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‘If You Don’t Read the Newspaper You Are Uninformed, If You Do Read the Newspaper You Are Misinformed’ – Confronting Your Own Ignorance

Joe Paternoster

The above quotation (the origin of which is much debated) may just sound like an intellectual’s replacement for knuckleheadedly screaming “FAKE NEWS!”, but, in reality, what the quotation touches on is far deeper than that. It spawns the questions, is ignorance more desirable than delusion and whether knowing nothing is better than knowing a distorted version of the bigger picture?

What’s worth considering first is the notion of being “informed” in 2020. The decline of newspaper sales, physically at least, has been well documented. Newspapers have had to innovate, and where has that innovation led? To a lot of newspapers surviving, to a certain extent, online. And it’s this online world, and, more broadly, technology, that sustains our news consumption nowadays. But, naturally, our consumptive habits vary depending on our respective generations.

It might come as no surprise that, according to a 2019 Ofcom report, the over-65s are most likely to consume their news via TV (94%), which makes the BBC’s plan to end free TV licenses for the over-75s (an age group likely to be more reliant on television viewing)  even more troubling.

Indeed, TV remains the most-used news platform across the board, with 75% of UK adults using it for news consumption. However, that is on a downward trend, coinciding with an upward trend in social media’s usage for news, with 49% of UK adults using this as a news platform. The report also found that the internet, quite unsurprisingly, is the primary platform for news consumption amongst 16-24-year-olds.

The study found that not a single news app (bar Reddit) was amongst the top 25 apps found on smart phones

A fascinating Reuters Institute report explored news consumption habits amongst young people further, researching the differences between Gen Y (24-35-year-olds) and Gen Z (18-24-year-olds). The report is lengthy and data heavy, but some broad conclusions are as follows. The smartphone is the primary way in which the under 35s access news, however it is not news apps on these smartphones that get the most attention.

The study found that, amidst respondents, not a single news app (bar Reddit) was amongst the top 25 apps found on smart phones, with the top 4 apps all being social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Whatsapp). Of these four, Facebook was used the most for news across the board, but Gen Z favoured Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat for news more than any of the other age groups. The consequences of this are intuitive – the developed world is heading towards a stage where, eventually, the majority of its news consumption may well come from social media. And this is where things get quite dangerous.

People love validation. To be told that what you believe is correct, that you’re doing the right thing, that you are on the side of good

Social media is great for a few reasons, but there are a couple that are central to its ethos. Number one is that it allows anyone to have a voice, and number two is that it allows you to connect with people who are likeminded and have similar voices to you. But, with this greatness comes its own problems.

People love validation. To be told that what you believe is correct, that you’re doing the right thing, that you are on the side of good. But, the issue is, if you are connecting broadly with only likeminded people, or following people/organisations whose principles you wholeheartedly agree with, you are scarcely ever going to be exposed to an opposing viewpoint.

It leads to the vilification of anyone who has an opposing opinion to you, even if that opinion is justifiable when considered from their lived experience

Your world view is never going to be challenged, your ideals are never going to be criticised and tested. By only existing in an echo chamber of ideas you find validating, you’re never going to know if you’re misinformed or not, because no alternative information to what you believe to be true is posed.

It leads to the vilification of anyone who has an opposing opinion to you, even if that opinion is justifiable when considered from their lived experience.

A further problem with social media takes me right back to GCSE History. A long time ago though it was, I remember one central question that my teacher continued to hammer home: “is this source reliable and why?”. And it is this which gets lost in social media’s tangled web.

As I said, everyone on social media can have a voice, which, by consequence, means that anyone can appear to be an expert on something, even if they’re not. To get on a news channel on TV, you either have to be an expert on the subject at hand, or it is made abundantly clear that you’re not an expert, and you’re being spoken to in order to get a member of the public’s point of view.

There’s not that same vetting on social media – when something has gone viral and shared thousands of times, it’s hard to discern whether the original source of the comment had any clue what they were talking about! What matters on social media, and indeed with news outlets on social media, are slogans, are the catchy, controversial headlines that spur people into reading an article.

Physical newspapers have that same problem, but the difference is the shareability factor. If you read a newspaper and see something catchy and that validates you, the best you can do is tell a few friends in person, or maybe tear out that bit of the paper and stick it on your wall. If, however, you see a catchy, provocative headline on social media, a click or two later and you’ve shared it so that the hundreds of people you’re connected to can see it.

There are no brakes on this system- misinformation can spread like wildfire

They, in turn, can share it to their hundreds of connections, and the process continues infinitely. There are no brakes on this system – misinformation can spread like wildfire.

It’s tough to stop, too. Whatsapp had to confront the issue head-on amidst concerns that the simplicity with which one can forward messages on their system was leading to the mass spread of false COVID-19 information. The pressure is on social media companies, that’s for sure. Bosses of the Big 4 tech companies received a grilling from the US Congress just last week, with the spread of false information, and indeed the cost of it to free speech, being one of many concerns raised.

Regardless, halting the spread of misinformation is going to be a long process and a difficult one to work out. Which is why it is up to us, as consumers, to take some responsibility and not wait for Big Tech to solve the problem for us. As much as ignorance is bliss, unless you seek to be a hermit meditating on some mountain, it is almost impossible for you to avoid having to process some kind of news whilst still thriving in today’s tech-heavy world. The onus, then, is on you, to decide how to digest that news.

Take the time to escape from your echo chamber

Where to start? Don’t have social media as your one go-to source of information. Have several, be it a couple of news apps, a newspaper, a few podcasts, and then a web of social media information. And, please, make sure they aren’t all from the same political perspective. Have some stuff from the left, have some stuff from the right. Even those that claim to be unbiased, have a few of those unbiased ones, just to be sure.

Take the time to escape from your echo chamber. Interrogate your ideas. Engage in dialogues with people who don’t just sit there and mollycoddle your perfected world view. Next time you go to blindly share something, stop! Wait a minute! See who’s sharing it. See if they’re presenting what they’re saying as facts, and see if they’ve done their research on their facts.

Check the comments of what you’re sharing – see someone saying something you don’t like? Don’t run away from them and pretend they don’t exist – engage with them! Figure out why they think differently to you – maybe you can both learn something!

And, I implore you, treat this article with the same suspicion you should have towards anything you find on the internet. Interrogate the ideas I present. Disagree with them at your leisure. But, most importantly, come to your own conclusions on them, not the conclusions of your social media echo chamber.

Fundamentally, we are most ignorant to the tools that we use to make ourselves less ignorant.

Joe Paternoster

Featured image courtesy of Jon S via Flickr. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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