Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Fake News Challenge - ‘If corporates can do it, why can’t you?’, they ask.

At that given moment, Edward Bernays gave his cue whereupon a group of rich debutantes in a parade walking down New York’s fifth avenue pulled out cigarettes from their stockings and lit up. They’re smoking torches of freedom, the PR guru would tell awaiting press and photographers. Freedom? Why yes, the fight for women’s liberation.
Edward Bernays, often cited as the father of PR, had successfully pulled of his first domestic fake news story (1929), in the process polluting the suffragettes movement by aligning it with a corporate sponsors urge to shift more cigarettes. It made headlines around the world. Welcome to PR, a name Bernays coined because it sounded good.
‘I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace and propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it…so we found a word, council on public relations. (see here: 8.01")

Bernays would successfully deploy other false news events, masqueraded as real news. When the Pork industry wanted to off load more of its product, but curated meat had limited outlets, Bernays paid doctors to tell the American public a bacon breakfast (with eggs) was good for you. They lapped it up and that diet which has stuck with us today has made its own indefatigable contribution to the cholesterol/fatty diet debate.
Today, a sizeable chunk of news will feature PR companies of one hue or another peddling their clients’ pov falsehoods to hike their profits — from chocolate is good for you, smoking causes you no harm, and nuclear fusion in a test tube will bring unlimited energy. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, in 1989, yielded one of the most torrent backlashes in the science community. Notwithstanding the duos impeccable credentials, even when other boffins doubted, the newspapers knew they had the equivalent of Freddie Star ate my Hamster. Incredulous, if not dubious, but it grabbed column inches.
‘If corporates can do it, why can’t you?’, perpetrators ask. In a world of limited news outlets, news producers were either culpable, or duplicitous, but that was fine because there was a sense it was manageable. The joke was on others. The deliberate attempt to smear football fans and family at the tragic loss of life in Hillsborough showed a malevolent deeply darker side. In 1992 at BBC Greater London Radio, a network television reporter describing the LA riots extolled how blacks were looting stores. ‘Hang on!’ said a producer, who promptly rang the network’s news desk to complain there were blacks and whites.
And now with a galaxy of sites purporting to be news producers, this thing, now given a brand name, ‘fake’ has ‘gotten out of control’. The BBC’s first director general Sir John Reith said almost 100 years ago, when confronted with the idea that news could be synchronous like CB radio, that you couldn’t trust the public to know what to do with this power. Whether knowingly misleading, or lacking the evidence in the first place, neither contributes to the good health of knowledge and beliefs we will use to make judgements.
Recently, Facebook weighed in with what it sees as a helpful address to fake news. Check the url, it says and a slew of other things , while staying in the wall garden of FB. Mike Caulfield in a riposte was having none of it. FB’s measure were cosmetic enough for anyone to code a bit here and there to shore up the “about us” page, or become more sussed spelling correctly.
The problem isn’t a set of listicles as a fact check, but a deeper critical cognitive awareness of stories examined via different methodologies. At the heart it’s detective work, which requires substantive cross referencing, and not necessarily trusting what your eyes and ears are telling you.
The problem with the screen generation, a journalist friend tells me, is few people want to go back to the source to find the origins of the story. Storyful, a digital agency launched by a former news correspondent, Mark Little, showed a blue print for how social media companies could verify news and its source.
In his book News, philosopher Alain de Botton makes an obvious point. We teach young people about Shakespeare and the classics, but not much in the way of media literacy to decode newspapers and television, he says. The Internet and social opens a new dimension where competition, the pace of story turnover, and the clicks monetised as capital (Bernays in the 21st century) is a toxic allure that isn’t going away any time.
Part of the behavioural problem is the atomisation of the news ecosystem. When once a team of people were responsible in a work flow to spot fakers or there was a corrective body, however toothless, today stretched news orgs rely on the solitary judgement of a journalist. PR and fakers with deep insights into story structure and agenda know where and when to set of a literary time ordinance. If you write it to look like news: grabby lead, W5H, quote in second para — job half done.
Then there's the inevitable, adduced by social scientist Gustave Le Bon in the 1800s. People in a crowd act irrationally and can easily be swayed to act upon their fears.
Furthermore, all it takes is for any social network to take a bite exposing themselves to the blue dye for the whole network to become tainted. You’ll hardly manage any blow back too when your upbringing has fed you with stereotypes and sensationalism . Yes! Father Christmas is real.
The panacea, or quick fixes are as illusionary as the items. The wisdom of crowds suggests if you talk to enough people for corroboration, the truth will out. But that depends on the crowd/network. Thankfully, pro agency websites e.g. Reuters can still be relied upon. But vigilance and a new raft of technological features may in the end kick this thing sideways, for a moment.
Fake or hoax news is never going to go away. Wasn’t it just over a 100 years ago that two of the US’ biggest newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal went to yellow journalism war? Same colour today just different actors.
More on medium or see what David is up to at www.viewmagazine.tv

What Did Journalism Ever Do For Us?


