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Is Facebook Mark Zuckerberg’s Revenge for the Iraq War?

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Peter Canellos offers an interesting perspective in Politico, and I can agree that when the George W. Bush administration was pushing the US to invade Iraq — a totally discretionary move, since Iraq posed no danger whatsoever to the US (unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, the home of 19 of the 9/11 terrorists) — the mainstream media at that time seemed to go right along, downplaying any reports that undermined the push to war. (Not all of the mainstream media: the Atlantic published several lengthy articles that made a cogent argument against the attack and invasion, including a piece by James Fallows titled, as I recall, “Iraq: The 51st State.”)

Canellos writes:

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent media blitz included a lot of scripted lines that belie his intentions—such as his assertion during a cozy chat with News Corp CEO Robert Thomson that journalism is crucial for democracy—and one that rings strikingly, resoundingly true: His claim at an October 17 speech at Georgetown University that his views on free expression were shaped by his collegiate frustrations over the failure of the mainstream media to expose the weaknesses of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

The comment passed with relatively little notice, except among skeptics who saw it as a self-serving, ex-post-facto justification for Facebook’s reluctance to impose constraints on its users’ political assertions. But it was a rare personal admission from one of the least-known and most privacy-obsessed of moguls, and offered an organic, true-to-his-experiences explanation for his decisions at Facebook, many of which have proved to be ruinous for the mainstream media. It turns out it wasn’t just the profit motive that drove Facebook to become the prime source of information around the world; Zuckerberg wished to supplant the mainstream media out of something closer to real animus.

“When I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq,” he explained. “The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives. The toll on our soldiers, families and our national psyche was severe, and most of us felt powerless to stop it. I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.”

This is the closest Zuckerberg has ever come to acknowledging a formative event, an aha moment, that shapes his perceptions of the relative merits of the mainstream media and social media. And it feels authentic to the moment; by late 2003, when the 19-year-old computer whiz was pondering the world from a Cambridge dorm room, it had started to dawn on the country that many of the justifications for the Iraq war were faulty—especially the reports of weapons of mass destruction. Young people rightly extended their anger from the Bush administration to the mainstream media that had failed to alert the country to the flimsiness of the government’s case.

If there was any doubt that those resentments linger, Zuckerberg laced his speech with encomiums to the fresh, clean air of direct democracy and backhanded swipes at the mildewed professional media. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world—a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he declared. “People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”

He defended political ads on Facebook as a voice for the voiceless, saying he considered banning them but reversed himself because “political ads are an important part of the voice—especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

The specter of a 35-year-old mogul making off-the-cuff decisions about how much speech (or “voice”) is healthy for society engenders a queasy feeling. It suggests that Elizabeth Warren and others may be right that too much monopolistic power exists on one platform— especially one that coyly presents itself as an innocent conduit for information while blithely acknowledging its governing power over constitutional liberties. But pending future action, such power is indeed vested in the character and values of Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg’s criticism of mainstream media might be honestly earned. Like Vietnam before it, the debate over the Iraq war dominates the political attitudes of a big slice of the generation that grew up around it. But it also represents only one window on the much larger, and more complicated, question of how best to provide a check and balance to the power of government, and to properly inform the populace. Zuckerberg may have come to his views sincerely, through his own impressions. Like other youthful conversions, they may be very hard to shake. But they aren’t remotely the last word on the question.

For while Zuckerberg may be open about his intentions, he can seem almost willfully blind to their consequences. In his speech, he tries to capture the long arc of American history, veering from the civil rights movement to the repression of socialists during World War I to the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. He quotes Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. But he never mentions the words “conspiracy theory” or “Donald Trump.”

That left a ghost in the lecture hall at Georgetown, shadowing all of Zuckerberg’s pronouncements and justifications: the abject failure of his chosen mode of communication in the 2016 election, a lapse that threatens to recur if not corrected and that carries more enduring consequences for America than the sins of the mainstream media in the early 2000s.


Back when a handful of major news outlets held outsized influence over the national political dialogue, it was common to rail against these unelected gatekeepers. By habitually returning to the mean, insisting on reporting whose candidacy seemed most viable and whose views comported with Main Street assumptions, those media arbiters perpetuated a bland centrism, or so the theory went. They chopped the ends off of the political spectrum, left and right. People who challenged the system had to struggle to be taken seriously.

