We’ve cre­ated a mon­ster

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

For me, the seeds of the cur­rent epi­demic of fake news, the so-called post-truth era, starts in the ad­vent of dig­i­tal me­dia, and with the way the al­readyex­ist­ing print me­dia made its way onto the web.

In other words, it’s my fault. Well, mine, and, with me, the rest of the ink-stained wretches. And our bosses. Let me ex­plain. The news me­dia made fake news pos­si­ble when news­pa­pers be­came cash-cow com­modi­ties in the 1980s and 1990s, and when man­age­ment of those com­modi­ties turned into an ac­count­ing ex­er­cise. What mattered, es­pe­cially to news chains that had bought up pa­pers with bor­rowed money, was not the prod­uct, but the profit mar­gin.

For years, the best sci­ence news­pa­pers had was the bald fig­ure of their to­tal cir­cu­la­tion and the oc­ca­sional fo­cus group. News­pa­pers in­vested next to noth­ing in busi­ness-re­lated re­search, con­tent to just sit and count the ad money. Re­search, like new­rooms, was a cost-cen­tre to be trimmed.

We made fake news even more pos­si­ble, when, for the first time, the print news in­dus­try ac­tu­ally had plenty of met­rics. With the ad­vent of dig­i­tal sites, there was al­ready a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about what was be­ing clicked on — the im­me­di­ate re­sponse was not “why are peo­ple read­ing this story?” but “how can we make an­other story just like it?” (Like I said, we didn’t do much in the way of re­search, and the “how” was eas­ier than the “why.”)

If peo­ple read about a man who cuts off his own arm to es­cape a boul­der’s crush­ing weight — why, they’ll cer­tainly read about a man with no legs who wants to climb moun­tains. If mil­lions will click on a pic­ture of a movies star in a re­veal­ing dress, why not pub­lish many pic­tures of women in re­veal­ing dresses?

Repli­ca­tion be­come the or­der of the day — if you get a good re­sult, find a way to mir­ror that re­sult. We stopped ask­ing what would chal­lenge our read­ers — we asked only what would cause them to click on a story.

We cre­ated the Bar­num and Bai­ley school of news. We con­di­tioned read­ers that, if a pic­ture of a house blow­ing up was great, a pic­ture of three houses blow­ing up was bet­ter. And we had the num­bers to prove it.

Prob­lem is, there are only a lim­ited num­ber of ac­tual houses blow­ing up. Hav­ing gone the dis­tance, though, to prove that any­thing is pos­si­ble, that truth is stranger than fic­tion, why should any­one in the news me­dia be sur­prised that the tastes we’d so care­fully cul­tured in our au­di­ences had moved on to more es­o­teric, if less ac­cu­rate, fare?

If you liked the idea that Hil­lary Clin­ton was evil, you’ll love a story say­ing she was a child mur­derer. And, now that you have a taste for the pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment of what­ever you al­ready be­lieve, why the heck would you go back to any­thing else?

Why are we sur­prised that oth­ers are bet­ter at the fan­tas­ti­cal than we are?

We made fake news when we de­vel­oped the per­fect grow­ing so­lu­tion for it, and that medium was in­fected by a virus that wasn’t re­strained by the messy con­cept of things hav­ing to be true.

And why are we sur­prised that there are those who un­con­di­tion­ally gob­ble it up, es­pe­cially when it sup­ports their own al­ready-ex­ist­ing opin­ions?

It might be more fun to ar­gue that an over­ar­ch­ing ca­bal of lib­eral me­dia elites con­spired to fake the news and twist pub­lic opin­ion for years — that is, in it­self, a much grabby head­line, the kind of thing that gen­er­ates clicks. (Truth is, though, the news me­dia as a whole couldn’t co­he­sively or­der a pizza.)

I think we turned mass me­dia into fast food — we shouldn’t be sur­prised that peo­ple want to eat it.

To quote Pogo — fit­tingly, an old news­pa­per car­toon — “We have met the en­emy and he is us.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.