Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Ian Boyne | Fake news and alternative facts

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Ian Boyne
This February 6, 2017 screenshot shows a website that falsely implies that it is from ABC News. The site is actually an imposter peddling stories that aren't true and is an example North Carolina teacher Bill Ferriter gives to his students when teaching them journalistic scrutiny.
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It had to come to this: a revulsion and backlash against fake news and 'alternative facts', which had for long inundated social media and the Internet, masquerading as liberation from 'controlled news sources' by the elite.

The rise of 'citizen journalism', which has morphed into an anything-goes, standards-free journalism, was bound to do real harm and provoke this pushback. The revolt has reached Jamaica. TVJ featured this week some alleged victims of rumour-mongering and defamation who spoke about the deleterious effects of this obsession with salacious 'news' and social-media sharing.

National Security Minister Robert Montague and Prime Minister Andrew Holness had started the ball rolling with their pronouncements that much of what was being circulated on social media about alleged gruesome murders and body mutilation in Jamaica was, in fact, fake. It was creating panic, and that was not in their interest, so they had to address it.

Media are just catching on, pitching in now to blow the whistle on this runaway addiction with sharing gory videos and photos.

"Social media gives mighty wings to the circulation of any type of information, real or imagined," chimes in the Observer in its editorial last Wednesday. The proliferation of fake news and alternative facts is indicative of a larger phenomenon and cultural trend in the West: the privileging of subjectivity over objectivity; the devaluing of hard, empirical evidence in favour of feelings and perspectives; the elevation of the trendy over the traditional.

 

NEW EMANCIPATION

 

So we heard it trumpeted how traditional media would eventually be swallowed up by social media; how the power of the individual to create his own information niche and 'broadcast himself' would herald a new emancipation. I hear more Jamaicans now saying, however, that they have to come back to their traditional sources of news to find what is really true, rather than rely on what is sent to their phones. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of traditional media have been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, I have an axe to grind as a member of the traditional media fraternity. I declare my bias. I believe in verification, old-fashioned fact-checking. I believe in editorial supervision. I believe in peer review. I believe that rigorous, painstaking investigative journalistic work must be done. People must aim to control their biases and commit to fairness and balance, if not total objectivity.

It's true: It is not everything you read 'in The Gleaner' that is necessarily true. Traditional media mess up, too. We get it wrong sometimes. We do shoddy work, too. But there is a culture in traditional journalism that is still respected, and in this age of fake news and alternative facts, that culture is becoming more prized the rarer it is.

We have not always practised our craft in the most responsible way, but there are standards, procedures and processes that are time-honoured. Because there are standards and procedures, we know when they are breached. It is not just because of libel laws why responsible journalists don't engage in rumour-mongering, gossip, innuendo and defamation. It is because responsible journalists subscribe to certain principles and an ethical framework. I am glad that we are raising alarm over scaremongering and rumour-mongering in social media before more harm is done. I am glad that victims are speaking out before more lives are destroyed - literally.

Recently, a group launched a social-media campaign, #SayTheirNames. It was supposedly to name perpetrators of sexual abuse. It was launched during the huge publicity surrounding the church scandals - or alleged sex scandals. People felt empowered to call names of alleged abusers. Any names could be plucked out of anywhere and placed on social media. No evidence has to be given. In fact, to demand evidence, in the twisted thinking of some, is to re-victimise victims and to be complicit with their abuse.

 

DEFENDING THE INDEFENSIBLE

 

In a letter that earned(?) Letter of the Day in The Gleaner (January 19) , Glenroy Murray of WE-Change commits to defending the indefensible and to chastise those who were pig-headed enough to be demanding that people show just cause before they accuse publicly. Investing the #SayTheirNames campaign with heroic action, Murray opines: "#SayTheirNames is about empowering women to step forward and not suffer in silence. It is building a community and support system for these women who hitherto had to deal with the psychological and physical scars of being violated alone."

I am all for women speaking openly about their pain. They need a social-support group to talk through their suffering and grief from abuse and emotional harm. But they have no right to #SayTheirNames if they are not prepared to take that accusation to the place best suited to adjudicate those accusations - the courts. Skilled in scapegoating and diversionary tactics, Murray attacks "journalists brimming with their own manifestations of privilege" who would "attempt to silence these women in their own indirect way". But I am quite direct. I am saying it is not okay to accuse people publicly if you are not prepared to defend that accusation in court.

Hear Murray: "Their (the journalists') suggestions that these women should keep quiet until they have evidence that can go to court is deeply problematic." What? So it's a free-for-all where anyone can post a picture of this person to say he raped me, he molested me when I was 12, he is a paedophile judge or pastor? The presumption of innocence is a vestige of the privileged classes and the patriarchal?

#SayTheirNames is easier than having to endure that. It is a fact that women have to endure disgusting second-guessing and even outright slander by police officers and attorneys (who are paid to cast doubt), but that doesn't absolve them from the demandingness of evidence and proof.

Murray has more lecturing for us stubborn, privileged bigots who are insisting on trivial matters like evidence and truth: "Many women only have their stories to share; stories they know will not be believed because of the patriarchal and misogynistic society we live in. If you tell them to go to court or be quiet, you might as well tell them to be quiet."

Murray is the master of non-sequitur reasoning. And I am being kind. But he is not alone in believing that insisting on hard evidence, facts, proof is too demanding, too restrictive.

The people who are circulating wild, sensational videos also hold similar views to Murray's. They want to be liberated from the tyranny of evidence or truth. They create their own 'reality'. Their alternative facts. It's not fake to them, for to them, truth is what they make it and how they see it. Theirs is the popularised version of the postmodernism some of us study in recondite philosophical books.

Social media have dumbed us down. It is producing a generation critically lacking, indeed contemptuous, of analytical skills and intellectual rigour. As I said last week, there is increasing disrespect and disregard for scholarship. This is not limited to social media.

Traditional media manifest that same malaise. It is seen particularly in the commentariat. Not everyone sees a need to be informed before giving commentaries. It is enough to express an opinion. Even if those opinions are totally uninformed and based only on intuition or 'I believe that'. There is too much of what I call bar-talk commentary, devoid of scholarship and any evidence of wide reading and deep reflection.

The pushback against fake news and sensational rumour-mongering in social media shows there is, indeed, a future for a journalism that is fact-based, evidence-driven and informed. People, after a while, will hunger for real news and analytical commentary. There will always be a market for quality journalism characterised by rigorous fact-checking, editorial scrutiny, and respect for truth.

Social-media consumption calls for discernment, but discernment calls for media literacy and the discipline of reason. If we lose that discipline, we lose the war on fake news, alternative facts, rumour-mongering and scaremongering.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.