This critique found a persuasive advocate in the late Ross Perot, who happened to be both a fan of conspiracy theories (particularly regarding POWs) and the CEO of a data firm. Almost three decades ago, when the only web on anyone’s mind was Charlotte’s, Perot envisioned a running national plebiscite, in which average citizens voted like senators. They would simply plug their choices into their home computers, thereby diminishing the importance of Congress and the media’s control of the national debate surrounding its actions.

Perot’s vision of a daily Brexit has yet to come to pass, but his desire to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2019 at 6:15 pm

Greatest Healthcare System in the World™: One Employer Stuck a New Mom With a $898,984 Bill for Her Premature Baby

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Marshall Allen reports in ProPublica:

Lauren Bard opened the hospital bill this month and her body went numb. In bold block letters it said, “AMOUNT DUE: $898,984.57.”

Last fall, Bard’s daughter, Sadie, had arrived about three months prematurely; and as a nurse herself, Bard knew the costs for Sadie’s care would be high. But she’d assumed the bulk would be covered by the organization that owned the hospital where she worked: Dignity Health, whose marketing motto is “Hello humankindness.”

She would be wrong.

Bard, 30, had been caught up in an unforgiving trend. As health care costs continue to rise, employers are shifting the expense to their workers — cutting back on what they’ll cover or pumping up premiums and out-of-pocket costs. But a premature baby, delivered with gaspingly high medical claims, creates a sort of benefits bomb, the kind an employer — especially one funding its own benefits — might look for a way to dodge altogether.

Bard, distracted by her daughter’s precarious health and her own hospitalization for serious pregnancy-related conditions, found this out the hard way. Her battle against her own employer is a cautionary tale for every expectant parent.

Bard’s saga began, traumatically, when she gave birth to Sadie at just 26 weeks on Sept. 21, 2018, at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center in Southern California. Weighing less than a pound and a half, tiny enough to fit into Bard’s cupped hands, Sadie was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit. Three days after her birth, Bard called Anthem Blue Cross, which administers her health plan, to start coverage. Anthem and UC Irvine’s billing department assured her that Sadie was covered, Bard said.

But Dignity’s plan, like many, requires employees to enroll newborns within 31 days through its website, or they won’t be covered — something Bard said she didn’t know at the time.

Meanwhile, believing that everything with her health benefits was on track, Bard spent nine of those first 31 days recovering in her own hospital bed and then had to return to the emergency room because of a subsequent infection. She spent as much time as she could in the neonatal intensive care unit, where Sadie, in an incubator, attached to tubes and wires, battled a host of critical ailments related to extremely premature birth. At times, doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival.

“Right from birth she was a fighter,” Bard said.

Then, eight days past the 31-day deadline, UC Irvine’s billing department alerted Bard to a problem with Sadie’s coverage. Anthem was saying it could not process the claims for the baby, who was still in the NICU.

Bard, an emergency room nurse at St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, called Dignity’s benefits department and made a sickening discovery. Sadie wasn’t enrolled in its health plan. It was too late, she was told, she could no longer add her baby.

Dignity bills itself as the fifth-largest health system in the country, with services in 21 states. The massive nonprofit self-funds its benefits, meaning it bears the cost of bills like Sadie’s. And it doesn’t appear to be short on cash. In 2018, the organization reported $6.6 billion in net assets and paid its CEO $11.9 million in reportable compensation, according to tax filings. That same year, more than two dozen Dignity executives earned more than $1 million in compensation, records show.

Dignity is also a religious organization that says its mission is to further “the healing ministry of Jesus.” Surely, Bard remembering thinking, they would show her compassion.

With the specter of the bills hanging over her, Bard said she literally begged Dignity to change its mind in multiple phone calls, working her way up to supervisors. She thought she’d enrolled Sadie by calling Anthem she told them. It was an innocent mistake.

The benefits representatives told her information about the 31-day rule was in the documents she received when she was hired. It didn’t matter that it was six years earlier, long before she dreamed of having Sadie, she said. The representative also told her it wasn’t just Dignity’s decision, the Internal Revenue Service wouldn’t allow them to add the baby to the plan.

Under Dignity’s plan, Bard could have two written appeals. She got nowhere with either of them. “IRS regulations and plan provisions preclude us from making an enrollment exception,” Dignity wrote in its Nov. 30, 2018, response to her first appeal.

IRS officials said they can’t talk about specific cases because of privacy issues and could not comment in general in time to meet ProPublica’s deadline.

Dignity rejected Bard’s second written appeal in a July 8 letter, saying the deadline was included in a packet sent nine days before Sadie’s birth. But at that time, Bard had already been admitted to the hospital because of complications. Dignity’s letter said it “cannot make an exception to plan provisions.”