Context

Here’s my story! Skip if you want, but this is my intro to journalism
I was being moved from one foster parent to another in the UK before my Dad hauled my sisters and I off to Ghana, where he’s from. I got put into a boarding school (with a cadet military wing) set up by Eton missionaries. Exciting, but bloody hard life for a 12-year-old. I wrote an article for our school mag about the Neutron bomb when I was 13 about humanities impending apocalypse. Precocious!
Couple of boys used to read this American magazine called GQ and dress up like dandies. In 1981, I got caught up in the cross-fire of Ghana’s military coup wearing cadet garb. We boys were helping to look after an international football game when warring factions of soldiers kicked off. People had been sold this fake report that the country was being invaded by Libyan soldiers. I got heckled and pointed out because of how I looked, so had to flee home for my life, shouting in twi (native language) I was Ghanaian.
There were only one or two professions I was meant to pursue. That was the patriarchal way: a doctor, or a lawyer. Law, uh, uh! I baulked at medicine, when I was shown a face being peeled off by medics. Nearest stop was pharmacy and I was pretty close, before at Uni — De Montford Uni in Leicester (It was a polytechnic then) — I discovered journalism and started freelancing for the BBC and writing for our university mag.
Thirty years on with journalism in turmoil or in an excitable state, depending on your point of view, and a doctorate that explores cognitvism and storytelling, a friend who always refers to me me as Geezer asked me: What Did Journalism Ever Do For US? Apologies to Monty Python followers.


Wecan all tell stories, but journalism’s structural form of storytelling is predicated on the psychology of crowd behaviour. It can be learned by mimicry, hence you don’t need a Masters which acts to accelerate the process of comprehending the dynamics of words and images on our emotions. Hence, that’s why citizen journalism was never a contested form, and the lines between journalism and marketing is a blur . What did journalism ever do for us? It taught us how to reduce what could be complex events and issues and reduce them to easily accessible experiences. It taught us, consciously to intuitively, how to produce breathless adventures that tickled the amygdala of our audience — that part of the brain that controls our reaction to stimuli — accentuated by visual, auditory and kinesthetics regions of the brain. Take South Africa’s first all-race election that @MsAlliance tweeted about yesterday. It was a momentous event, which I had the opportunity of reporting and producing on from the ground for the BBC World Service, BBC Radio Four and ABC News.

Then there’s stories I’ve produced near the Turkey-Syrian border, China, Egypt, a training project with journos in Russia, and a diving expedition in the Dardanelles looking for WWI ships. You become a story teller by dint of experiencing and recounting these things. The manner in which we unreel the plot of a story, something Russian formalists detailed, altered the reception and desirability of the story. In other words we could both have the same information, but one of us could alter the structure of our reportage, we’d have a different affect on our audience. However journalism offers a particular social framing and linearity for storytelling with conventionalised rules. In television, its methodologies are creaking under the weight of cultural and tech developments e.g. the Net and VR.

2. MEET OTHERS OUTSIDE OF YOUR FILTER BUBBLE

The ideal in journalism is to understand quadrants of a story that are unreachable by standing in one point, by listening to a point of view, therefore at its best journalism gives you access to share the company of diverse, interesting, and on occasion unorthodox people outside of your now nominal (Facebook) filter bubble. Without journalism, how do you hear about the other side or meet people you normally wouldn’t? I interviewed South Africa’s arch racist Dirk Coetzee who ended our interview by saying if I’d been this close to him ten years ago, I’d be looking down the barrel of his gun. When a couple of Afrikaners found out I was a Brit they urged me to atone for the British use of concentration camps in SA. My tax advisor, a former Storm Model thirty years ago wants to revolutionise the British tax system and asked me along to a meeting with Tax revenue department which I filmed here. What an experience. I was in Russia recently working with regional journalists getting a different and nuanced perspective about events in Russia. Journalism provides you with a legitimate excuse to explore the other side if you’ll take it?

