research by his wife, Eve, a psychologist, said viewpoints begin crystalizing in childhood when they are normally passed on by one’s parents. These strengthen as the consumer accepts more information consistent with already formed opinions and rejects inconsistent information.

Whitmore and Datta suggested ways in which hardened opinions might melt and common ground might be restored. Datta said search engines like Google and web platforms like Facebook are trying to create mechanisms that segregate information provided by reliable sources from those that disseminate misinformation or, worse, disinformation.

During the discussion, Datta mentioned the possibility of government regulation of the internet. A Kyrgyz Republic journalist, Sadiev Daniyar, warned government regulation could escalate into censorship.

Whitmore said peer loyalty can persuade a person to refrain from seeking accurate information that might estrange him from the comfort of his peer group. Politicians aware of this emphasize the comfort of belonging over the importance of obtaining accurate information.

Whitmore recommended sampling a wide variety of news sources. Cultivating an open-mind as a kind of self-improvement mission can overcome prejudice and poorly grounded opinions. It must be encouraged, he said

Humor relieves the discomfort that one feels when confronted by conflicting opinions and information and, Whitmore said, “political satire, dead 20 years ago, is booming in today’s environment.” A problem is that relief provided by humor is usually only temporary in breaking down barriers, he said.

For now, he said, encouraging opening one’s mind to find accurate information by sampling a variety of opinions and sources of information remains extremely important. The title of Whitmore’s research paper at last summer’s APA convention was, “Making Sense of Nonsense.” It sounds formidable, but it is not off the mark from what all of us interested in civil discourse must attempt.

David E. Dix is a former publisher of the Record-Courier.

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