Today we have seen fiction pose as fact. No one seems any the wiser.

If you’ve been reading online recently you have probably discover that George Osborne has decided to gamble the fate of the entire nation on his reforms, and has no ‘Plan B.’

Hopefully you would be savvy enough to try and find the statement from which that quote is cherry-picked but you often just won‘t have time and you’ll have to take the piece at its word so to speak. From there you might go on to grumble about that to a friend who would repeat the process with another and so on and so forth until swathes of people question the chancellor’s competency. If you were to find the original piece you would realise that there is an implied notion of confidence rather than desperation, and he’s actually saying that he is convinced that the plans will work rather than that he literally have no contingency whatsoever.

If the great revolution of social and civic media continues, you will have to get used to this sort of thing. In theory at least, the reputation of the institution for which a journalist works currently keeps them from bending the truth by selectively trimming quotations to misconstrue the sentiment of the original statement. When everyone is able to write, be published and be heard independently there is a rather large risk that facts and figures will be abused like this a lot more often because of the lack of any moderating body. When one peers into the murky depths of the blogosphere it is all too easy to see a grim future for journalism: a world where superficial fact is used as the mask of opinion. In this hellish vision, data becomes the misshapen slave put to work justifying whatever the writer wants to present as the truth.

Worst still, the general preconceptions of the medium of the blog is that of an autobiographical account. This tends to lend them an aura of validity when in fact they are pure subjective opinion, and in many cases, simply tools to serve a greater agenda. MP Nadine Dorries has recently told the MP standards watchdog that her blog is: “70% fiction.” Whilst it’s debatable whether or not Ms Dorries is simply backpedalling to avoid reprimands, the case demonstrates the problem with social media outlets being used primarily as a source of spin: a property that is in direct confliction with the idea of social media bringing truth to the forefront.

If we are to avoid  these situations, then the general public need to have a greater access to data so that they can interpret and contextualise a situation themselves. An example of why this is so necessary is the so called “Climate-Gate” situation that emerged when a series of emails, suggesting that scientists had been manipulating facts to fit their hypothesis, were leaked to the public.  An independent review by Sir Muir Russell cleared the Climatic Research Unit of any misconstruing facts but noted “reasonable requests for information” were often denied to those outside the scientific community.

Whilst the team themselves didn’t manipulate figures to fit their argument, the Internet went mad and did the very think they were appalled to see the CRU ‘do’: make enough baseless assumptions and interpret evidence to suit themselves. Suddenly everyone was analysing these revelatory emails to expose the hidden sin and corruption of the scientific community, with responses ranging from accusations that Al Gore was on it all and lying to cover everything up to a demand for Phil Jones (head of the CRU) to be prosecuted for: “supplying data with altered and/or missing information and raw data to ‘annoy’ the requesters.”

In the end it turned that the requests were granted for the majority of requests within the academic community, and that the administration team – who had far less of a vested interest in fudging the figures – were responsible for the bulk of the mistakes.

Whilst this kind of blunder is hardly the death knell for social and civic media it does highlight two large issues that need to change.

Firstly, the mindset of the blogger and the social media writer. There is often a distinct lack of contact with the primary source of fact, and many writers are taking a lazier, almost parasitic approach to journalism. If the individual is to rise, then it needs to accept responsibility for its opinions and take the time to interact with the core material in order to appreciate the nuances whose exclusion leads to the baseless sensationalism seen in Climate-Gate. If the civic journalist is to become a credible force in the world they need to adopt the strategy that a professional would ideally adhere to and create an interpretation based on the relatively unbiased facts, rather than feeding of that which is already written. This is not to say that they must exclude the opinions and interpretations of others, but instead they need to hold these other views in dynamic suspension as secondary sources; entities that can shape one’s opinion but not act as the basis for it.

This awareness of this subjectivity at the very heart of interpretations means that one must develop a critical view. A natural benefit of the multiplicity of civic media is increased expressive liberty and, as mentioned in a previous article, the growth of one’s perception of validity of their opinion. The emerging modern reader seeks a variety of sources then draws an opinion based on those sources held at arm’s length rather than taking a singular point of view as it is presented to them.   As people begin to write more and engage with primary sources as opposed to secondary interpretations they will have to learn to extract the relevant information for themselves which encourages them to reflect upon the issue in greater detail. Hopefully, this will debunk the mystique of the journalist because people are engaging in the act of investigation and interpretation themselves. By doing so, they are likely to realise that writing is often engendered with perspective and spin rather than being an unbiased account of events.

The second thing that needs to change is the way information is made available to the public. Yes, the blogosphere misinterpreted those emails but they did so because they didn’t have the full scope of facts. If the CRU had been open with its data in the first place then there wouldn’t have been a problem; it was their refusal to give information to the public in a transparent manner that brought attention and scandal upon the institution for rather dubious reasons. Trying to maintain a closed community of peers is an increasingly futile effort nowadays and one must ask why it is even necessary at all. By all means let your peers review the data as their opinion and collaboration is vital in maintaining accurate and relevant detail but don’t hide that data from the public. The more  information that is available, the more quizzical, critical and intellectually aware the community will become.

The greatest tool one can develop is a sense of scepticism and an inquisitive state of mind.  The individual must realise that many forms of communication are not merely informative but also persuasive, and they desire to lead his opinion. Realising that texts often bear hidden agendas and motivations is the  first step to  freeing oneself from a dogmatic tendency to follow the mandate of the few and embracing the value of one’s own thoughts.

Iluvsheeps, October 24, 2010

I’m undecided on whether it is in fact a good thing that we’ve all become so critical, untrusting and pessimistic or not. I shall have to have a think. The sunnier parts of my disposition would like for articles of this sort to not have to be written, but ultimately I think it needs to be and it’s a good one too.

NedB-H, October 25, 2010

Good article – a very sensible analysis of the CRU farce, and blogs like Guido Fawkes are already showing the impact that the democratisation of news is having on current affairs. Just one point of disagreement – the mainstream news media seem to be let off rather lightly.
“The reputation of the institution for which a journalist works currently keeps them from bending the truth”. Whilst this might be true on the level of an individual’s bias, the reputation of the likes of The Daily Express and The Daily Mail is hardly for straightforward fact-telling. A columnist on either paper isn’t likely to get an article past the editors which uses misleading figures to support a left-wing view. But on the other hand, the same columnist might not have a job for long if they don’t use the same underhand methods to promote the right-wing editorial view. Look at Fox News in America for the extreme example of how supposedly responsible media giants mix opinion and fact, then claim the mixture to be “news”.



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