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The Informational Age

In an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, the counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, used the term “Alternative Facts” to defend incorrect claims made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.  Even as it was immediately criticised by journalists and ridiculed on social media, it probably best describes our current environment of political spin and fake news. At this point, it’s hard to know what is true or not anymore.

The Political Spin Machine

In our informational age, we have access to all the information we may wish to know at our fingertips.  As a consequence, there is data to support or oppose any position.  If you watch the news you are familiar with the following scene.  A panel of esteemed commentators are speaking on a particular subject – the economy, healthcare, foreign policy etc.  One makes a claim to support their position, citing a study or poll.  Another guest makes a contradictory statement minutes later citing another poll or study.  An argument ensues.  At the end of the segment, there is either confusion as to what the facts are or further entrenchment in political positions.  The 24 hour news cycle loves and thrives on this perpetual state of conflict as the drama increases views and site visits.

Fake News is Bad News

Fake News is appearing more and more and is especially dangerous in this age of social media.  At least being subject to politically slanted information provides some real knowledge to be gained. However, being subject to completely false and misleading information with the sole purpose to deceive is detrimental to education.  World Leaders, Scholars and Tech entrepreneurs are highlighting the psychological impact and dangers to society of these deceptive propaganda campaigns.  What is particularly dangerous about Fake News is its ability to go viral by spoofing legitimate news websites and offering a false sense of credibility.  Additionally, people (including the President of the United States) now amplify this issue by assigning the term to anything that may disagree with them.  This makes everything, including legitimate information, a target for suspicion.

Solution in the Age of Alternative Facts?

The constant questioning of “Am I getting the full story here?” or “Is this true?” is healthy.  Sites like Allsides provides a bias rating for news sources and stories to help reflect and identify the political leaning of information and combat polarisation.  As a result, this is helpful in determining multiple sides of an issue.  Also, fact checking sites like Factcheck.org and Politifact sift through incorrect stories and blatant political spin to provide better context.  In my opinion, the Age of Alternative Facts is a recipe for ruin for a society that relies on its citizens to make informed decisions regarding representation and issues.  As a result, it is our personal responsibility to combat it.

Screenshot of the homepage of Factcheck.org
Screenshot of the homepage of Factcheck.org

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt

What do you think about “Alternative Facts”? Is this a cause for alarm or a passing phase?

4 COMMENTS

  1. Well written and timed. I appreciate that fact checking site are provided.
    Being that sensationalism and extremism drives engagement in this consumer economy how marketable are actual facts where the fake tantalizes the masses? (Not a rhetorical question I am actual pondering this)
    It seems like in an age where everything from food to whether or not someones body was bought is shrouded in mystery the winners are those who can present fake in a way that doesn’t even pretend to be real but shifts the focus to the feelings generated by what is presented.
    This culture is unsustainable and only broadens the gap between the masses and the 1% as, in the case of facts and knowledge, what is presented to the masses is muddled with coercive devices that adds no value or positive direction to viewers state of being but serves the agenda of the presenter.
    Its hard to not be a cynic when everywhere you look you are being sold something hahaha.

    Once again, great post! I look forward to what else you produce.

    • You definitely raise a good point about the marketability of facts in this environment of sensationalism. What makes more headlines? What grabs more attention? Clickbait and drama regardless of whether or not it lies in reality will seem to appeal more to people rather than the boring truth. I genuinely wonder how this can be effectively stopped.

  2. What is an alternative fact? What is a fact? When does a story become fact? These questions become subjective when taken in the context of politics and current affairs.

    I agree that a democratic society relies on its citizens to make informed decisions, but I disagree that “alternative facts” is it a recipe for ruin. There is now more engagement with politics than ever. This is because information is so easily available which enables informed discussion; challenging of the status quo and the opinions of “experts” – and importantly as you are doing right here – to have their say.

    Alternative facts allow people to form a different point of view and to challenge. This creates discussion and debate.

    “Fake news”, being a story that is simple or true, is a problem. However, the alternative is state news that is drip fed to people and creates a totalitarian regime. Polarisation might be seen as a resulting issue, but where’s the politics in everyone agreeing in the same thing?

    There is another, separate, issue here that Trump is using the term “fake news” for any story he doesn’t like as a mechanism to discredit whole organisations. Whether it’s coming from Trump, NBC, BBC or Twitter, I argue that it is for people to scrutinise, educate themselves and challenge the information they hear.

    • A fact is something that is proven to be true. 2+2 = 4. Planets revolve around the sun. Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on January 20th 2017. There is no alternative to this. So the term “Alternative Facts” is an oxymoron because there can be nothing other than what should be a known reality.

      I don’t want to confuse “Alternative Facts” with informed decisions. I 100% agree with you that informed decisions and opinions are important to a healthy and thriving democracy and society. And I certainly agree that everyone should not and cannot agree on everything. But in order for it to be an informed decision or point of view, the foundation of it definitely has to be supported by a baseline understanding of certain facts. This is what I’m arguing is missing in today’s political debate and is dangerous to society.

      If we cannot agree on a simple concept such as 2+2 = 4, then there can be no meaningful debate on more complex mathematical concepts. If we cannot agree that for example violent crime in America is a fraction of what it was a couple of decades ago, its hard to have a meaningful conversation on how to improve this even further when President Trump makes statements that suggest that America is being massively subjected to “crime, drugs and murder” like never before.

      This is why I suggest its a recipe for ruin. It robs society the chance to have that informed conversation and debate on solutions you mentioned above.

What are your thoughts?

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