The war on observable reality

Little Mix: definitely a thing that exists. And hurrah for that.

There’s an interesting piece by Alex Hern, the Guardian’s tech correspondent, about online fakery. He thought it would ruin the world, but considerably less sophisticated bullshit got there first.

On social media, the public is for the first time exposed to the raw firehose of news, with no ability or desire to perform the work of verification, with incentives for sharing the most sensationalist content.

Faced with a race to keep up with the pace of change and an explosion in the availability of new information sources, hoaxes and untruths have gradually infiltrated the pages of even the most respectable journals…

This is an internet-age phenomenon, technology making an age-old problem considerably worse.

The internet has brought us what’s best described as a war on observable reality, and it goes rather like this:

Expert: I have two legs.
Person: No you don't.
Expert: Yes I do. [points] One leg. Two. 
Person: No.

The real version usually has more swearing and personal abuse, but you get the idea.

This isn’t the same thing as having a difference of opinion. This is rejecting observable reality.

Let’s bring Little Mix into this for no good reason.

Little Mix are a pop band. I think they’re very good. You might think they’re absolutely awful. But the fact that Little Mix exist, that they play concert venues, make videos and sell records is a fact. If I were to say that I think Little Mix are brilliant and you were to say that Little Mix don’t exist, you would clearly be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

And yet many people are denying provable reality, often about much more serious things. Donald Trump’s cry of “fake news!” when he really means “inconvenient news!”, the flat earthers and the moon landing truthers are the most obvious example, but it happens constantly, all over the place. Politicians say things that are provably untrue on air and aren’t challenged on it. Fringe views are given a platform as if they’re legitimate. Blatant falsehoods are circulated as if they’re facts. Propaganda is reprinted.

As Hern notes, this is because gatekeeping has collapsed.

Here’s how it used to work. Big-name American magazines (and some of the publishers I work for) famously use armies of fact checkers who go through entire articles demanding citations: where’s the evidence for this? How can you prove they said that? Which article was this in? If you can’t prove it – and proof requires more than some website by some crank – it doesn’t get published. The UK wasn’t quite so detailed but you still had to get through sub-editors, who were famously unforgiving.

That scrutiny – any scrutiny – is increasingly rare. Women’s magazines run debunked and sometimes dangerous health advice by new-age idiots. Newspapers parrot bullshit by anti-LGBT pressure groups. Radio presenters let politicians tell the porkiest of porkies. TV news politicises real events by using terms such as “migrant crisis” to describe something that’s nothing of the sort.

And because traditional media still has a cachet and some remaining trust, once bullshit makes it into the pages of a magazine or the website of a newspaper, many people think it’s true. Bad information is lent legitimacy.

Commenting on Hern’s piece, journalist and former publisher Adam Banks, posting on Twitter, hit the nail on the head:

Fake news tech isn’t the point. The point is we need media that’s incentivised to explain what’s real and debunk what’s fake, not paid for anything that catches anyone’s eye.

Today we have the reverse, a toxic brew where what feels right is more important than what is right, where what gets clicks matters more than any of its consequences, where the only people getting paid are the ones who can make their readers, listeners or viewers angry or upset instead of better informed. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not valuable.

We get what we pay for. This is what we get when we don’t want to pay at all.