Truth is in the eye of the beholder

Do we really want an authority, whether Facebook or someone else, that controls what is shared and posted? It’s not like the truth has any chance

Media has played a central role in my life. I’ve worked in different newsrooms and as a politician, I’ve also been on the other side of it. The rules were simple. The game was simple. A journalist gets a lead and works on the story.

The other side have their say and the public reach their own conclusion. The injection of technology and social media has changed the rules. It has widened the space so much that the timeline of a story is completely twisted, and it is pushed and pulled by the content created in parallel with the story.

On February 14, a gunman opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. 14 died and 17 were non-fatally wounded. The attacker had a weapon of war – an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. It shoots 90 rounds a minute. It had one purpose: to destroy and kill everything in its path.

It was obvious that pressure was going to mount to restrict guns. We’ve all seen the aftermath of the shooting and the emotional pleas. But what surprised me was that beneath the surface there were people, God knows where and paid by God knows whom, creating content online to undermine the victims and to promote pro-gun messages. These videos and pictures had the sole intention of discrediting anyone, including students from the same high school where the massacre took place, who spoke in favour of restricting guns.

The structure of social media meant that this content was moving, and it was moving fast. People were actually believing these misleading images. Students were being called ‘crisis actors’, with videos suggesting that they weren’t really students but paid stooges. Everyone was complicit apparently, including the ‘mainstream media’, from CNN to Bloomberg.

The fake news videos were getting so much steam that one made it to the number one most viewed video on YouTube, before being removed. The amount of disinformation was astounding. It swirled around on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. It was a digital war, not with weapons but algorithms and hashtags. It was as if a complete parallel reality had been created and people were not only believing these fake stories, but also using them as an argument in favour of not restricting guns.

The Florida shooting is not the only case. A similar action also happened in the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people, with videos claiming a ‘hoax’ and ‘false flag’ deceptions generating millions of views and lots of advertising money for the creators. Social media has become a red rag to a bull for conspiracy theorists and those interested in misinforming and misleading the public.

The end result was that we had two sides of the reality; two sides which were completely opposite to each other.

These trends are very worrying. And there’s more bad news. It seems nobody really has a clue about what to do to tackle this huge problem. Do we really want an authority, whether Facebook or someone else, that controls what is shared and posted? It’s not like the truth has any chance. How can truthful reporting compete with well-financed sponsored fake news articles?

Barack Obama, during an interview with David Letterman, recently said, “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. At a certain point you just live in a bubble and I think that’s why our politics are so polarised right now”.

The digital echo chamber and the spread of sponsored fake articles by hidden hands is probably one of the biggest challenges facing modern countries. I don’t think we are having to meet this challenge in Malta as yet, but this is not a problem restricted to the US or the UK. Nobody knows what the answer is.

Verifying information and sources was something that journalists and writers in my day were taught on day one. In a world where everyone is a broadcaster within their social media circles, we must emphasise the importance of critical thinking and verification. Compared to the past, when journalists would lose their reputation if they failed to verify a claim, what we have with the internet and social media is a new world which we still don’t fully understand, let alone have solutions for.


Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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