Post-truth journalismLet’s wage war against the trend of selling emotions over facts on digital platforms
Journalism is a kind of struggle for truth over emotional, biased and strategically designed messages flooding social media platforms. The rise of social media as a news source has fuelled a trend of post-truth journalism where the general public distrusts or underscores facts offered by traditional media and instead prefers highly charged political or biased content that fill social media platforms. Post-truth, the word of the year 2016 as declared by Oxford Dictionary, refers to circumstances in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals and personal conviction. In reference to Britain’s exit from the European Union and the US presidential election, usage of the term swelled 2000 percent from the previous year. In both these electoral events, mainstream media predication was a spectacular failure because of overpowering social media contents.
Fake news circulates faster
Three dominant tendencies of post-truth journalism pose a huge challenge to mainstream journalism: emotional appeals, artificial news and presence of alt-right media. Emotional appeals supersede factual information in the post-truth setting. Last November, a television interview with a destitute lady in Nepal prompted a social media war. First broadcast by Kantipur TV and later uploaded to YouTube, the interview went viral, generating over half a million views within a few days. Social media users in Nepal and abroad immediately slammed the lady’s former husband. Two days later, when more information was revealed, they counter-attacked the lady and the interviewer. The root of the conflict was one-sided claims in the interview. Social media users did not wait for the other side of the story before making up their minds. This incident demonstrates how emotional appeals shape public opinion on social media.
Fake news circulates faster on social media platforms than traditional media outlets. Political and corporate institutions create bogus accounts and websites to spread propaganda with appealing pictures and video clips. For instance, hundreds of fake websites were created during the US presidential election with sensational headlines such as ‘Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President’; ‘Hillary Clinton calling for civil war if Trump elected’; ‘Barack Obama admits he was born in Kenya’ and ‘FBI agent who was suspected of leaking Hillary’s corruption is dead’. None of these headlines was true, but they were shared several million times within a couple of days. When voters read these headlines, they did not care about the authenticity of the information; they made up their minds and cast their ballots accordingly.
The rise of alt-right media is another dominant tendency of post-truth journalism. These media promote extremely reactionary viewpoints, often rejected by mainstream media because of deliberate and controversial content. Many people, however, favour such opinionated content because they are either tired of traditional news style or have extremely far-right ideologies. For example, mainstream media criticised what the US president-elect had said during his election campaign, but Americans who favoured Trump’s arguments (such as erecting a wall on the US-Mexico border and stopping Muslim immigrations) rapidly circulated these messages among like-minded groups.
Traditional media and journalists usually follow official agencies and spokespersons for information. These news sources are not able to cover today’s public who are not only content creators but also publishers and broadcasters. Using social media platforms, they influence their like-minded circle. This paradigm shift in audience roles requires mainstream journalists to reach a wider public and reflect their exact opinions, irrespective of their official stand or personal opinion. Media critics argue that the growing trend of post-truth media coverage is a failure of modern journalism leading mainstream news media into an existential crisis.
No traditional news media in the world has a stronger audience network than Facebook, Twitter and YouTube which are the most fertile platforms for disseminating propaganda. Many social media users instantly become overwhelmed by biased information or manufactured content, particularly in audio-visual format. Interestingly, short pieces of information on digital platforms are found circulating faster than long stories. More authentic stories on traditional media platforms appear late while the consequences of short information pieces are widespread and dominant. A columnist for the Toronto Star newspaper Vinay Menon noticed that widely circulating fake news on Facebook attracted more readers than the top stories in any major newspaper. Therefore, social media users are often warned about the potential consequences of post-truth by circulating content without verification. Social media seems to be more influential that traditional media because the latter needs adequate time to authenticate information.
So how do you avoid a post-truth information deluge? Awareness and social media literacy is the key, but what is required is integrated efforts by media stakeholders including media houses, journalist associations, press councils and audiences. Then the general public will build the habit of reading original sources, traditional news media will get their audiences back and journalists will get due respect for their hard work.
The entire society is the ultimate beneficiary since emotional propaganda can damage social harmony. Media houses, instead of outsourcing news-gathering, should send reporters on real field visits, encourage reporters to contact real sources, get real first hand information and write real news reports. Equally, editors should verify facts and authenticate news sources without fear and favour before publishing a news story. Last but not least, more studies on social media impacts on shaping public opinion are required because every society has a unique perception of technology adoption and use.
Nepali media also experienced a post-truth journalism scenario during the first and second Constituent Assembly elections that produced unexpected results. Let’s wage war against fake news, emotional content and extremely radical ideologies on digital platforms and beyond. The ultimate remedy for falsified information is the production and circulation of factual news, but this must match the speed of social media so that users do not formulate strong opinions based on post-truth content. Otherwise, there is no choice but to be ready to face a tsunami of fake news spread across digital media platforms that sell emotions over facts.
Acharya is a researcher in media ethics and accountability and is affiliated to the University of Ottawa, Canada