Why Writers Should Speak Out for a Post Post-Truth World

The news that The Daily Mail has officially been listed as an unreliable source by Wikipedia raised as much amusement as it did anger. That particular newspaper has come in for criticism and mockery for years, most notably from prominent scientific writers such as Ben Goldacre trashing its medical reporting as simply dividing everything into things that cause cancer and those that cure cancer.

Fake news harms us all

The problem goes way beyond The Daily Mail and its sensationalism and casual slurring of anyone and everyone. It does not stand alone for pushing fake news or twisted accounts, either as a right-wing source or as a mainstream media outlet. Some 12 years ago, The Express pushed a story about Christmas being “banned” because it “offends Muslims.” I covered this on my The Manufactured War on Christmas articles from a few months back. All of our newspapers and TV media have done it at some point – but when all you produce is twisted narratives and fake stories, we really have reached rock bottom.

Some are calling this a “freedom of the press” issue, but Wikipedia has the right to dismiss whichever sources it pleases as unreliable. The Daily Mail may be the first of the mainstream media, but I doubt it will be the last.

It’s Not Just a Right Wing Thing

But before we on the left start congratulating ourselves for our honesty and integrity, it’s important to remember that the media on our own side is not immune from fake news or twisted stories. Because for every fake “Denzel Washington endorses Donald Trump!” and “Queen Elizabeth II Supports Leaving the EU” there is a story about all the Jews working in the World Trade Center not turning up for work on 9/11 and a story of Dakota cops setting fire to teepees of anti-pipeline protestors. For every Bowling Green Massacre, there is a story of Ivanka Trump saying she would like to mace her father. We believe it because she is a woman and she is pretty, therefore she couldn’t possibly be as bad as her father.

For every right-winger willing to blame gays, Muslims or immigrants for everything, there is a left-winger willing to blame white men or Israel for everything. For every belief that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, there is a belief that Big Pharma is suppressing a cure for cancer. For every climate change denialist, there is a vaccine denialist. For every person who thinks that Barrack Obama was born in Kenya, there is a person who believes the British Royal Family are actually lizards. There is selective acceptance of science on both sides and “alternative facts” coming from both camps. I am sure you get the picture.

Why Is Fake News a Problem?

The OED word of 2016 was “post-truth”. It’s clear that we’ve been living in a post-truth world for a lot longer than that. Echo chambers are now a fact of life. I am still toying with whether fake news is a symptom or an effect of our unwillingness to see the opinions of others. The media may not be responsible for creating it, but they are certainly responsible for maintaining and profiteering from it. This has become a vicious circle in which readers seek only stories that confirm their biases. In turn, media has abandoned any pretence of investigative journalism in favour of churnalism, recycled stories and incendiary op-eds. Why not? It’s cheaper to produce and it sells to a hungry and willing audience.

If you’re looking for somebody to blame for this, you need only look in a mirror. We’re all to blame. We’re so willing to believe every bad story about groups and people we do not like that we read the headline and share rather than reading it first. We never fact check. We see trigger words and react. What are your trigger words? Is it “Muslim” or “Monsanto”, “Trump” or “Corbyn”, “GMO” or “climate change”, or “feminists” or “patriarchy”?

What Can We Do About It?

I have left-wing political leaning, I do not doubt for one minute that this colours my perception. Nor do I doubt that my gender, my country of birth, the colour of my skin, my education or other factors contribute to my worldview. However, being conscious of my biases and having a sceptical mind means that I do not automatically believe everything I read, no matter the source, no matter how much it appeals to my ego and no matter how much it presents or appeals to “received wisdom.” As a writer, I feel it is my duty to be as diligent as I possibly can. It doesn’t matter how much I want to believe a story. If it is not true then it is simply not true. If you believe otherwise, then you are just as guilty of “alternative facts.”

As a reader and consumer of media – whether you read The Guardian or The Daily Mail, whether you watch CNN or Fox for your news, there are simple steps that you can follow.

  • Read the article in its entirety before sharing. I cannot state this enough. Does the headline actually match the article? Because in the case of “Christmas is Banned: It Offends Muslims” story above, the story had no relevance to the report
  • Fact check. No matter how much you want it to be true, no matter how much it might tickle your fancy, no matter how angry it makes you feel CHECK WHETHER IT IS TRUE and use multiple sources
  • Read an alternative viewpoint. Right wingers should read left wing media and vice versa. Do they offer conflicting viewpoints? The chances are, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But don’t stop there. Keep reading, keep searching
  • Seek out news sources with greater integrity than which the mainstream are capable. We need a willing audience that does not just accept media bias
  • Watch Jonathan Pie (see video above) for a refreshing view of the modern world. He’s a satirical character and left-wing, but don’t think he gives the left a free ride on anything

On the second to last point, I have recently started getting the overwhelming majority of my news information from politics.co.uk (a bi-partisan political site), The Conversation (a site that claims its journalists engage in academic rigour), Novara Media (a political analysis site), Full Fact (a fact-checking charity) and OpenDemocracy (a media site whose mission is democratic debate and challenge of social norms). I have actively donated to the last two as I feel so strongly about honesty and integrity in media.

I am not saying you should use those sources, just to be sceptical of your own motives in seeking media that confirms your biases. Fake news harms us all. Wherever you get your information you have an intellectual duty to make sure it is, at the very least, true. You owe it to yourself to remain sceptical of the media regardless of its political leaning.

Thank you for reading!

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2 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Speak Out for a Post Post-Truth World

  1. You are SO spot on! I never, ever share any political post on Facebook these days, even after I’ve fact-checked. I don’t know of any fact-check source that is free of all bias. You just can’t believe everything you see/hear/read.

    I’m old enough to remember when, after an election was over, people either clapped or sighed, and then went on about the business of living. I am appalled at the violence, outright lies, threats, and vitriolic hatred that fills our airwaves here in the USA. I’m definitely a right-leaning conservative. Contrary to how our media would present me, that does NOT mean I’m all the epithets they use to characterize conservatives: Racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, ad nauseum. Besides which, I have a wide circle of friends who share my political views, and not one of them is guilty of all the above horror.

    You’ve pushed a button for me this morning 🙂 I could go on for a long time, talking about the involvement of that evil man, George Soros, in every single protest and riot in the USA since the Nov. 8 election. As I look at world news, I see violence in countries for which violence has not been the norm for a great many years. It is ugly and frightening, no matter what one’s political stance may be. It’s a sad trend, and it won’t stop as long as we continue to behave in an ugly and hateful way toward each other, fueled by the media to a great degree.

    Okay. I’m done. No, I’m not. I need to say that I think I would enjoy talking with you. I have no objection to anyone having an opinion different from mine, as long as they treat me with respect. I believe you try to do that, and so do I.

    There. NOW I’m done 🙂

    1. Bias is not the problem so much as unwillingness to acknowledge bias, the inability to challenge one’s own perceptions and to admit when one is wrong.

      I come from an academic background so recognising bias and challenging it is something you cannot really unlearn once learnt.

      The sources I list above I use not because they present a largely left viewpoint, but because they fact check, cross reference and are prepared to back up what they say.

      Thank you for your comment, it’s always great to hear from people whose opinions differ from mine who are respectful of differences 🙂

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