The Unreal Pandemic

By Seamus Byrne in Media News on
Recently, a freakishly prescient magazine interview from a 1995 GQ Magazine resurfaced last year that speaks to one of the big issues with trusted information we’re battling today. Author Terry Pratchett was interviewing Bill Gates and asked about the “parity of esteem” that the Internet was enabling, allowing anyone to claim authority and make it hard for people to know whether something is honest or deceitful.
Bill Gates, oblivious to the conspiracies that would spread about his role in global pandemics 25 years later, argued that there would be electronic systems that would ensure that some information would hold more authority thanks to indexes and other tools.
Pratchett 1, Gates 0.
One lovely part of this story is that it spread last year through a tweet of a photograph of a magazine page. The tweet was from a biographer of Pratchett, and as he told The Guardian, no one actually asked him if the photograph was real or faked. It could easily have been faked.
On the flipside there’s the apocryphal “640K will be enough for anyone” Bill Gates quote that he never actually said. There’s a great debate on the Bill Gates Wikipedia Talk page over whether he said it or not. Everyone who says he did just argues Microsoft PR is talking it down. But can they come up with an actual reference? No.
Checking sources. Searching for references. Building a well founded picture of reality. That’s the hard work, and it’s the work journalists try to do every day. But do readers bother wondering if we’ve really checked our sources? Or built our stories on facts?
Facts aren’t driving ‘engagement’ quite like a flashy video full of stock footage that says the world is asleep and it’s time to wake up to the reality of a flat world under a mind control spell… or something like that.
I often wonder if the lost revenues to the wider world of online attention is becoming less of a threat than the fundamental shift away from caring about whether something is true or not. Reality is dead. Unreal hyperbole is king.
It’s all tied up in everything becoming political too. And, weirdly, there are so many examples of how tech was on the front wave of these disinformation campaigns. Before 5G was whipped up into anti-vaxx viral conspiracies it was Gamergate being ignored by social media giants. Even the early years of Wi-Fi had their conspiracies, as did all phases of mobile networks. If it’s wireless, it means it’s bombarding you with things you can’t see.
So now the politics has started to hammer into the idea that everyone is welcome to their own facts, which means many feel they can read any story they like and if they like it it’s true.
Ideas and expressing them is free. And like free email, it makes it easy to send ideas out but puts a load on the recipient to filter and manage all these signals to find something helpful.
The shift toward subscription models at big news outfits, and the early positive signs some are seeing through this, gives hope that at least some people value news that takes more effort to produce. But it’s something we have to fight for in a tough time when that parity of esteem also means a parity of dismissal for those who don’t want to believe day is day anymore.
When I used to manage reviewers I would talk about the idea that most readers don’t care about the benchmarks and the specific test data we put a product through. But they like us to show our working. Seeing the working means they can skim past it and have added confidence we know what we’re talking about.
Maybe we need to show our working a little more often again. Just to emphasise what people aren’t getting when they’re stumbling into the misinformation elsewhere.
That goes for the surveys or analyses or other information we get from PR to tell catchy stories that companies are eager to seed into the media landscape. The number of times I’ve asked for things like the total sample group or the margin of error on a survey and not had those details available? Let’s do better to make sure we rise above the rubbish out there.
Also, I delivered you some misinformation above. It was Wikiquote, not Wikipedia, where the Bill Gates quote debate was happening. Did you click to check the link? That said, the Talk Page at Wikipedia is another great example of showing your working.
I’m tired of hearing kids told not to trust Wikipedia. It’s so wrong that it’s its own misinformation because it fails to teach anyone good media literacy. Wikipedia is a great place to learn things, especially if you check the sources and the Talk page to learn how this information was pieced together. Maybe more news outlets need a Talk page equivalent to bolster the understanding behind the hard work that goes into serious reporting.

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