Are we the problem?

Elizabeth Renzetti, a Globe and Mail columnist, has written an opinion piece for that newspaper that we need to consider.

The “ground rules” as she calls them that, for at least a couple of generations, guided political discourse are changing very, very rapidly; we are not taking adequate notice of those changes. “The democratic process is being riven not just from the outside … [she writes] … but also from the inside, by our own partisanship and wonky psychology. The social-media platforms where we now seek information and affirmation have proved to be the perfect terrain for a lightning-fast bobsled run down to disinformation.” She discusses the problem that frightens me more than Russian “influence operations:” our tendency towards “confirmation bias,” seeking out information that tends to reinforce views we already hold rather than looking for the other sides (there’s usually more than just one) of each issue.

I have nattered on, on this blog, for the past couple of years about the rise of isolationist, nationalist, “know nothing” populism and Ms Renzetti says that “There are many reasons for this rat king of entangled threats: the cheapness and easiness of digital platforms as a way to spread and amplify messages of dissent; a lack of new-media savvy among voters; rules around election advertising and oversight that are out of date; the decline of old-school authoritative news sources; political partisanship, which means that people seek out and share information, no matter how dubious, that reinforces their ideology. Whatever the causes, experts agree that democratic processes have been tampered with around the world and the problem is getting worse.” Then she goes on to add that “Quite apart from bad actors illicitly buying ads to sow discord, or political campaigns legally but deviously micro-targeting groups, there is another threat. That is, as Pogo famously stated, us. We love the sugar-rush of a good political meme, even if it’s bogus. We will happily follow YouTube down its rabbit hole of ever more conspiratorial videos. And this rush is amplified when we share spurious content and get clicks and likes in return.” That isn’t a foreign, Russian or Chinese threat to our electoral processes, that ~ the tangled rat’s nest of uninformed sources that feed us “information” 24 hours a day, seven days a week is, by and large, local, regional or national, not foreign.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, serious foreign threats: ““We expect that multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election,” the Communications Security Establishment warned in a June, 2017, report …. [Ms Renzetti says, and] … Around the same time, a Senate committee noted that our electoral laws are not keeping pace with digital reality: “There is a growing concern that Canada’s own electoral process is vulnerable to foreign interference.”

So we face two threats, one external and one internal; Elizabeth Renzetti says that the government and parliament are working on some projects to raise of national electronic defences but there is not much anyone can do about the threat from within.

Many conservatives argue that the mainstream, traditional media is biased and cannot be trusted. Of course it’s biased, all media, including e.g the Sun chair andEzra Levant’s Rebel Media, are biased, some, like the Toronto Star are happy to admit, even publicize their bias through their public adherence to the Atkinson Principles, and I respect them for doing that … others, like the CBC claim to be unbiased but it’s simply not true; it’s impossible, real people, journalists, editors and presenters are involved and they all have points of view. Too often, in my personal opinion, too many journalists let their point of view colour the news they are reporting, but I understand that they are human and they have a (generally well informed) point of view.

I tend to agree with A.J. Leibling that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” and with General (Ret’d) Colin Powell who said, in his book ‘My American Journey,’ that “The media only report stupid or careless answers, not stupid or unfair questions.” Both are a little jaded and the latter is a little self serving but they are, I think, substantially correct. I remember listening to a seasoned journalist who explained “media” to a fairly large group of officers on a long, long course; he explained the pressures journalists face to get something interesting, which usually means odd or controversial (the “man bites dog” or “if it bleeds it leads” thing)and the added pressures of TV to get that in 10 seconds. He was really telling us, to paraphrase an old World War II poster, to think before you speak. No one envied then Secretary of State Powell when he was sent out with inaccurate information, and it’s certainly true that some, probably most, journalists ask unfair or downright silly questions but the answer, which does get reported, belongs to the person who gave it. If Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t want the Conservatives and the media to pick up on his “peoplekind” comment, which I think he did mean to be a joke, then he should have thought for a µsecond or two before he said it. The upshot of General Powell’s sad experiences, and many more like his, is that ministers and the officials who serve them are reluctant to say anything that might embarrass them ~ so the media ask questions that are designed to solicit “wrong” (potentially embarrassing) answers and ministers and officials respond with canned answers made up by their own media specialists. In essence we have journalists talking at, not to, journalists and the only winner is the publisher ~ the one who owns the presses or the TV station license ~ while the big loser is the public who is either uninformed or ill-informed or, too often, misinformed.

