Searching truth in a world of fake news

Recently, there was a massive outrage in the way Bollywood actress Sridevi’s death was covered in the media. The media was making up all kinds of theories related to the cause of her death from heart attack to potential murder to suicide and finally, the autopsy report suggested that Sridevi had died due to accidental drowning. This episode is not the first of its kind but the quality of journalism has hit new lows over the last decade. Previously, people were worried about fake news in social media but now fake news has become mainstream through traditional media also.

For long, media is considered to be one of the pillars of democracy. Why? Because they are the ones who spend time studying an issue from all angles, take a objective view and present a balanced perspective on any subject. This perspective then enabled citizens to be well informed to form educated opinions coupled with responsible actions. The foundation of a good democracy is well informed and responsible citizens.

Traditionally, the media, church and schools provided the desired values to create a strong and vibrant democracy. With more people moving out of religion (which is not wrong) and with schools becoming commercialized, kids are left to the nurture of the parents. If the parents are fighting and not providing the conducive environment for the kids, then the kids have a higher chance of not forming the right values. This could be catastrophic. Souad Mekhennett, Washington Post Journalist, in her book ‘I was told to come alone’ attributes the rise of radical elements in Europe to kids who were isolated by society and by a broken family. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Professor and LDS church leader, argues that religion played an important role in helping people choose to obey law voluntarily by instilling values. He asked ‘Where are the institutions in America that will teach the young people that they too need to voluntarily obey law?’.

Media is supposed to be that institution that ought to play the role combining parent’s guidance, teacher’s discipline and the priest’s values. But media today has become so commercial. We don’t know how many news channels are in the world and just in India alone, I am sure there are 100+ private channels. Since these are private enterprises, how do they make money to run their operations and pay the salaries of their staff? Obviously, the biggest source of revenues is advertisements. How do we expect them to criticize someone who is a long term advertiser in a channel? So, media is no more the holy cow that fed us with guidance, discipline and values.

Each channel chooses to support a political party depending on who invested in their business. If you want to know what is happening in Delhi around pollution, then you need to watch NDTV, IBNLIVE, India Today and a few other channels. Then you need to check their political affiliations and then, you have to allot certain weight for each source. On top of this, we add our own bias and we look for news that resembles our opinions and supports our hidden biases and assumptions. Also, how do we expect the staff to stick to their values? What stops them from talking money for writing articles to favour a party? Most importantly, are they trained enough to be a journalist? There are so many questions unanswered.

Even the global news channels do the same thing. CNN or BBC never present a balanced perspective on global trends. They go with the default assumption that the western way of life is right and the rest is wrong. When you have that kind of a bias, then the stories are bound to misrepresent a culture which leads to negative perceptions formed about the culture.

But in spite of all this, we still rely on news channels for our information needs. We somehow believe that by watching a video, we’ll be able to form an opinion. Nowadays, videos are edited to share a story that favors their side and this is done by traditional news media houses also. News debates have all become shouting matches. Previously, news channel moderators spend little time asking good questions and allow the guest speaker on the panel to share their perspectives. Now the moderators take most of the time and the guest speakers are invited only to make a point that there were different people in the panel. Our news channel debates are more like our cricket or soccer matches. Entertainment!

Social media, on the other hand, has gone extreme. People go to any mile to fake a story to prove their point. Armies of trolls belonging to different groups constantly spread fake news to build public opinion. The recent picture of a 4 year old boy crossing the Jordan border alone from Syria created so much viral effect only to realize later that he was coming with his family and that picture was zoomed to spread this fake news. But by the time the truth was found out, so much anger would have already been spewed against a country or religion or ideology and the viscous cycle is continuing. It is all about grabbing headlines quickly and once the damage is done, it is hard to get it back.

Political leaders cleverly tap into this scenario by avoiding conversations with media and present their stories directly through Twitter. It helps them to avoid hard questions and people who comment in their Twitter feed fully know that they are not going to get any response. Politics has become the art of headline management and political parties spend most of their time managing headlines these days.

In this above scenario, how do we assess the truth about any subject? It is better to stop ourselves from forming immediate opinions. Instead of forming conclusions, we have to accept the new reality and form hypothesis. A hypothesis by design has several assumptions. With every new information that we get, we can test the validity of our hypothesis and keep revising our opinions. This is probably better than forming hard opinions as the source that we use to form these opinions are flawed by design. Another important thing we can do is to avoid making judgments based on media reports.

It is high time that we develop a ‘media truth meter’ to detect the authenticity of the news and also, media houses need to be more explicit about the science behind their stories. Otherwise, we’ll slowly see the extinction of media as a source of information, knowledge and values.

I write on politics, business, AI and movies