Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nick Cohen on the post truth world

There is a depressing but powerful article in Standpoint by Nick Cohen called

"Our world in stupor lies,"

which is a quote from Auden's poem about the outbreak of World War II.

The article describes the changes in the balance of power between mainstream and non-mainstream media and news. It gives a rather pessimistic take on the ability of not just anyone who wants to do so, but anyone is who does not actively seek to avoid such a fate, to shut out news they don't want to hear through the filters of social media.

I think Nick is referring to a real danger, but I don't think we have to be quite as pessimistic as this article. To paraphrase words Lord Hailsham used many years ago about the threat of an "elective dictatorship" the appropriate reaction is as a warning of concern about where we are tending rather than a statement of despair at where we have arrived.

Nick writes

"I accept that as you grow older you run the risk of sinking into pessimism. But I cannot see how print and broadcast journalism for inquiring people can survive anywhere except in specialist niches. In their place are Vladimir Putin propagandists using misinformation as a weapon of foreign policy.

Alongside them, the web honours every variety of crank, nutjob and freak. To call them out is to commit the sin of our age and be an “elitist”. Once I would have said that the insult reeks of condescension because it assumes the masses can only handle lies.

Now I suspect lies is what they want. Maybe I am wrong. Even if I am, it remains true, that the economic model for providing journalism which strives to be more than propaganda is everywhere failing."

I hope he is wrong that the lies are what people want. While lies can win for a time but do not have a track record of convincing people for ever.

Totalitarian regimes had a far more powerful grip on print and broadcast media than any algorithm designed to tell people what it thinks they want to hear has on what appears on people's computers. And yet ultimately their propaganda failed and most of the 20th century's totalitarian regimes fell, because people could see the contrast between what the official channels were telling them and the truths they experienced in their lives and could see with their own eyes.

But perhaps in the 20th century people will have to work harder to see the truth: it is a bigger challenge to see through false information when it comes from a system designed to tell us what it thinks we want to hear than when it is designed to fit someone else's agenda.

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