Daniel Thwaites | Post-truth politics
How many Jamaicans get their news primarily from social media? And what is the quality and content of that news? I don't have the answer to that question, but I think it would be worth finding out.
For one thing, we know that people search out what they already agree with, so they likely end up in an echo chamber of views they already hold when they spend time online. Plus, websites like Facebook have algorithms that deliver to users more of what they have already said they like, pretty much locking them in a room with everyone singing the same Sankey.
Social scientists have studied what happens when people of like mind get put together without any opposing ideas. They become more extreme, more entrenched in their views, more likely to think that their way of seeing things is the only legitimate way of seeing them.
Facebook and other social-media platforms, it turns out, are excellent for spreading misinformation, inaccuracies, and outright lies. And if that's done in a story with a catchy headline and presented as if it's from a reputable news source, it can go viral and have real-world effects and impact.
Producing fakery is, of course, quite easy, whereas generating real news is difficult and hard work. That would at least partly explain the proliferation of garbage, and 'clickbait' from the Left and the Right designed to drive up your blood pressure and make you very angry. Chances are that if you're angry, you will click on it, investigate further, and then, fully enraged, forward it on to your friends and neighbours.
Perhaps this is why media watchdog MediaMatters is sending around a petition asking Facebook to fix its "fake news problem". With evident alarm, it points to a recent Pew poll showing that 62 per cent of Americans now get news on social media. Facebook is the most popular place, with one-quarter of the earth's population giving it eyeballs.
In fact, just the other day, Facebook was sending out incorrect information that people had died, giving some people the novel experience of being notified of their own death by a social-media page.
The great satirist Mark Twain had a similar experience back in 1897 and famously quipped, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Now a satirical newspaper has made the point to Mark Zuckerburg with their own headline: 'Mark Zuckerburg - Dead At 32 - Denies Facebook Has Problem With Fake News'.
These trends were very evident to me during the lead-up to the USA's presidential election. I happen to know people passionately Democratic and others equally passionately Republican, and it's fair to say that they live in different universes.
One of the most alarming features of their disconnect is that they believe completely different facts about the political world, and the set of beliefs hardly have any overlap. It's actually quite easy to imagine a conversation between decent people from either side where neither would make any sense to the other.
This is part of the package that the Oxford Dictionary is getting at when it chose the word 'post-truth' as the Word of the Year. 'Post-truth' is an adjective "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". The driving notion behind it is that the old-timey central idea of 'truth' has become irrelevant.
In other words, who cares about the facts? It's how I feel that's important.
That strikes me as a very dangerous thing. It's important for people to have, even in the hotly contested political arena, some things that they can all agree upon.
I thought of this when I came across a video of Audley Shaw dancing on a political stage recently. Mi ah beg unnuh ... check it out. You just have to like the guy. Full of vibes. Audley put down some skanking!
I think all Jamaicans, regardless of political persuasion, can agree that Audley is a massively entertaining dancer. And I think once we've established that fact beyond dispute, even in election periods, great structures of mutual understanding can be built on that foundation.
However, it is evident that much of our politics has become post-truth as well. Audley should've been dancing to a tune named 'I Doubled the Minimum Wage', 'De Dollar Stop Slide', or even '1.5 Without New Tax', but those weren't the tunes. And even though he's a magnificent dancer, I wonder if Audley truly believed any of those statements as he was making them. Or was he just dancing a jig for campaign entertainment?
Those are questions you can resolve for yourself.
The larger issue is that nowadays, people have to make even more of an effort to break out of the silos and information bubbles they live in, not less. The information superhighway, as it used to be called, is deceptive. It can, in fact, be a tiny dirt road if you don't take deliberate steps to engage with ideas that may seem unfamiliar.
- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to email@example.com.