The mainstream media and blogs

Those of you who know me or who have followed me for a while may well be aware that I am a fierce critic of the mainstream media. I do not blame the professional journalists for this, but rather the way news reporting has moved so far from being thoroughly checked, investigative and ground breaking to page filling propaganda. When significant events occur, the race to be first to publish allows only cursory checks for truth or accuracy. Readers and listeners can no longer rely on what they are being told by the official sources.

It has always been true that each news outlet reports with a bias to please their perceived audience. The extremism of the British ‘Daily Mail’ is one of the more obvious examples of this, but the same is true of the supposedly quality broadsheets. The on line news sites require clicks to satisfy their advertisers, and the dead tree press is fighting desperately against it’s approaching demise in it’s current form. Even the statute demanding impartiality of the BBC is regularly flouted as their flagship news programmes display a blind or blinkered bias on certain pet subjects that is particularly depressing given that so many people still believe what they are being told by this source.

Much of the news reported by the mainstream media is made up of barely modified, official press releases that provide free advertising or an outlet for interested parties propaganda. The hows and whys of our descent into this situation is better covered in Nick Davies book Flat Earth News. This should be required reading for anyone who still believes that the news they are being fed is in any way new or containing impartial truths.

Given that we are in a situation where we cannot rely on these sources, I am not surprised that many in the mainstream media regularly and fiercely criticise blogs. As these publications broaden and increase their following and readership, they provide serious and financially damaging competition. It is notable that the national papers response appears to be a move towards publishing more and more comment pieces themselves. Each of the major newspapers commission a number of words from their favoured writers each day on topical issues, as well as printing guest posts in the likes of the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ or the Independent’s ‘Voices’ columns. These provide just the sort of writing that can easily be found on numerous, well written and thoroughly researched blogs that are now being followed by more and more people.

There is no doubt that topical blog posts are biased according to their authors views, but no more so than the equivalent pieces published and reported by the more established media sites. The challenge is to ensure that those of us who wish to look behind the propaganda at what is actually happening in the world can lift ourselves out of our personal comfort zones to read different sides of the argument, not just those that stroke our own, personal prejudices. A cogent and well argued rebuttal of a long held view can make uncomfortable reading, but is necessary if for no other reason than to force us to work through our own thinking in reply.

There are many, of course, who do not wish to consider political thinking too deeply. The number of words published on celebrity gossip, diet and beauty tips, parenting or relationships advice and sport suggests that there is more interest in these topics than in potentially world changing news. Basic economics demands that the paid for media will provide what it’s audience wants.

Governments have long realised that they can manipulate a population by influencing or controlling the information that is disseminated. Thus we have a situation where we cannot believe most of the health reports because they are written in support of government policy (e.g. smoking and alcohol guidelines) or are provided by an interested party looking at increasing it’s funding (e.g. medical research bodies). By constantly bombarding the public with propaganda and dodgy statistics dressed up as fact these powerful protagonists will attempt to steer a population’s thinking to demonise the behaviour or people they wish to quash. Look behind the headlines and you may wonder why you are supporting a point of view that has been so obviously perverted.

Blogs may not provide the impartial and honest reporting of facts that I would like to see, but they can help us to get behind the official, approved press releases. While the mainstream media persists in churnalism, party line promotion and the propagation of pet beliefs without recourse to facts or debate, there will be a place for those outside the payroll to question and publish an alternative point of view.

I see this as one of the strengths of the internet; that such activity remains accessible to all who wish to participate in the dissemination of news, even if only as an interested audience. When governments seek to control or close down and punish those who seek the truth, we will know that they are afraid and have been uncovered as the charlatans that they are.

Cover of "Flat Earth News: An Award-Winni...

