“An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
This astute and succinct commentary is not from a cynical journalist or an ardent Greenpeace activist but from the 44th President of the United States Barack Obama, given in a recent article in The New Yorker following the US Presidential election.
The quote to my mind, in many ways crystallises the complexity of the ‘post-truth’ world that we find ourselves in.
A vital part in understanding President-elect Donald Trump’s ascent and victory is to take a step back and recognise how quickly and dramatically the ‘media’ and ‘new media’ landscape has changed in the last ten years.
In 2006, people who read online news in America were limited to less than a dozen major news channels and publications. These sources in turn, by and large, adhered to the protocols and ethics that societies in Western democracies have to come expect from modern journalism.
In 2016, information, images and videos move across the planet with a speed and reach that was difficult to phantom even in 2006. This ability to share and disseminate information and ideas so fast must be one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
What has not evolved as quickly though, is our ability to understand, assess and verify the “news” that we are confronted with in a never-ending stream of information online.
There has been plenty of coverage and commentary in the last few weeks citing the huge impact that this can have particularly in the recent US Presidential election. Of note, reported by The New York Times and BuzzFeed, is a group of resourceful but unethical teenagers in Macedonia who ran more than a hundred websites supporting Trump that were full of fake news. Among them, an infamous fictitious article reporting anonymous F.B.I. sources claiming that Hillary Clinton would be indicted. That one article got more than 140,000 shares on Facebook and may well have been viewed by millions of people since each share is potentially seen by hundreds of users. The more views and shares they garnered, even at less than a cent a pop, the more money they made.
Simultaneously, this is compounded by the reality that as consumers of media there has never been a time when individuals have been able to so carefully curate an echo chamber of news and media that aligns and affirms their own existing views rather than provoking and challenging them.
Reflecting personally, the reaction to Brexit and the American election results on my own social media platforms are evocative of how I have built an amphitheatre of like-minded individuals who share my outlook and opinions.
So what is the solution? How do we enter ‘common conversation’ that President Obama encouraged? And as reputation management and communications practitioners what can we do to negotiate these changes?
I don’t think there is a silver bullet but I do think a lot of the solution lies in what choices we make as individuals as consumers of online content and how conscientious we are about it. Some tips include:
- If you come across something online that seems unlikely or surprising, Google it and see if you can see the same thing reported by another reputable source before you share it on social media.
- Support news organisations that adhere to high journalistic standards by paying for quality content.
- Challenge yourself to explore and understand different perspectives – read articles by people you don’t agreed with, watch programmes with panel discussions and listen to podcasts about things you don’t tend to care about.
Maintaining an open mind and undertaking the above will help equip us for the new media, post-truth frontier.