3. FORCES US TO GO TECH

In the 90s I was recruited as part of thirty people in an experiment to become this strange animal called a videojournalist — journalists who could shoot, direct, edit and report, as well as produce stories in multiple forms. I was watching Anthony Joshua’s world title fight on TV with Klitschko and thought back to when I was one of two videojournalists employed by Team Lennox Lewis to document his fight with Tyson in the US. Journalism as a discipline/vocation needs technology to develop as a business.
Urging the industry to introduce new technologies in the 1970s, without wanting to pay for it, television execs realised tape-based stories could cost less and allow more stories to be produced that film. Technology is a bottom line issue.
As an individual it forces us to be entrepreneurs and to engage with as many different technologies, trying to find fixes to new ways of telling stories and figuring why they work, and what they bring.
About ten years ago I was invited, as part of a ceremony, to speak at the Washington Press Club after designing and building in HTML/CSS/Java an online brand about multimedia story forms ( see end of piece). Unfortunately, the word “Journal” and “ism” is moribund. If you were a Martian landing on Earth, you’d rightly ask “where’s the journal?”. We no more write in a journal any more than engaging in the public perception towards the fixed ideologies from its ‘ism’. Hence each tech piece that could liberate us from the narrow confines of story telling drags us, sometimes kick and screaming back to the 20th century. Are there are parallels between Newtonian physics and Quantum states with journalism circa 16th century and today?

4. BECOME AWARE OF LIMITATIONS

Journalism is piquantly constructed stories created to appeal to targeted audiences. News journalism is but one of its many strands — as documented in Andrew Marr’s My Journey. There is no such thing as objectivity, though rightly we strive towards it and the boundaries between PR and journalism are paper thin. Rather than provide us with all the answers, as we’re led to believe, journalism should be an adjunct, to make us more critical of what we see and hear echoing the mythical sentiments of one Mr Paxman who’s purported to have said, why is that lying bastard lying to me. In its poetic form it gets under the skin of power, and brings comfort to the oppressed. Too often though its television and nupes form can be a blunt 5-minute instrument, filler, crude and sensational troll to our irrational fears. The world is too important to be left to journalists, said someone, because they assemble complex issues as if they were IKEA packs.

5. AWARE THAT EDUCATION AND DIVERSITY MATTER

For all it says turning spatial and temporal information and data into cause and effect narratives, it is significantly dependent on the journalist — as a matter of interpretation. Apriori knowledge matters in shaping narratives, not withstanding craft skills. Our beliefs, Descartians “who we are” infect our stories. Who we are, how experiences shape how we think, how our brains are wired is so concealed we ignore its potent force. For that reason, approaching a story from different sides means allowing for diverse views, diverse people, genders, and points of views — if we desire a more rounded story. However we routinely ignore these. Journalism should make us aware that education and diversity are critical in political spaces, if we believe inclusivity is paramount to development.

6. SEARCH FOR ANSWERS

If we allow it, journalism by its own shortcomings, urges us to search for alternative answers to problems. In When Old Technologies were New author Carolyn Marvin paints a picture of the development and usefulness of emergent technologies. By the time a technology becomes public facing, much of its philosophy and psychological use has been pre-shaped by a few people. There’s a moment in the 196os when the father of cinema verite Robert Drew captures cinema as journalism on film and shows it to a network editor. “You’ve got some nice footage there”, the editor says blissfully unaware that the footage was the story. VR, 360 Presence Reality, Bots present new possibilities to crystalise information but through whose prism and hegemony. Thus far, journalism has found little answers to Dr Ernest Dichter’s depth manipulators. One of the ideas we advanced at the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB is fashioning videojournalism alongside a broader palette of image and textual narrative — something Drew did, and Vertov did before him. It’s called artistic videjournalism or cinema journalism and we’ve used it effectively on a range of stories and teaching the next generation.

Postscript — Filming in China

Does VR fundamentally shift the heuristics of making a movie and hence its biggest failure thus far is a) our wanton application of Euclidean thinking to understand circular geometrical space? b) What’s its aural sound equivalent? c) Does revising its conceptual production mean going beyond our nominal way of 2d spatial geometry? Is mobile journalism real or an invention by marketeers, and if it is can I tell a mobile production shoot as its USP apart from a conventional camera shoot? Is our predilection to shiny objects and the fear of being left out the reason we rubberneck into attending tech conferences?

End Notes

It’s invidious to use the word “Us” inasmuch as who is “Us”, but I thought of leaving that open to interpretation.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah heads up the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB and publishes viewmagazine.tv