But the federal regulator of Dignity’s plan said such plans can, in fact, make exceptions. An official with the federal Labor Department, which regulates self-funded health benefits, told ProPublica that plans can make concessions as long as they apply them equally to participants. Plus, federal law allows plans to treat people with “adverse health factors” more favorably, the official said.

Bard scrambled, futilely, to see if any publicly funded insurance plan would be able to cover the costs. Meanwhile, the bills began arriving: $206 in November, $1,033 in January, $523 in February and $69,362 in April, with the biggest yet to come. Sadie had spent 105 days in the hospital and had several surgeries — and the bills would be Bard’s alone.

Sadie’s total hospital tab was nearing $1 million and climbing when ProPublica first spoke to Bard. “I’ll either work the rest of my life or file for bankruptcy,” she said.

Bard said she and her fiancé — Sadie’s father, Nathan Benton — considered delaying their wedding so he wouldn’t be legally saddled with the bills as well.

The looming debt, and her employer’s rejection, sent Bard reeling when she was already suffering from postpartum depression. She went back to her job while worrying that she might lose her home in Norco. She wept and beat herself up again and again about missing the deadline: How could she not think of something like that? She should’ve known. She should’ve been on top of it more.

Anthem declined to comment for this story. UC Irvine, where Bard said the care was excellent, said that cases like Bard’s are unusual but may happen in 1% to 2% of births. The hospital tries to work with patients when they get stuck with the bills, a UC Irvine spokesman said.

With the appeals exhausted, the $898,000 bill landed. Bard could see right away that handling it the typical way, with a payment plan, was not going to work. If she chipped away at it at $100 a month, settling the obligation would take more than 748 years. “It would take so long I’d be dead,” Bard said.

Bard could see no way out. On Oct. 7, she posted a photograph of the $898,000 bill on Facebook. “When Dignity Health (the company I work for) screws you out of your daughter’s insurance…” she wrote.

A week later,  . . .

Continue reading.

World’s greatest healthcare system? No, it’s not. Not by a long shot.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2019 at 10:22 am

Why does the NY Times so clearly despise Hillary Clinton?

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The NY Times incessant beating the drum about the Whitewater non-scandal was just the beginning. Kevin Drum has a brief post worth reading on how the NY Times still refuses to acknowledge their role in the 2016 election.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2019 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Election, NY Times

At the NY Times, a Resistance to Hyperlink

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Jason Koebler report at Motherboard:

There’s a joke in the journalism industry: It’s not news until the New York Times says it is. This is because the Times often reports stories that other outlets already have without any acknowledgment that they’re doing so.

Angry journalists regularly tweet (and sometimes write) about the bizarre practice, which comes up all the time. For instance, the Times recently wrote about how Kickstarter is unionizing. This was an important piece about an important topic; the main problem with it was that Slate’s April Glaser wrote an in-depth investigation breaking news about the exact same topic a month earlier, to which the Times didn’t bother linking until after Glaser publicly criticized them for not doing so.

This week it was Slate (and BuzzFeed); at other times it’s been the Guardian and Gawker; several times, it’s been VICE. It goes on and on, with the Times running stories that other people already have and not acknowledging them for seemingly no better reason than the paper’s institutional belief that a thing does not exist until the paper has deemed it noteworthy.

Probably not that many people in the real world care about how the Times’s linking and crediting practices affect the reputations and careers of journalists whose work is scooped up, without credit, by America’s most prestigious news operation. Those practices affect readers of the most important journalistic outlet in the U.S., though, for reasons perhaps best explained in a memo written by the paper’s standards editor, Phil Corbett, and shared with the newsroom in January. The memo, which was obtained by Motherboard from three Times employees and has seemingly been ignored all year, explains why the company’s journalists should always link and credit.

“Linking is the ultimate win-win-win situation. If a reader is interested in the topic of your story, it’s just common sense that she would value a signpost to others’ reporting on the same subject. (Don’t worry about sending readers elsewhere; if we’re consistently providing value, they’ll come back.),” Corbett wrote in the memo, which is still live on one of the company’s internal websites, according to sources at the Times.

“In most cases, though, it’s not a question of ethics or obligation—it’s just good journalism to link. If you’re asking whether we’re obligated to provide a link or other reference in a given story, you’re probably asking the wrong question. Linking should be the default,” he added. “It’s free and easy. Readers like it. It deepens our journalism and may increase our audience. Our journalistic colleagues appreciate it. Why wouldn’t we do it?”

