Fake news, or no news?
We’re told that the proliferation of social media means everyone has a more varied access to the news of the day. This would make for better democracy via a better-informed public.
Results of a poll across North America on this subject were released a month ago, in the form of a comparison graph. Public awareness of current events was compared to the sources used by the respondents for their news. The poll confirmed the extent of the switch to social media for news. But it also showed that as social media was used for news, the actual awareness of news declined. One arrow went straight up (social media use) and one almost straight down (knowledge of news).
There are several explanations for this perverse result -- largely it’s our interest only in news which confirms our beliefs. While all news-gathering does involve filtering, filtering in mainstream media is not as distorting as conspiracy enthusiasts claim. Breibart News is not as accountable as the New York Times; Levant’s Rebel news is more biased (on purpose) than the CBC or Globe and Mail. Not to say any are perfectly objective, and certainly not that we should rely only on one source.
The flood of fake news around the US election brings this subject to the fore -- again. Do we trust Russian sites, or those posted by the KKK or white militias, more than traditional media? Traditionals do use fact-checking and several layers of verification, although they still have biases.
But “which site?” is not the issue. What is, is today’s quality and extent of knowledge of world events. What did citizens believe, as they voted for Trudeau or Trump? Did voters have an adequate awareness of news events? How helpful were all those sites? Did they actually get the news out to more people?
In early December, Abacus Data, which polls Canadians continually, released a startling survey covering these very questions. The pollsters wanted to know how Canadians felt about the new federal government, and why.
Taking eight current news events, “half or more” said they had not heard of any of the eight. The events? Trudeau’s fundraising methods, his reaction to Fidel’s death, choosing a woman for a new banknote, retreat from electoral reform, the Liberals’ mydemocracy.ca initiative, plus Trudeau’s three pipeline decisions. How could so many Canadians be unaware of at least a few of these decisions, all heavily trafficked on social media?
Curiously, here in Quebec where opposition to pipelines is the strongest in the country, a full two-thirds of those surveyed (French and English-speaking) had not heard of any of the three pipeline decisions.
No one disputes that social media is convenient and cheap, compared to newspapers and TV. But do we really watch the news in order to save money, find off-beat opinions, or avoid the inconveniences of, say, having to read at length? Don’t we choose media for its accuracy in reflecting the world? Maybe not.