Paranoia

My husband enjoys a good conspiracy theory. His favourite plot line in The X-Files (TV Series 1993–2002) involved the smoking man; he teases the children by asking them if they have considered if the moon landings were filmed in a studio, or if JFK’s shooting was a set up by some secret agency that is really in charge of America; he read and liked The Da Vinci Code (book by Dan Brown) even though he did accept that it wasn’t a great piece of literature. I am sure that he plays up to my exasperation at his random comments about news items by raising questions about hidden agenda’s and asking the children to consider wild and unsubstantiated assumptions. I am also pretty sure that he doesn’t consider this stuff to be true, and is merely enjoying playing with the idea of the existence of some sort of good or bad international power such as Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Today though, I find myself wondering about conspiracy and censorship. I find myself wandering down a path that feels very much like a route to paranoia, and I am uncomfortable with my inability to know what I should think or believe. How do we know what is true when we can no longer trust the long established sources of information?

The events of the past week have brought into sharp focus the changing face of news gathering and propagation. A number of mainstream media outlets, in their race to be first with the facts, broadcast updates that subsequently turned out to be false. There has been enough comment on how this happened and why, but it got me thinking about the effect that this could have on the general public’s willingness to believe what they are told in future.

Governments rely on the fact that the public will accept as true the information published by the mainstream media; this is why they invest so much in attempting to influence what gets reported. If too many people start to look elsewhere for their news then the government will try to gain control of the alternative outlets. Popular blogs and other on line publications will become more of a threat and this will encourage governments to regulate. Regulation is more likely to be used to assist the wealthy and powerful than the general public.

This sort of speculation is not new. There are already a number of attempts to allow government agencies to look at individual’s on line activity and act if this is deemed a threat, although to whom is rarely specified. What I had not realised is that the surveillance is already in place, or should that be potentially in place? I do not know if this is paranoia or fact.

I have been following this post today: Facebook Censors Users during Media Blackout on Privatisation of the NHS | Scriptonite Daily. I read the original post yesterday and noted that yet another newsworthy story was not being reported by the mainstream media. The comments do not offer clarification; there is speculation that it is unlikely to be Facebook policy but could be an orchestrated effort by detractors to silence the story. I am left wondering if this is just more food for the Tin Foil Hat Brigade or if we should be waking up to something more insidious. For me, this is the problem. Changes that happen gradually may not be noticed until it is too late to stop them. If our freedom of speech and expression is to be curtailed then this is unlikely to be proclaimed by those who seek to silence dissent. Whatever the truth is, how can we know?

I am reluctant to blame Facebook for the way it operates. It is a free to use service and I enjoy it’s functionality. I accept that I will have little control over what I post, but would be upset if my account were deleted with no explanation. It would seem that this has happened to some people. Although I can see no reason why I should ever be affected in this way, I have a little history in this area.

For a few years now I have had an ebay account. I did not use it regularly but, from time to time, I would purchase a few low value items from the site. I have also used it to sell one item. I have a 100% positive feedback record and always paid by Paypal as soon as the bid was confirmed as successful. The item I sold was posted immediately and was received by the purchaser who gave me top marks for service.

At the end of last year my Paypal account was blocked in the middle of a purchase. No explanation was given and I could not get it unblocked. I paid for the item I had just bought by cheque (thankfully the seller was understanding), but still have no idea why the site chose to block me. It has stopped me using ebay and made me wary of how much we are at the mercy of algorithms that can go wrong. I did not default or defraud and had no known complaints against me. I have no inkling as to why this might have happened.

So what if, in the future, individuals posting news and views come under scrutiny from unknown, on line sources, be they people or algorithms? Blocking publication is as likely to be cock up as conspiracy, but will we ever be able to find out the how’s or why’s information is censored? And what if legislation is introduced, but worded in such a vague way that huge fines or worse are possible – will there be as much willingness for anyone anywhere to opine and comment?