(“I think that memo you mentioned pretty much covers my thoughts on this,” Corbett told Motherboard when asked for comment on this topic.)

As early as 2014, linking was considered a “work in progress” at the Times by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, who noted several high-profile instances in which the publication didn’t link. For that article, Corbett told Sullivan that “a broader point that we’ve been emphasizing more and more with reporters is the importance and value of linking.” The Times has since eliminated the public editor position.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that the New York Times literally never links; it’s that it somehow manages to continually mess this up. This frustrates a lot of people who work for the paper, according to several current reporters and editors at the Times who spoke to Motherboard. (These people were granted anonymity to discuss newsroom practices.)

“I think that a big problem is that there are still editors who like…do not get the online etiquette of linking,” one employee said. “They didn’t come up in a world where it’s both incredibly easy and just considered the right and normal thing to do to credit early and often. But in my opinion the more insidious thing is the idea that it’s not a story until the Times does it. Not everyone thinks this but from my vantage that still emanates from higher-ups at this place.”

“It’s a disservice to readers to not credit work that other outlets have done,” said another Times employee.

. . .  A Times spokesperson, for their part, offered this explanation of all of this to Motherboard: “Our policy, as described in Phil’s memo, is to credit and link to other outlets on stories they break. The Times publishes around 250 stories a day, many on deadline. Sometimes we make mistakes such as not properly crediting other outlets. When that happens, our staff tries to correct the oversight as soon as they become aware of the issue.”

“Tries” is doing a lot of work here. VICE has had multiple experiences with the Times running stories that we’ve broken without acknowledging us, and mixed experiences with getting them to do so. For example, a Times reporter tweeted that he had published the “*definitive* account of the In-N-Out burger that appeared on a random street in Queens. You’re all very welcome for this act of public service.” But a day earlier, VICE’s Munchies cracked the mystery in a report that went viral.

In that case, the Times added a link after we asked. In others, its staff is much more combative.

Several months after we published an investigation about Facebook’s content moderation practices, the Times published its own article about the same topic, running some of the same internal Facebook documents we had already published, without acknowledging we had done so.

Digging in ground others have is fine—it’s how the internet and journalism work. Glaser’s Kickstarter story built on earlier articles by The VergeGizmodo, and others. Our Facebook story followed previous investigations by The Guardian. By not linking to Slate or the Verge or VICE or BuzzFeed or The Guardian, the Times makes it seem like its own reporting has emerged fully formed from the institution’s forehead. But of course it hasn’t done so, and the Times is essentially lying to readers by pretending it has—a terrible thing for the most important news operation in the U.S. to be doing.

One of the biggest bad-faith criticisms of the Times—and thus journalism as a whole—is that it’s nothing but an ivory tower that doesn’t understand how the world really works. This isn’t true in practice, but at a time when the powerful people of the world have more avenues to attack journalism than ever, the Times’s insistence that the world isn’t real until the Times says so is a legitimately destructive force within the journalism industry—not least because no one within the Times seems to be able to do anything about it, even if they’re willing to acknowledge the problem.

Max Fisher, the reporter who wrote the Times‘s Facebook article, told us in a DM at the time that he “definitely saw [our] story, which was great, no reason you should care about this but we plugged it pretty prominently in our bullshit email newsletter […] I read your story very carefully and learned a ton from it and was really careful to cover different ground in it, which I think I did.”

“I do know that the Times has a well-earned terrible reputation for this kind of thing,” he said, while declining to link to our story. “I’ve only been here 2.5 years and prior to that was on the wrong side of it many, many times.”

After that conversation, we asked the editor of that article for a link to our previous work, after the author of the article acknowledged that he had read our piece while researching his. We were told by the editor in an email that “it’s going to [take] a while to read 9,000 words,” referring to the length of our earlier investigation.

The next day, he said, “We are looking at a way to link. Noting Motherboard explicitly—and I understand why [sic] would want this—is more complicated, however. Are we then obliged to note that The Guardian had some of the documents, too? If half a dozen other publications got a piece of the Facebook material, as well—for ‘internal’ documents, they do seem to get around—would we need note them, too? Where does it end?” The Times never added a link.

