UNO March 2017

Communication, journalism and fact-checking

Since August 2016, before the start of the U.S. presidential election debates and up to the eve of voting day, checking platforms were busy performing what is referred to as “fact-checking”. They counted up to 217 untruths in the candidates’ speeches and statements—79 percent of which were attributed to Donald Trump and 21 percent to Hillary Clinton. Univision News’ Data Unit in Miami determined that, a week prior to the presidential election, for every lie told by the Democrat candidate, the Republican candidate told four. Journalist Borja Echeverría systematically and comprehensively provides the statistics in the latest edition (January 2017) of Cuadernos de Periodistas. He is currently the Managing Editor of Univision Digital News, which is based in Florida. Borja has become a reference in the sector of communication and journalism by calling for a relatively new activity to fight against fake news, alternative truths and hoaxes. All of these concepts take refuge under the semantic umbrella of post-truth. However, fact-checking would be the antidote against the word—better described as a concept—that the Oxford Dictionary has considered as 2016’s newest and most utilized expression.

Post-truth is not synonymous with lying; however, it describes a situation where, when creating or manipulating public opinion, the objective facts have less influence than emotions and personal beliefs. Post-truth consists in the relativization of truth, in the objectivity of data becoming commonplace and in the supremacy of emotional speeches. It is far from being a new phenomenon. Ralph Keyes had already written about it in 2004 in the book, Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life; as well as by Luis Meyer in Ethic magazine in February this year (Don’t call it post-truth, call it post-journalism). His colleague Eric Alterman conclusively defined it as a “political weapon of disinformation”. This author quotes Noam Chomsky who, avoiding the term post-truth, developed a famous list: 10 Manipulation Strategies. This includes emotionally softening message techniques, aiming at short-circuiting citizens’ critical and analytical senses.

Univision News’ Data Unit in Miami, determined that, a week prior to
the presidential election, for every lie told
by the Democrat candidate, the Republican candidate told four

Confusion over reality, management of conspiracy tactics to arouse suspicion or hostility in social groups, victimhood and political mythomania, are all instruments of mass persuasion that date back to ancient times. In the 20th century, they caused the worst disasters—two of them being genuine catastrophes in human history: Nazism and Stalinism.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a fable against Judaism written during the last era of Tsarist Russia—became one of the most groundless levers used by Hitler in the interwar period to introduce anti-Semitism in Germany and other European countries. We are still paying for it. In reality, all political movements that discredit the conventional ruling classes and liberal representative democracies, draw upon elements that are more sentimental than rational. Not only do they exploit unrest, but they also decisively contribute to creating and magnifying it. Populism nowadays—as it always has—plays more to emotional persuasions than to the criteria of rationality and truth. Rigor and populism are contradictory concepts.

Nevertheless, there has been a confluence of circumstances which has given rise to widespread concern: the truth does not triumph and depictions that are not compatible with it—or do not even come close—do triumph and, furthermore, go unpunished. As the writer Adolfo Muñoz affirms (El País, February 2, 2017) “political hoaxes triumph because they have the necessary qualities to do so, turning into what Richard Dawkins refers to as “memes.” A meme is a unit of viral knowledge devised by an author who disseminates it regardless of whether it is true or not. We live in a universe of memes and we lack the criteria to distinguish true from false, certain from probable, definite from ambiguous. And we ask ourselves increasingly unsettling questions: is Photoshop, for example, a post-truth technique? Is decontextualization a falsifying device? Can an insult be considered as a mere description? Are cinema’s special effects, for example, or virtual reality experiences, an attack on the integrity of truth as we have understood it up to now?

Post-truth consists in the relativization of truth, in the objectivity of data becoming commonplace and in the supremacy of emotional speeches

These are relevant questions because populist trends require that power be obtained as an end in itself, regardless of the methods used. The British have decided to leave the European Union believing—or accepting as true—affirmations that are false or probable at best. Similarly, Americans have given credence to gross untruths because with them, they have challenged the power of the ruling classes, bringing them down. This theory is also by Luis Meyer. Indeed, in politics, lies or half-truths are resources that have always been handled with aplomb. But now, the response to the political and economic status quo has been to introduce sentimental and emotional elements, with their false messages carrying a sweeping force. A master of these new techniques is the American Steve Bannon—one-time director of the news portal Breibart News, spokesperson for the All-Right extremists. Bannon inspired the rupture in the conventional paradigm that reigned in American politics—in Western politics. He has been building a huge bubble of tension and hostility, creating the energy needed by a politician such as Trump to become completely unpredictable. This is the reason why the public culture of the most developed democracies’ political systems was turned on its head.

Post-truth is not just a practice that develops in the political arena. It also dangerously and arbitrarily develops in advertising and in the corporate environment. Communications of large companies—especially in strategic sectors such as energy and finance—should review their protocols of action. Their communications should not only involve—neither chiefly, perhaps—transmitting knowledge, but also dissipating hoaxes, alternative versions, rumors and, sometimes, blatant untruths. Politics and business—in reality, the entire society—have lost a defense mechanism against post-truth: journalistic intermediation. Few reflections are more appropriate in this respect than that written by Katharine Viner, published in The Guardian on July 12, 2016, entitled “What is the truth? Reflections on the state of journalism today.” This writer maintains that the transition from paper to digital media has never been solely a technological question. True: it has essentially been a question of a loss of professional ethics, the abandonment of truth-telling, the acceptance of lies and rumors into the information circuit. Technology, with the obliteration of journalistic intermediation, has demoralized the journalistic narrative and has blurred the attributes that once gave it the role of social supervision as a barometer of truth.

Post-truth is not just a practice that develops in the political arena. It also dangerously and arbitrarily develops in advertising and in the corporate environment

From now on, new communications and new journalism will focus not so much on storytelling, but rather on verification. This is because the former can already be done by citizens using the extensive choice of technology available, whereas the latter cannot be done by them. Systematic fact-checking will be done using some of the many platforms that already exist (tenfold in the United States). Borja Echevarría reminds us that one the most recent Gallup polls showed daunting figures for the mass media: only 32 percent of those interviewed still trust them. The only way to envisage future journalism and corporate communications consists in checking data and the premise of statements, and in informative proactivity to detect untruths, to destroy them and to deprive them from gaining any standing. In other words, journalism on the one hand, and ethical communication on the other hand, should go back and rescue the true story, restrain sentimentalism, subdue and contour the worst instincts and proclaim the superiority of intelligence over viscerality. This is what fact-checking is all about.

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