The web of lies spun on social media are challenging fact-based renditions of reality. The resistance to the truth undermines science-based policy including environmental protections and climate action. However, there are ways that we can use digital media to combat alternative facts rather than memeify them.
We must start by acknowledging that fake news disseminated through digital media has been used to pull off one of the biggest scams in human history. The result is our current dystopia. This president and his party have made good on their threats to decimate environmental protections, climate action, social justice and even government itself.
Trump and his friends in Russia won the election by using fake news to control the narrative. Trump tries to distract people to control the narrative, he co-opts the theme and the language of news cycles that he is trying to suppress. We saw it in the debates with Hilary (calling Hillary a liar and a crook) and we are seeing it now in his tweets in response to the investigation into his team’s collusion with Russia. Trump has made utterly baseless allegations about Obama wiretapping
Trump Tower and the illegality of unmasking.
Trump and the GOP’s disregard for science may have been taken from the oil industry playbook. We now know that oil companies and Exxon in particular have known about the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming for decades. Rather than cop to a truth they invested in sophisticated campaigns to cast aspersions on science.
Like the fossil fuel industry Trump derides the veracity of those who expose the truth. We have see this in his derision of fact-based traditional media and the intelligence community. However, his attempts at distraction are wearing thin.
There have always been scammers and con men, people who pride themselves on their ability to get others to believe their lies. However, Trump is not just a flashy real estate mogul, he is the president of the most prosperous and powerful nation on Earth. These are harrowing times and the implications of this presidency extend far beyond the next four years. His litany of lies have prompted a Time Magazine cover story on Trump that asks, “Is Truth Dead?”
Is digital media really to blame?
Brexit and the election of Trump are commonly attributed to new media. Digital media is largely responsible.
It is also fashionable to attribute the current divisions in the United States and around the world to what are commonly called digital bubbles. Echo-chambers are indeed a problem and they are certainly facilitated by online sources of information.
However, digital media is still in its infancy and it can be expected to evolve and mature like any other medium. Like any newly harnessed technology it takes time before we learn how to use it wisely. We are tasked to find ways to use this technology without falling prey to obfuscation.
While new media has been hijacked by conservatives, it is the message that is to blame not the medium. It is analogous to having contempt for the pen that was used to write a hate speech. New media is a tool, and while it has been used for hateful purposes, we should combat the message not the medium.
Despite its failings media and new media in particular is the best platform we have to counter Trump and foster more inclusive reality based narratives. So while new media helped to give us Brexit and Trump, it may also be the best hope we have of countering insular nativist narratives. Through digital technologies we have unprecedented access to people, news and events in real time.
Traditional media cannot speak to everyone, in the wake of the demise of national narratives, traditional media cannot even speak to all residents with a country. Conversely new media does not suffer from such restrictions, it is not limited by languages, or national boundaries.
We need to harness the power of this new medium to counter those who are using it for nefarious purposes. The reality of our times calls us to understand and carefully wield the power that new media offers. These technologies have the potential to enrich our lives in fact they already have. New media has contributed to important social movements by amplifying their message exponentially.
Exiting the echo-chamber
We cannot afford to remain fixed in our silos. We have the power to vet the facts and determine their veracity as never before. Just because some choose to imbibe this predigested pablum without asking any questions does not mean we all have to do the same.
There is a vast sea of digital information out there so fact checking and exposing oneself to diverging views is easier than it has ever been. In 2016 there are 319.8 million blog accounts on Tumblr alone and it is growing every year.
We can expose ourselves and others to a range of views that can contribute to our understanding and perhaps even foster empathy. All we have to do is make the effort. It is the most factually accurate view that should win the day, whether or not it happens to be our view should be irrelevant.
Nationalistic political movements in the US and Europe are in large part a function of people who feel disconnected from each other and the political process. We need a platform that enables people to engage without resorting to primitive tribalism. Although new media has been hijacked by nationalistic movements, if we choose to break down the walls that separate us into digital ghettos new media may be the best platform to foster inclusive dialogues.
Anchors for democracy
There are some fundamental elements that make up a democracy and these are the cornerstones we should protect above all others to keep the edifice from coming crashing down. First is the freedom to express diverging views, second is the importance of exchanging competing views and third is a verifiable standard of truth and fourth is an inclusive narrative.
The long tradition of investigative journalism has proven that traditional media is a friend of democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. This must be preserved for the good of all.
Late last year President Jimmy Carter spoke to the perils of excluding people. He told the annual Human Rights Defenders Forum at The Carter Center that “we are at a turning point in history,” choosing between “peace and human suffering.” Exclusion leads to nationalism and other forms of extremism and new media can serve as a platform of inclusion.
We will never be able to get the critical mass of support required to address critical global issues as long as fake news
The fact that Trump and others have hijacked digital media should not be used to condemn the medium itself. We must use the technology to do more than debate the merits of our perspectives, we must be receptive to competing views.
We must combat fake news if we are to defeat the radical fragmentation that threatens the cohesion of civilization. If we do not succumb to lies, we may be able to find unity and common purpose in reason and science.
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