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The elusive search for truth in media

May 03, 2018 10:30 IST

Is it likely that one of these days, a demand may rise that only truthful endorsement should be made in the media and that if it is discovered that she or he in real life does not use that brand, punishment may follow, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

The pitch and tone of the accusations that are being levelled against the Web industry as a set of people whose prosperity is based on misusing the private data of citizens is trending ever upwards.

Every day seems to bring new revelations.

It is almost as if the arrival of the Information Age has brought with it tools that bring out the vilest traits in mankind.

Take, for instance, the report from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, and published in Science Magazine, that says that on the Internet, 'lies spread faster than truth'.

MIT's Media Lab investigated the spread of 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between the years 2006 and 2017.

After they classified these stories as either clearly false or clearly true, their conclusion is that the false stories spread significantly 'farther, faster, deeper and more broadly' than the true stories.

They conjecture that this could be because false news sounded more novel than true news and that the spreading activity was done more by humans than by robots.

 

A Harvard Business Review study says that social media reduces the time people spend on meaningful activities, increase sedentary behaviour and, hold your breath, could 'erode self-esteem through unfavourable social comparison'.

They note what some sceptics have conjectured that perhaps people with lower well-being are more likely to use social media, rather than social media causing lower well-being.

Their study used 5,308 individuals in the United States and they say that their study 'found consistently that both liking others' content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction'.

From another direction comes the news that henceforth US visa applicants may be required to submit their social media history for the previous five years as part of their visa application.

In other words, what is authentic about you is what can be discovered by your actions in social media.

Is there a new standard for authenticity and privacy that the world is moving towards?

For instance, when we see well-known actresses or cricketers endorse, for example, a washing soap on national television or newspaper or radio, none of us rationally believe that she actually uses that soap on a day-to-day basis; we know that she is lending her name and picture to create a positive association in our minds between a non-human chemical object like a soap and the beautiful actress' vibrant personality.

Is it likely that one of these days, a demand may rise that only truthful endorsement should be made in the media and that if it is discovered that she or he in real life does not use that brand, punishment may follow?

Before we get excessively worried about all this, it may be worth casting a glance back at history.

When movies, in cinema and television, first burst into prominence there was similar talk about 'addiction' to movies and TV serials. One even heard admonishments that every hour of television watching after the age of 25 reduced the viewers' life expectancy by 25 minutes.

And at that, motivational gurus like Steven Covey, the author of that essential item in the kit of every ambitious person, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, used to warn, that 'too many movies, too much TV, too much video game playing -- too much undisciplined leisure time in which a person continually takes the course of least resistance gradually wastes a life. It ensures that a person's capacities stay dormant, that talents remain undeveloped, that the mind and spirit become lethargic and that the heart is unfulfilled'.

When romance novels were a booming business, one heard the admonishment that 'romance novels can be as addictive as pornography'.

While all these issues have been with us for ages, what is new is the speed at which news, true or false, gets spread in the Internet era.

Here is what former US president Barack Obama said recently: 'The capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the Opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal -- that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarise the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation'.

And, of course, well before the Internet and social media came to be the force that it is today, Malcolm Gladwell's book that debuted in the year 2000, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference is how some 'ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses do' and he called it 'the tipping point'.

In particular, he described the sudden rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the steep drop in New York City's crime rate after 1990.

He attributed this sudden explosion to the work of three types of people: 'Connectors', those people who know many others and are in the habit of making introductions, 'Mavens' who are in the habit of accumulating specialised information and take pleasure in sharing such information, and 'Salesmen' who have such charisma that others get convinced about whatever they are espousing at any point of time.

Mr Gladwell's theory was it was the interaction of these three types of people which resulted in the sudden and tornado-like spread of ideas and products.

With the sudden explosion of the Internet and its communication services like e-mail and instant messengers, the conjecture is that there is another phenomenon at work called 'network effects', the detailed processes by which are not fully known.

It is conjectured that 'network effects' are to the Information Age what 'economies of scale' was to the Industrial Age -- the central process by which productivity is generated.

Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman and CEO, Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, a Chronicle of the Information Age. He can be contacted at ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com
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