Seemingly everyone in journalism has stories like this; as far as anyone can tell, the only thing that does get the Times to link is a good public shaming. After Glaser’s tweet about not getting credited by the Times went viral in journalism circles, it added a link to her story, and links to other journalists in several others. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2019 at 11:17 am

Posted in Business, Media, NY Times

The Republican political operatives who call the shots at Facebook

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It’s becoming clear now why Facebook refuses to remove false and deceptive political posts. From Popular Information:

In recent months, Facebook has repeatedly taken actions that benefit Republicans and the right-wing. For example:

  • Facebook altered the language of its advertising policy to allow political candidates to lie in Facebook ads. The decision benefits Trump, who is spending millions on ads featuring claims that have been debunked by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers.
  • Facebook recruited the Daily Caller, a far-right site founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, to become an official fact-checker for Facebook. The decision was made even though the Daily Caller has a history of inaccurate reporting targeting Democrats. No liberal publication was added to Facebook’s fact-checking program.
  • Facebook hired former Republican Senator Jon Kyl to produce a report on whether Facebook is biased against conservatives. Facebook did not make any effort to study whether the platform had any bias against liberals.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited right-wing pundits to his home to discuss “partnerships” and “free speech.” Invitees included Tucker Carlson, who recently said that immigrants were making America “dirtier,” and Brent Bozell, who said President Obama looked like a “skinny ghetto crackhead.” Zuckerberg does not appear to have met with any liberal pundits.

Why is this happening? Popular Information spoke with three former Facebook employees to find out. All of them pointed to the leadership in Facebook’s powerful DC office.

“Everyone in power is a Republican,” one former Facebook employee based in the DC office told Popular Information. The person requested anonymity because they are still employed in the tech industry.

Indeed, the three top leaders of Facebook’s DC office all have extensive backgrounds in Republican politics: Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan; Vice President for U.S. Public Policy Kevin Martin; and Public Policy Director for Global Elections Katie Harbath.

“Decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump,” the former Facebook employee said.  The other former Facebook employees did not agree to be quoted.

Facebook declined to respond to a detailed set of questions about the operation of Facebook’s DC office. “We’re not going to have a comment to share,” a Facebook spokesman told Popular Information.

The man behind Kavanaugh

The most powerful man in Facebook’s DC office is Joel Kaplan, who is in charge of the company’s public policy globally. Kaplan, who was hired by Facebook in 2011, was deputy White House chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration.

Kaplan landed in the spotlight after serious allegations of sexual harassment emerged against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In a show of support, Kaplan sat behind Kavanaugh during the Senate hearing about the allegations, angering many Facebook employees.

“Our leadership team recognizes that they’ve made mistakes handling the events of the last week and we’re grateful for all the feedback from our employees,” Facebook said in response to the controversy, seemingly acknowledging it was a mistake for Kaplan to attend the hearing. But after Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Kaplan threw him a party.

Today, Kaplan serves as an advocate for right-wing sites on Facebook. “Any time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them,” the former Facebook employee told Popular Information.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kaplan “pushed to partner with right-wing news site The Daily Caller’s fact-checking division” after conservatives complained that other fact-checkers, like the Associated Press, had a liberal bias. Kaplan overruled other executives in the DC office who noted that the Daily Caller frequently published misinformation. Kaplan also pushed to maintain Breitbart’s “whitelist” status on Facebook, which allowed the publication to evade Facebook’s rules on hate speech.

A GOP delegate and also Facebook’s Director for Global Elections 

Katie Harbath, who is in charge of Facebook’s election policy, broke the news to the Biden campaign that it would allow the Trump campaign ad to run an ad featuring a claim that had been debunked by Facebook’s own fact-checkers. “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Harbath wrote in a letter.

Harbath was defending Facebook’s policy to allow politicians to lie in ads, which was first reported in Popular Information. The decision benefits the Trump campaign, which is spending millions on Facebook ads that include obvious falsehoods.

She is also a longtime Republican political operative. Before joining Facebook in 2011, Harbath was the chief digital strategist for the Republican National Committee. She was also the digital director for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. Her work in Republican politics dates back until at least 2003.

Harbath didn’t give up her involvement in Republican Party politics after joining Facebook. In 2014, she was an official delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention, where she supported the nomination of her former boss, Ed Gillespie, for Senate. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s disturbing, to say the least. It certainly is revealing with respect to Mark Zuckerberg’s political outlook and loyalities.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2019 at 10:33 am

Facebook needs some regulation. It is out of control.

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From my morning newsletter from Popular Information:

On Wednesday, Popular Information reported that Facebook was punishing a small Alaskan public radio station for publishing “clickbait.” The “clickbait” was actually a detailed report on a complex local ballot initiative. The station appealed Facebook’s decision, but its appeal was rejected.

