Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Bullshit, Inaccuracy, Adulteration and Spin

 When I was still a Twitter neophyte I received a retweet from Tweeter A via Tweeter B:
        "As Patrick Gower insists on commenting on the stories he is 'reporting' on, he cannot be classed as a journalist, is about facts, not opinion"

I assumed that a person in possession of an opinion about a current issue was in need of a response, so I tweeted back : 
        "Don't agree actually. Impossible to separate facts from opinion- why a diversity of opinion in MSM is needed"

Tweeter A responded:  
         "of course it is! if they want to spread their opinions they should start fucking blogs" 

This is the point at which alarm bells should have rung but I'm well known for a dogged pursuit of my point so I replied:
          "What's defined as fact, how presented & ordered, which included/excluded etc - all guided by opinion." 

By this, I meant that someone's world view - including their politics - must, to some extent, influence how they report a given issue.  Of course a good journalist strives for accuracy, impartiality and balance - that's the essence and life blood of quality journalism - but, if all they do is repeat 'facts', they become nothing more than stenographers, 'repeaters', 'churnalists'. In light of who provides most of the FACTS these days (a very small number of corporately owned news agencies and a host of PR companies) that can only serve the interests of the powerful. 

Tweeter A did not agree:
         "I do not agree with your definition of journalism, I am looking at you very judgmentally #tsk #checkyourself"

Now I didn't know much about Twitter lore at the time so the hashtag thing was uncharted territory for me, and I thought Tweeter B was being ironic. 

Tweeter B fluttered in with :
         "Strip back The Spin ; Expose the facts."

My determined pursuit of logic and rational argument led me further into deep waters:
         "Have a problem with notion of journos as mere 'repeaters' of facts. Has come to fore with neolib economics."

I followed that with the rhetorical question :
        "Who stocks this storehouse of value-free, politically neutral facts for journos to repeat?"

Tweeter B replied:
         "Ummm I dunno, things happening?"

I should have pulled the plug at this point but it was one of those "I can't stop, someone on the internet is wrong" moments, so I wrote:
         "News agencies were primary source for journos - most closed since 1980s. More info now but also more disinfo"

Tweeter B came back:
         "And their job to distinguish between the two?"

Great, I thought, we've completed the circle :
        "Yes & that requires them to use judgement, to interpret what are presented as facts."

Tweeter C entered the thread and queried my assertion that it's impossible to separate facts from opinion, and cited science as an example. I asked Tweeter C if s/he was kidding, planning to then elaborate on my belief that science is by no means politically neutral or value free.

Tweeter A chipped in: 
        "are you kidding?

I responded in the negative and wrote:
         "Debate was about journalism; science is not inherently value free/politically neutral."

Tweeter A was not amused:
         "wasn't a debate, you came into my feed giving your view of journalism, you're now done here"

Tweeter C replied to Tweeter A with a well aimed comment: 
        "If you don't want comment on your feed, talk to yourself in an empty room, don't tweet" 

Tweeter A then spat the dummy :
        "don't want incessant comment from fuck stains about bollocky bollocks on my feed capeche?" (sic)

Tweeter C replied :
        "you need to calm down."

I tried to reply to Tweeter A but couldn't as I’d been blocked, so tweeted to the others: 
        "Someone tell Tweeter A there was a wider debate about journalism I was referring to."

Tweeter A flew back with:
          "is that a subtweet? can you like just fuck off now? ffs cheers"

I didn't have a clue what a subtweet was or why it was such a bad thing and only realised later that Tweeter A had in fact started the whole thing off with a sub tweet about Patrick Gower. 

Tweeter B then blocked me, presumably in solidarity with Tweeter A. 

Still furious, Tweeter A posted another tweet, seemingly without a hint of irony, sent to me by Tweeter D who was following the exchange: 
        "subtweeters give me thrush,and make me wish somebody would skull fuck some fucking class and smarts into their rampant stupidity"

Tweeter D continued the debate :
        "LynnW's point valid - if u don't agree counter it. That's Twitter - capiche."

To which Tweeter A, still under the control of his adrenal glands, replied :
         "we were not actually talking about that, and lynn makes me vomit blood"

Tweeter B pitched in again, seemingly drawing some sort of parallel between sexual assault and breaches of Twitterquette:
        "Stop means stop No means no Y do persons consider its OK 2 force themselves on U on Twitter"

Tweeter A then tweeted back to Tweeters B, C and D:
        "at least preface it with 'sorry to interrupt,but am going to talk about something else'" 

...which made absolutely no sense because I had been talking about what he'd originally tweeted.

Tweeter B ended the exchange with the somewhat surreal comment :
         "If it continues I will require lubrication & some kind of Pornography…"

All very daft but also illustrative of some far from silly issues – as well as providing proof that having an overactive amygdala is not the exclusive province of the political Right.  

If I write something and someone disagrees with me in a polite and reasoned manner, far from being offended, I'm delighted.  I don’t like it if they abuse me or deliberately derail a discussion but I welcome an intelligent exchange of views.  Only a determined ideologue who brooks no disagreement with their views, or a narcissist who so highly values their own opinion and/or sees 'favourites, followers and retweets' as evidence of their personal worth and a flattering mirror they can preen in front of, would be offended by someone politely disagreeing with them. 