We currently have a situation where, as Lauren Nelson over on Cogent Comment says: ‘Today, information – accurate and not – is everywhere. If you want to find a justification for spending the rest of your life trapped in a basement, you’ll find plenty of people validating the idea. If you need to feel vindicated about your choices in child raising, you’ll find whole communities on the subject, with people eager to tell you that you are correct. Anyone with an internet connection and clear voice can join important political and social debates. Refined is no longer an adjective that works in this equation. Information distribution today is more akin to a high school cafeteria food fight than the marketplace of ideas once lauded by John Stewart Mill.’

Personally, I would much prefer to be in this situation, where it is left up to me to filter what is worth listening to and what is unsubstantiated, biased ranting, than to watch the accessible media, in whatever it’s future form may be, develop into a Ministry of Truth.

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I want to believe 

Media manipulation

Events that are reported in the mainstream media are rarely uplifting. We are informed about weddings and births amongst the so called celebrities of our time; there may be a sporting achievement of note that a nation is encouraged to celebrate, but most events deemed worthy of coverage are reported to inspire outrage, shock or despair. These negative emotions will colour our views of the world and the people around us. We are being manipulated by those in power to think as they want or not at all; to tune in and condemn or tune out and turn away. We are encouraged to live a life where fluffy news matters and reasons are not explained. In much the same way as our schools are now run, we are being taught to answer the questions without asking why.

There is no doubt that a lot of bad things are happening in the world. This week I have been following a number of stories that have demonstrated just how base and inconsiderate so many people are. Google for Steubenville, Adria Richards or Lucy Meadows and you will find a plethora of reports, responses, comments and tweets that support and condemn in equal measure the protagonists and the victims of the events discussed. Whatever views may be held it is the vehemence of the personal attacks on people that most will not have heard of before that I find so depressing. Whatever happened to rational debate and considered opinions? It would appear that general attitudes and actions cannot be discussed without character assassination.

The tacit acceptance of objectionable behaviour allows it to persist and I have been left feeling despondent that so many people think as they do. Perhaps what we should be addressing is why this is the case. Alongside the shocking stories published in the mainstream media for our delectation we have the promotion of the rich and famous living lives where the grotesque has become acceptable. We are encouraged to admire behaviour that is perverse and to aspire to a lifestyle that is known for it’s transient nature and self-seeking disciplines. Too many people are starting to believe whatever they are being told.

For now there are still free thinkers around but even they seem to be losing the ability to listen dispassionately to views which do not match their own. They do not seek to persuade with well thought through arguments backed up by facts but rather to brow beat and bully, to put down and shame those who do not agree. It is as if they cannot see, do not want to see, that there may be a case for an alternative view. They cannot seem to comprehend that they may be wrong.

In politics and sociology the policy of divide and rule has long been recognised as a powerful strategy in managing opposition. By emphasising differences in seemingly similar opinions small groups may be made to work against each other rather than coming together to challenge the status quo. All may agree that things need to change but by ensuring that none can agree on the exact change to be fought for the fight remains fragmented and therefore not a significant threat. Distractions of detail can derail even the most ardent of opponents.

If our world is to improve then we need to start that change by being better people ourselves. We need to stop blaming others for our situation and  work to improve our own lives. We need to stop accepting that behaviours which make us uncomfortable are okay because everyone does it and that is the way it is – challenge that behaviour and let it be known that it makes us uncomfortable; ask for it to stop. We need to speak out for how we want our world to be even if it is scary to voice an opinion that may go against the crowd. This is our world and it can only be changed from within. Do not give space in your life to hate and prejudice; question what you are told and act as you feel is right.

The people that I know are good and kind to those with whom they are familiar. Perhaps if we could all get to know more about the people whom the media would have us condemn we could offer more kindness to them. I would like to see a lot less acceptance of the manipulation to which we are subjected in every news broadcast. If we could all think for ourselves and speak as we feel rather than as vassals of spurious popular opinion then perhaps we could make the powerful listen. As things stand, there is no incentive for them to do so. If we do not rebel then we are conforming to their ideologies.

Mainstream Media Hard at Work