The whole thing is amplified by social media.

Bias in the media is not new … think, for a moment, about Edward R Murrow’s famous broadcasts from London in 1940. They were hard news, to be sure, but they were also a very personal, very biased appeal for America to enter the war. Murrow know whose side he was on and he made no bones about mixing his opinion with the “news.” Ws he wrong to do that? What about Walter Cronkite’s “commentary” on Vietnam? He was, of course, “editorializing” but he identified himself as a reporter … but, clearly, even by 1968, the line between the two was blurred. In some cases the line completely breaks down. Our expectation need to change. Most newspapers, even the very best, and, as far as I can tell, all TV news programmes have adopted a new model in which news and commentary are fully intertwined and “pure” commentary is quite rare. Many commentators ~ most of them journalists ~ have furrowed their brows and clenched their teeth with worry about the “new ecosystem” of journalism where traditional news sources are no longer accorded automatic trust and where new sources of “news” and “opinion” pop up every day. Hoe can they coexist, how should they coexist? Will one subsume the other? Can bloggers like me, or even highly regarded bloggers with large followings, like Walter Russell Mead whose ‘Via media’ (the middle way) ran for several years (2009 through to mid-2017) in The American Interest, actually fill the gap that would appear if, say (heaven forbid) The Economist should cease publishing? There are many established news sources, private, like The Economist, The Financial Times, The Times of London and the New York Times, and public like ABC, BBC, and the CBC, that have unrivalled news gathering and research teams … bloggers, even those that actually have full time, professional staff, cannot match them. Most blogs (and by some estimates there are over 400 Million of them in the world) are just one person, part time opinion generating things. (That’s certainly what this is: I try to cite facts but I almost always share my opinion, too.) Like many bloggers I need the established mainstream news outlets to keep me informed. So there is a synergy? mMy question, to myself, is: are blogs a help or are they part of a larger problem?

The larger problem is when bias, which I think everyone has, turns into deceit. Almost all blogs, like almost all media outlets are biased. Some, like mine, state their biases, up front. But many masquerade as “news” but offer only one, often highly biased, view which is popular with those seeking ideas that mirror their own ~ that “confirmation bias” thing.

I think it is wrong to conflate the rise of populism with the rise of social media, but there can be little doubt that, ever since the invention of the printing press, the media has had ROBERT STANFIELDan impact on politics ~ whether it was 17th century pamphleteers (a group to which John Milton belonged) or the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, or Robert Stanfield’s fumble in 1974, our perceptions of politicians is shaped by the media … the media is, indeed, the message … almost certainly too often. I believe that the decline of public trust in journalism, which, I think, coincided with the rise of “infotainment” ~ when you cannot tell the difference between the news and a comedy routine then you may begin to think that the journalists, themselves, are entertainers and that they are selling a product rather then reporting the news. The internet allows billions of us to share news and views on a whole host of issues … mostly, thank heavens, it’s cute pictures of cats and dogs and grandchildren, but often (some of those 400 million blogs) it’s politics and opinions and some of it is false and some of it is intended to incite hatred and even violence.

What to do?

That’s the easy part: read (and watch/listen) widely. If your preferred news source is Rebel Media or the Sun chain then please make sure you watch CBC News and read the Toronto Star, too. It’s as simple as that … and as a few of my interlocutors do, when I get too biased tell me. We don’t have to be the problem, we can be part of the solution, too.


7 thoughts on “Are we the problem?

  1. “….the decline of old-school authoritative news sources….”

    I believe the problem lies there….. the belief that ANY news source is, was or can be, authoritative.

    In my day at school, it was unnecessary to use the words “I believe” and you were marked down for it. It was accepted as a given that anything put on paper was nothing more than the belief of the author.

    1. You’re dead right, of course, Chris, but now, even in a blog, I feel the need to say and highlight “I believe” or “I think” or “I suspect” so that people will KNOW it’s just my bloody opinion, not a verified fact, and not worth anything at all …

      1. Ted, your opinion is always worth reading. Even when its wrong. 🙂

        Not that that happens all that often.


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