Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Harry Rakowski: Is the media living up to its promises?

Commentary

Where can you get unbiased, accurate reporting that informs, illuminates and guides our understanding of the world around us?

It is remarkable to see how today any action or event generates such polarizing interpretation and opinion. There is so much distrust and misinformation, particularly in the U.S. with each side claiming theirs is the only truth.

The New York Times has long been considered a bastion of free speech and honest reporting. In 1897 its founder Adolph S. Ochs created the famous slogan still used on its masthead “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It was a challenge to the flamboyant press of the day. The slogan highlighted the need for reporting to be both factual and impartial.

In 1960 a U.S. congressman from Texas, Wright Patman asked the Trade Commission to investigate whether this claim represented false advertising as it made the paper seem superior to other publications. They declined to investigate saying “We do not believe there are any apparent objective standards by which to measure whether news is fit to print or not print”.

Has the Times lived up to its promise? Bari Weiss, a conservative writer, resigned from the paper after being badgered and demeaned by co-workers for her views. Her views didn’t fit with the promoted narrative and the paper’s fear of social media backlash for conservative opinions.

“I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative,” wrote Weiss in her resignation letter.

Recently Bret Stephens had a column killed about the forced ouster of senior Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. for inappropriately using a racial slur as a question, but without intent to be malicious. Stephens was not allowed to opine in his column that, “every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention”.

“We are living in in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it,” Stephens wrote in the column that was later pubished by the New York Post.

A survey by the American News Pathways Project taken in June 2020 showed that about one-fifth of adult Americans received their news primarily from social media and were more likely to be less knowledgeable about coronavirus and politics and more likely to believe unproven claims. Forty-five percent received news mainly from TV outlets. For anyone comparing the reporting of the same story by CNN and Fox News, it is hard to believe they are evaluating the same facts to come up with polar opposites of the truth.

While this polarization is rampant in the mainstream media it is even worse in other outlets. Conspiracy theories abound. Vaccination will turn you into an ape and is an attempt by Bill Gates to implant nanoparticles that will steal your money. A cabal of rich left wing elites have created a deep state to control the world. QAnon promotes the belief that Joe Biden and others are detaining children underground and sexually abusing them.

Social media companies are now trying to restrict posts they believe are malicious or dangerous. While this has some understandable merit it is also a slippery slope to censorship by powerful media groups who may want conformity to their bias.

Freedom of the press is a cherished and enshrined right that is essential to a free democracy. It is a check against abuse of power, corruption and malfeasance. In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined the right to “freedom of thought, opinion, expression, including the freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

With that freedom comes the right, within reason, to publish all the news unfit to print. As readers we need to carefully weed out the fake and misleading news and focus on all the news that’s fit to read. The publication of thehub.ca gives us a greater opportunity to do so.

Joanna Baron: Blame Big Tech all you like, but polarization is in our nature

Commentary

Can we blame Big Tech social media platforms for increasing polarization and the seeming dearth of civil discourse?

Or is the problem a deeper quandary concerning postmodern identity politics and base human nature, one which has been highlighted by a year and counting of lockdowns?

Last week, Facebook VP Nick Clegg wrote a long Medium article defending the company against charges that it encourages polarization. This theory Clegg, a former UK politician and highly competent hired gun, was defending Facebook against goes something like this:

Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, social media algorithms promote stuff we are likely to double-tap on or share — and bury everything else. The effect is that people exclusively read and shape their worldviews via articles that confirm their priors. They meet and converse with others who are similar. Eventually, some of them end up at the U.S. Capitol building with guns.

This narrative was developed at length in Shoshanna Zubkoff’s Surveillance Capitalism, as well as the popular Netflix documentary the Social Dilemma.

Clegg countered the “filter bubbles” narrative that has become dominant concerning the effects of social media on polarization. He cited independent academic studies that undercut the idea that the network encourages us to retreat into cocoons of familiar information.