I've written about this, not to embarrass the people involved (hence no names) or to purge myself of it (although I found it extremely disturbing to be referred as a 'fuck stain' and a thrush-inducing emetic) but because it illustrates the way in which 'social' media can be viciously anti-social.  

The back story to that particular exchange was blogger Giovanni Tiso's call for readers to cancel subscriptions to the Sunday Star Times as a protest against that newspaper giving a column to MP Judith Collins. The placement of Collins' debut column made its status as an opinion piece a bit ambiguous and the paper also ran a profile piece alongside it, thus giving Collins the opportunity to start the revision of her old public image as a car crushing, gun toting hard-arse. Her much publicised friendship with a far-Right wanna-be hard-arse, plus several other examples of what was widely seen as politically and ethically dubious conduct, had made it expedient to ditch the Crusher persona and create a new one - a softer, more thoughtful, socially sensitive Judith Collins.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not buy into the transmogrification of Ms Collins and questioned the motives and ethics of the SST in giving her a high profile platform from which to relaunch her political career. Tiso wasn't alone in feeling outrage at what was a smack in the mouth for anyone who had any grasp of the anti-democratic nature of the two track dirty politics in which John Key and his government had been immersed. 

Matthew Hooton sparked it off from what I could see, by tweeting that Tiso was acting as a censor, trying to suppress views he didn't like. Several journos flapped in to defend their profession, one even suggested that Tiso's call for people to cancel subscriptions might cost jobs. Others pitched in with references to Labour MPs who had columns in the past. Hooton, very likely emboldened by the growing number of dogs attached to Tiso's ankles, called him 'a fascist' - the ultimate insult for a principled left winger - and the whole sorry mess was topped off with an illiberal coating of a certain rightwing blogger's malodorous hate mongering.  

It all got very silly and, as so often happens with this sort of stoush on Twitter, the principle got well and truly buried under a load of nonsense and emotion. It also had the highly desirable effect of making John Key's inability to tell the truth disappear off the radar as a host of news and views dispensers went fluttering off in hot pursuit of the issue of the hour.

Social media are obviously very important; they link people, break down barriers, promote causes. They can also induce and force-feed moral panics, deepen divisions and hostilities - and they can reinforce social isolation and add to people's sense of alienation.  
We humans are a profoundly, inescapably social species. Our drive to connect to others is so strong we try to form meaningful social connections in an increasingly alienated and socially fragmented world via a keyboard and screen. These virtual relationships are not, nor can they ever be, a substitute for interactions between real human beings.  We

devote a lot of our big brains to analysing facial expression and body language and we have developed extraordinarily subtle spoken and written language to convey and develop complex ideas. It's very easy for what one writes on social media to be misinterpreted. Emoticons are a very poor substitute for face to face or carefully written communication - and even that can be misinterpreted.

The pared down sound bite has become the modern norm - both pandering to and reinforcing a reduced span of attention to both the spoken and the written word. The potential for misunderstanding on Twitter is compounded by the restriction on the number of characters plus a host of conventions well known to the Twitterscenti but perhaps not as well understood by others. 

On Facebook, a mob mentality can and frequently does result in an outpouring of emotion - sometimes cloying sentimentality and sometimes vicious bigotry, and it is scary how easily some people slip from the one to the other without missing a beat. 

Given the potential for misinformation, misunderstanding and the absence of normative controls on what is said and written, it's hardly surprising that white-hot emotion on social media is simmering away just below the surface ready to burst out and incinerate anyone in its path.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook seem to give power to the little people but the stream of information is often so polluted by masses of garbage it can be very difficult to see what is true and pure. On Twitter this is made more difficult because the speed with which 'items of news slip by' is no longer the slow pace of Ewan MacColl's 'flakes of food in a fish tank', it's a fast flowing, ever changing torrent complicated by the appearance of multiple tributaries which makes in-depth analysis and discussion harder and, for a lot of people, nigh on impossible.

In this respect, mainstream media are a vital counterbalance - or should be.  I've read at least one newspaper a day - and mostly 2 or 3 - almost since I learned to read. It's distressing to me that most newspapers these days are more white space than print, more colour photos than commentary and more advertising than editorial. TV is mostly a thin, unsatisfying crust of highly paid talking heads mouthing sound bites and platitudes, over an unpalatable filling of freak shows posing as reality TV. Commercial radio heaves with unpleasant schlock jocks whose commentary is so low effort and insulting it's a relief when it's interrupted by the screeching adverts.

We are seeing a merging of paid content and editorial in all the mainstream media. As we move further into the realms of commercial advertising and political spin pretending to be reportage, journalists - as members of a profession whose raison d’être was the pursuit and presentation of the truth through accurate, impartial and balanced reportage – are members of a threatened species.  

Unless the decline is stopped and reversed, what we will be left with are purveyors of BIAS – Bullshit, Inaccuracy, Adulteration and Spin. The relatively few thoughtful and principled authors, journalists and bloggers are all that stands between us and a vast cyberspace littered with toxic trash.

 Not to want to over state it of course. :)

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