The rise of the non-professional

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21 March 2018 | 0

The rise of the blogger has given way to the world of fake news and media manipulation.

How is that, you ask.

Join me down the rabbit hole to find out.

In the early days of the Internet, message boards became an important means by which internet users could communicate in a community fashion. It is thought that from these communities came those contributors whose communication skills were just a cut above their peers, and so they garnered an audience, and became known by various names, such as diarist, ‘journalers’, or my favourite: ‘escribitionists’!

“These combined phenomena, the acceptance of alternative sources for information and the willingness to play fast and lose with facts, has allowed the world of ‘fake news’ we encounter today, as well as the mass manipulation that has been exposed in recent news”

Despite the term “blogger” not emerging until 1997 (developing from the term “weblog”), there were recognised “bloggers” from about 1994. And it was through the mid and late nineties that bloggers grew in reach and stature to become an accepted medium for information and experience, with emphasis very much on the latter in certain areas.

However, in this rise quality was shall we say, rather unevenly distributed. But, the cat was out of the bag, and there were rumblings, musings and predictions that the rise of the blogger — the citizen journalist — would spell the end of the fourth estate.

Good ones
The truth was of course, and remains so, that the best among the bloggers were the ones who, either through having been one or not, adhered to journalistic standards in both their research and their writing.

But some had realised that they did not need to adhere to journalistic standards and could instead appeal to base emotions in their scribblings. These bloggers often put forward contentious claims, with scant or unfounded evidence, that were often later disproved or discredited. However, the damage would usually be done, and the advantage gained. From miracle diets to miracle cures, to evidence of cover-ups and conspiracies, the half-truth, misrepresented/misinterpreted facts in support of an often outrageous claim became the stock in trade of many outlets. From 9/11 ‘truthers’ to anti-vaccine activists to those who maintain that Paul McCartney is dead, such bloggers and ‘alternative facts’ peddlers gained audience, if not credibility, and so prepared the world for the acceptance of the outlandish and the, well, incredible.

These combined phenomena, the acceptance of alternative sources for information and the willingness to play fast and lose with facts, has allowed the world of ‘fake news’ we encounter today, as well as the mass manipulation that has been exposed in recent news.

Deliberate emotional manipulation, and — let us call a spade a spade — lies have been used to play on the fears of voters and consumers to nudge them in certain directions at the behest of those with pockets deep enough to pay for it.

Oh dear
Documentary film maker Adam Curtis characterised the effect in his film “Oh Dear-ism”. He showed how a constant stream of false, misreported, misrepresented or misinterpreted news is designed to destabilise the populace, making them unsure of what is real and what is spin, to the point where they throw up their hands and say “oh dear”, and then carry one with their day. But the effect is chilling: they then eschew traditional news sources and go with what appeals to their emotional side and we all know where that leads.

The Channel4 News exposé of political and information consultancy Cambridge Analytica, as well as the interviews with whistleblower Chris Wylie, have shown the extent to which the combination of big data, social media and mass media dissemination can come together to influence democracy if people are unwilling to discern the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff.

However, this, I strongly argue, was only made possible by the rise of the blogger and the acceptance by the public of sources beyond the fourth estate who do not adhere to those basic standards. The willingness to accept extraordinary claims, without the need to for extraordinary evidence and proofs, has led to the world today where that general fog of disinformation where any narrative that appeals to base emotions, irrespective of its veracity, can influence the unwary, the unquestioning and the uncaring.

 

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