If there is anything that took front stage this 2020, besides the coronavirus, it is the lies, misinformation, and disinformation running in all sectors of the media. From the politicisation of the pandemic to everything else, including our personal lives.
Skepticism about news may be a natural consequence of increasingly pluralistic media environments. In a time when people have difficulties in discerning what is real and what is fake, online platforms are becoming the dominant source of information while bringing challenges to media trust.
Trust is the social foundation for relationships, and that is not different with journalism. Like in life, trust is rooted in beliefs about integrity, reliance and professionalism; in journalism, it affects everything, from sourcing to the impact of reporting.
It is fair to say that segments of the public, including journalists and researchers, hold different beliefs about how journalism works, or, conflicting interpretations about what they expect from it. Journalism has a clear purpose: to inform, to help to understand, however, how the fundamental of good journalism works is not clear.
In a recently published report, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism mentioned that trust in the news has eroded worldwide. Are you surprised?
A better understanding of different sources of news, or the reasons why journalists use some sources of information and not others, is necessary. Transparency would be the answer, perhaps. Some audiences do want to know more about topics, including who are the journalists behind the news. It helps the public to be part of the civil society, to understand decisions, and changes. On the other hand, withholding information, partially or not, can open chances for speculation.
Social platforms are shaping how people learn about news and influencing how they engage with the news. People no longer follow media organisations; they follow individuals in social media; they follow those with whom they share the same ideas and interests. People trust their digital friends more than politicians, leaders and official news organisations.
Apparently, we have not abandoned the 18th Century school of gossips, rumours and hoaxes — we have just been armoured with extraordinary tools in communication technologies. We have embraced a more sophisticated ‘modes of communication’. You call it propaganda, information manipulation, misleading information, fake news, or pure lies. It is a process of distraction, and with people’s span of attention getting shorter, disinformation finds a fertile space to grow — besides, it is cheaper and more efficient.
Fake news, rumours and misinformation are part of human character; it has been used in history and in propaganda — against enemies, or in favour of the allies. Politicians, informers, advertisers and storytellers are masters at putting words together for different purposes. Certain narratives can be more acceptable than others can because they are emotionally attractive and bonding — exactly what happens in social media: ‘I trust my friend!’ Then, it is not something new — but revamped by the digital revolution. The big explosion of disinformation is an outcome of the technology revolution, and consequently social media bonding.
In other words, trust is not to be lost. Like in any relationship, trust can be elusive and once it is lost, it is hard to regain it. People will continue finding their own community on social platforms; misinformation will not go away, and those who are confused or bored with the lack of proper, transparent and balanced information will look for alternatives.
Knowing the tricks used since the 6th Century AD will not change how we perceive rumours and fake news today, but it is a window to the past, and, an insight for better communication in the future
Let’s hope 2021 will be a better year, including for journalism.