Archive for the 'Media' Category

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Fake news and how to deal with it

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

DNA is perplexingly long. Almost 98% of the human genome is non-coding: that is, it does not make protein in the cell. Some of that definitely does have some practical aspect but at present large parts of human DNA has no known function. Scientists are still trying to work out why. It is sometimes disparagingly known as junk DNA.

The internet, like DNA, is a mechanism for passing on information. Like DNA, large parts of the internet have no outwardly-obvious function. Perhaps there are scientists earnestly scrutinising cat videos trying to work out why they are there (perhaps junk DNA encodes cat videos).

In each case, the really dangerous part isn’t the junk, it’s the corruption of the important information. The nature of lying online has changed the way in which untruths have affected public debate. It’s well past time that we took stock.

Lying wasn’t invented on the internet. In the past, however, the ability to tell a narrative-changing lie was severely restricted. In the early part of the twentieth century, mass communication was in the hands of those who owned newspapers. The barriers to entry were high and newspaper audiences were large. The influence of the owners was enormous. Not for nothing were they called press barons.

We should have no false nostalgia for the age of the fourth estate. At least one British election was hugely influenced by press lies – the Zinoviev letter remains notorious. Journalism was seen as a byword for venality and unfairness. Moreover, much information that was of huge public interest was kept from the masses because the political classes could effectively control the small group responsible for public information. Edward VIII’s assignations with Wallis Simpson were not publicly known in Britain for many months (though covered in detail in other countries).

The internet destroyed the barriers to setting up information provision. Suddenly anyone with a computer and an internet connection, a readable writing style and with some information to offer could open for business.

Initially, this seemed like an unqualified positive. Want to know about opposition politics in Hong Kong? Developments in bee-keeping? The technical changes to Formula 1 constructor requirements? The internet could fulfil your needs more quickly and more comprehensively than any newspaper or magazine could ever hope to.

Some of this has been truly transformative. There are now more than 5.5 million articles on the English version of Wikipedia, a single repository of knowledge unlike anything ever previously seen in any previous encyclopaedia.

The worm in the apple took some time to break cover. It had long since been appreciated that online information that had not been peer-reviewed might be wrong or misleading through inadvertence or might present a highly tendentious view of the truth from the writer’s personal viewpoint. Readers were well-aware that some might present deliberate lies defensively. All of these problems were familiar from past experience with the media.

The idea of someone presenting deliberately untrue information as an active policy was something new. It had not previously been practical because of the gatekeepers at the top of the media who could bar access to the public. With that control gone, the way was open for anyone who wanted to launch a campaign of misinformation.

It started relatively innocently, with mischief-makers on Wikipedia tinkering for kicks. Some saw the business opportunity in heart-warming clickbait, whether or not the inspirational story was in fact true (see Daisy the Dog for more details).

Then the political implications began to sink in. “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”, Winston Churchill advised. It is apparent that many fighting wars online feel exactly that way.

Why are internet lies so successful? First, people want to believe stories that are congenial to their worldview. Corbynites, Leavers and those on the Trump train are obvious examples of this phenomenon, but those on the opposing side of each of these groups can be just as guilty of wishful thinking. Why scrutinise carefully a story that confirms your prejudices?

Secondly, debunking a lie takes time as the facts are established. Previously, journalists would have done the job. But the media’s response to the pressure on costs that the internet has driven was to cut those costs. Among the most expensive costs were the salaries of the journalists who did the fact-finding. So the people who used to do this just aren’t doing this job any more.

I’ve already quoted Winston Churchill so I’d better quote Oscar Wilde as well: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. Truth is fractal – the more closely you look at it, the more qualifications you need to put on the assertion. This leaves plenty of scope for argument and the original claim can get lost in an argument over an essentially trivial point. Moreover, the truth is usually quite humdrum. But (this is my thirdly) a lie is subject to no such need for restraint. It needs no nuance and can be as exciting as its creator wishes it to be. And who doesn’t like lurid excitement?

Fourthly, it’s human to want to lead the pack. Once CNN exhorted us to “Be the first to know”. Now we want to be the first to tell. Why check when you can be claiming kudos points?

So, in a news version of Gresham’s Law, bad information drives out good. We hoard the quality stuff and pass on the rubbish.

What can we do to combat this? In short, be sceptical. If you’re told something eyebrow-raising, look for a primary source to back it up. Try to get context.