He also laid out Facebook’s new plans to allow users control over their algorithm:

“People should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and they should have more control over the content that is shown to them,” Clegg wrote. “You should be able to talk back to the algorithm and consciously adjust or ignore the predictions it makes — to alter your personal algorithm in the cold light of day, through breathing spaces built into the design of the platform.”

Indeed, independent studies confirm that the most polarized demographic groups are the least “extremely online.” They are usually boomers and above, people who report getting their news mostly from cable television.

We are motivated not by truth but by emotive stories

Clegg contends that human nature itself is the problem. “Consider, for example, the presence of bad and polarizing content on private messaging apps — iMessage, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp — used by billions of people around the world,” he writes.

Clegg’s apologia for Facebook points towards a much bigger problem that moving all societal discourse onto digital platforms has occasioned and for which the train has already left the station: we are motivated not by truth, but by emotive stories.

The problem is not with the Facebook or Twitter algorithm, but with human nature, and the quirks of our primal wetware. To wit: it’s already possible on both platforms, with a few clicks, to reset your feed to rank posts chronologically versus algorithmically, but who wants to do that when being fed piping-hot outrage porn is so much more satisfying? Big tech platforms essentially serve as an etheric parrot that collects information on our impulses and mirrors back the content we find tantalizing.

In the secular age, there is no central mediating authority or reservoir of meaning. Everyone is fundamentally a solipsist, the main character of their life’s movie. This epistemological fact has become elevated to a moral imperative and burnished through the rhetoric of identity. But in 2020, this solipsism expanded into the algorithmic architecture of all our social interactions.

The default in cultural and political discourse is the rhetoric of identity: who you are, which group you can profess to speak for, and your subjective experience. The problem is that we have not only begun to acknowledge our partiality, and the partiality of others, we have also begun to revere it, and this is a mistake.

In so doing, we ironically evince a fundamental post-Protestant moral puritanism — as Mark Lilla recently wrote, “The uptight Bible-thumping humbug of yore has been shamed off the public square— but only to make room for networks for self-righteous beautiful souls pronouncing sentence from the cathedra of their inner Vaticans.”

Discourse happens in our digital public squares, which have become increasingly irrational and seemingly disconnected from any earnest desire to engage in speech for the sake of the pursuit of truth. The cognitive disaster of a year and counting’s worth of lockdown is that it’s not clear how it’s even possible to disrupt our filter bubbles or widen one’s horizons. It’s as though navel-gazing was transposed onto digital fences that monopolize our line of vision.

So I spent much of this past year watching as people in my orbit demonstrated their consistent inability to peer out of their own digital channels. Sloppy diatribes, vicious personal attacks, rank partisanship. It is paradoxical that while the effect of social media has been to eliminate barriers to entry into public discourse, it has simultaneously withered down the Overton window to a sliver, enforced by the digital mob.

In pre-pandemic times, of course, the potential for disruption existed by interfacing with physical reality — whether at the ‘water cooler’ or its analogs, or even just driving through parts of one’s city where the reality is at odds with your own. Since March 2020, the only funnel available to form our views of the world has been mediated through a digital filter.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari points out the somewhat paradoxical reality that information overwhelm has made our fundamental irrationality more glaring: humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations. The simpler, and the more emotive the story, the more persuasive it is to the human brain: “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.”

How this looks on a daily basis on the timeline is that nuance, reasonable disagreement and complexity became eclipsed by mutual perception of one’s political opponent’s villainy. To my friends on the right, pro-lockdown and identitarian leftists are peddlers of dangerous authoritarianism, surreptitiously buttressing the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda not just by pushing for longer and stricter lockdowns but by dividing Western culture in a million fragments over debates on trans rights and cancel culture.

To my friends on the left, conservatives are outright complicit in or adjacent to white supremacy, “murderclowns” indifferent to the effects of the virus, and — at least in the US — directly responsible for the attacks of January 6th on the U.S. Capitol building.

This won’t end well. As the philosopher Sam Harris puts it:

“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it: conversation and violence.”