HONG KONG — Facebook rumors force a well-known politician to publish proof of his heritage. Fake images show a prominent female leader in a hangman’s noose. A politician’s aide decries violent crime with a Facebook photo of a girl’s corpse — an image that turns out to come from another country.
The Internet is without a doubt one of the most powerful things man has ever invented. It has made the world a smaller place, at least digitally, and has made it easy for any voice to be heard. Almost too easy. It has made spreading false or inaccurate information as easy as clicking “Retweet” or “Re-post”. Coupled with a culture of instant gratification, that has become a recipe for disaster. That disaster has a new name this year, and it’s called “Fake News”. Sadly, Fake news is actually nothing new, aside from the now more severe geopolitical implications. The good news, it can be beaten. The bad news is, it requires undoing the fortunately still young culture of mindless reading and sharing on the Web.
In the week since Donald Trump’s victory, debate has raged over the role played by social media in the US election. Both Trump and his campaign’s digital director have partially credited social networks for his win, and Mark Zuckerberg has been under huge pressure to tackle the proliferation of fake stories on Facebook. On Wednesday, a BuzzFeed analysis found that fake news outperformed real news in the run-up to Election Day, and Oxford Dictionaries declared its word of the year to be “post-truth.” All in all, a tough time for objectivity.
All the dazzling technology, the big data and the sophisticated modeling that American newsrooms bring to the fundamentally human endeavor of presidential politics could not save American journalism from yet again being behind the story, behind the rest of the country.
The news media by and large missed what was happening all around it, and it was the story of a lifetime. The numbers weren’t just a poor guide for election night — they were an off-ramp away from what was actually happening.
Election surprises are only surprises when their causes are poorly understood. Three recent nationwide votes in the USA and UK have produced three dramatic surprises – Trump’s victory, Brexit, and the Conservative party’s 2015 Commons majority.
It is my view that observers have failed to predict each in large part because they have failed to understand the importance of message discipline. As a professional election observer, I am convinced that in the age of mass information, use of message discipline is one of the defining characteristics separating winners from losers.
It was a trifecta of positive news stories for travel agents over the weekend, as three consumer media outlets ran articles suggesting that travelers are well-advised to use a professional travel agent.
The Boston Globe’s “There’s A Travel Agent For That” led off with a testimonial noting that “in a time of information overload and complexity, travel advisors can save you time, money, and aggravation, and provide first-hand insight into destinations around the world.”
One day many decades hence, when your grandchildren ask you, “Grandma, what was a newspaper?” you can direct them back to Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Because it may well go down as the day the American newspaper as we’ve known it moved out of intensive care and into the palliative wing on its way to the Great Beyond.
When I was 5, my parents let me watch television so that I would be familiar with the shows my peers were watching. When I was 14, I purchased my first cell phone. When I was 21, I first used a BlackBerry. And when I’m 50, I’ll probably elect to have a chip implanted so I can read my e-mail by just thinking about reading it.
When Michelle Obama told Mike Huckabee a few weeks ago in an interview on Fox News Channel that her home was a “news-free zone,” she wasn’t just reflecting a desire to filter and ignore news we don’t want to hear. Her statement, to my ear, also represented the culmination of the suburbanization of the American mind. And that’s bad news for our future.
Following my talk in Singapore last month, I’d like to delve deeper into the question about what newspaper publishers outside the United States can do to avoid the market meltdown that’s already claimed a few papers in the U.S…. and endangers the survival of many more.
This advice applies not just to newspaper publishers outside the United States, but to all news publishers, including online start-ups and still-profitable U.S. papers, who haven’t yet had to resort to crippling staff or feature cutbacks to remain in the black.