Be especially sceptical of information that produces a strong emotional response from you. Ask yourself who wants to produce that response.

Don’t be part of the problem. If you are retweeting without first checking your information, you are a vector.

At the moment, fake news is achieving its proponents’ ends spectacularly. In the long run, it will subside as the internet public become more wary of their source material. For now, trust no one.

Alastair Meeks




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Brexit-backing Sun & Mail seen as having the most negative impact on society – remain supporting Times & Guardian the most positive

Monday, December 18th, 2017

New YouGov poll ranks the main national papers

I can’t recall any similar polling – looking at how the main national papers are perceived in terms of the impact they are having on society.

At a time when the nation is so divided by Brexit it is striking that the papers that have been most strident in their backing of Brexit and opposition to those who oppose it should be seen in the negative way set out in these numbers.

Full data from the poll can be found here.

Mike Smithson




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New “media trust” polling finds the BBC top and the Sun bottom

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

I’m sure people will correct meif I’m wrong but I think this polling is a first. We see from time to time several different forms of “trust” polling but as far as I can recall these latest findings from Ipsos MORI covering broadcast, the press and the internet is new.

For those who follow politics closely the close relationship between media and politicians is something that is raised all the time especially the way the former can have a huge impact on the what we term the “narrative”.

The question is set out in the chart above and as can be seen Twitter and Facebook fare badly which I find reassuring. The two popular red tops, the Star and the Sun are the least trusted.

As a former BBC newsman I’d expect the Corporation to be fairly reassured by this polling given the intensity with which it is attacked by left and right.

I find the approach to the BBC of many within the Corbyn clan an indictment of them and it was surely a disgrace that the BBC Political Editor had to be accompanied by a bodyguard at the Labour conference.

It’s interesting as well how Huffington Post is establishing itself.

Of the heavies, what used to be called the broadsheets, the Telegraph seems to, in comparative terms, fared worse.

We live in very polarised times which make things very challenging for all who are trying report what is going on in the world.

Mike Smithson




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Maybe a reason why LAB gets poor media coverage is that the Corbyn-appointed PR team is not up to it

Friday, March 31st, 2017

It is as if the red team has given up

I have never been a fan of Seumas Milne, the PR chief of Corbyn’s Labour, not because of his politics but that he is so poor at the job.

The series of Tweets highlighted by Sam Coates of the Times above is something that the whole LAB leadership should worry about – they are after all the OFFICIAL opposition with all the associated perks that go with it.

Until this is sorted out let’s hear no complaints from Corbyn cultists about the way their man is treated. Mr. Milne was the leader’s appointment.

I’m not hopeful of change.

Mike Smithson




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Remember when the BBC’s Woman’s Hour asked David Cameron and David Davis what sort of underpants they preferred?

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

With all the fuss today about the Daily Mail’s “legs” front page let us not forget that the BBC can sometimes stray into what could be described as sexist.

In November 2005 when David Cameron and David Davis were slugging it out for the Tory leadership the two of them appeared on Woman’s Hour and were asked at the end what sort of underpants they preferred.

Another question was whether they preferred blondes or brunettes. David said the former while Cameron did not reply.

The interviewer was Martha Martha Kearney, now of the World at One, who was quizzing people about the Mail’s front page at lunchtime today.

There’s a link to the 2005 interview here

Mike Smithson




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The Sun re-does its classic front page on the day of the 1992 general election

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

This was from election day in April 1992

Tomorrow’s front page



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In the week the Article 50 case is heard before the Supreme Court, the public has more than three times the trust in judges than journalists

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Ipsos Mori have published their annual veracity index, with the Article 50 case being heard in the UK’s highest appellate court, it was amusing to contrast the trust in the enemies of the people judges compared to journalists.

Only Government ministers, and politicians in general are less trusted than journalists, whilst Estate Agents and Bankers have better trust ratings than journalists. This might explain why Nigel Farage’s planned 100,000 march on the Supreme Court turned out to be, as we say in Yorkshire, all fart and no follow through.

The fieldwork ended just before the High Court ruled against the Government in the Article 50 case, but a substantial part of the fieldwork was carried out whilst the High Court was hearing the case, but before headlines that described the judiciary as the enemies of the people.

TSE

 



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Memo to Seamus Milne: Your boss, Mr. Corbyn, needs to have a ready answer in situations like this

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

The LAB media operation MUST become better