But after Popular Information’s report, Facebook reexamined the decision, acknowledged it made “errors” in the application of its policy and rescinded the punishment.

Popular Information’s recent reporting has also spurred a national discussion on Facebook’s political advertising policies. You can read about it in this New York Times column, which credits Popular Information’s work.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2019 at 9:55 am

Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more?

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William Davies writes in the Guardian:

We live in a time of political fury and hardening cultural divides. But if there is one thing on which virtually everyone is agreed, it is that the news and information we receive is biased. Every second of every day, someone is complaining about bias, in everything from the latest movie reviews to sports commentary to the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. These complaints and controversies take up a growing share of public discussion.

Much of the outrage that floods social media, occasionally leaking into opinion columns and broadcast interviews, is not simply a reaction to events themselves, but to the way in which they are reported and framed. The “mainstream media” is the principal focal point for this anger. Journalists and broadcasters who purport to be neutral are a constant object of scrutiny and derision, whenever they appear to let their personal views slip. The work of journalists involves an increasing amount of unscripted, real-time discussion, which provides an occasionally troubling window into their thinking.

But this is not simply an anti-journalist sentiment. A similar fury can just as easily descend on a civil servant or independent expert whenever their veneer of neutrality seems to crack, apparently revealing prejudices underneath. Sometimes a report or claim is dismissed as biased or inaccurate for the simple reason that it is unwelcome: to a Brexiter, every bad economic forecast is just another case of the so-called project fear. A sense that the game is rigged now fuels public debate.

This mentality now spans the entire political spectrum and pervades societies around the world. A recent survey found that the majority of people globally believe their society is broken and their economy is rigged. Both the left and the right feel misrepresented and misunderstood by political institutions and the media, but the anger is shared by many in the liberal centre, who believe that populists have gamed the system to harvest more attention than they deserve. Outrage with “mainstream” institutions has become a mass sentiment.

This spirit of indignation was once the natural property of the left, which has long resented the establishment bias of the press. But in the present culture war, the right points to universities, the BBC and civil service as institutions that twist our basic understanding of reality to their own ends. Everyone can point to evidence that justifies their outrage. This arms race in cultural analysis is unwinnable.

This is not as simple as distrust. The appearance of digital platforms, smartphones and the ubiquitous surveillance they enable has ushered in a new public mood that is instinctively suspicious of anyone claiming to describe reality in a fair and objective fashion. It is a mindset that begins with legitimate curiosity about what motivates a given media story, but which ends in a Trumpian refusal to accept any mainstream or official account of the world. We can all probably locate ourselves somewhere on this spectrum, between the curiosity of the engaged citizen and the corrosive cynicism of the climate denier. The question is whether this mentality is doing us any good, either individually or collectively.

Public life has become like a play whose audience is unwilling to suspend disbelief. Any utterance by a public figure can be unpicked in search of its ulterior motive. As cynicism grows, even judges, the supposedly neutral upholders of the law, are publicly accused of personal bias. Once doubt descends on public life, people become increasingly dependent on their own experiences and their own beliefs about how the world really works. One effect of this is that facts no longer seem to matter (the phenomenon misleadingly dubbed “post-truth”). But the crisis of democracy and of truth are one and the same: individuals are increasingly suspicious of the “official” stories they are being told, and expect to witness things for themselves.

On one level, heightened scepticism towards the establishment is a welcome development. A more media-literate and critical citizenry ought to be less easy for the powerful to manipulate. It may even represent a victory for the type of cultural critique pioneered by intellectuals such as Pierre Bourdieu and Stuart Hall in the 1970s and 80s, revealing the injustices embedded in everyday cultural expressions and interactions.

But it is possible to have too much scepticism. How exactly do we distinguish this critical mentality from that of the conspiracy theorist, who is convinced that they alone have seen through the official version of events? Or to turn the question around, how might it be possible to recognise the most flagrant cases of bias in the behaviour of reporters and experts, but nevertheless to accept that what they say is often a reasonable depiction of the world?

It is tempting to blame the internet, populists or foreign trolls for flooding our otherwise rational society with lies. But this underestimates the scale of the technological and philosophical transformations that are under way. The single biggest change in our public sphere is that we now have an unimaginable excess of news and content, where once we had scarcity. Suddenly, the analogue channels and professions we depended on for our knowledge of the world have come to seem partial, slow and dispensable.

And yet, contrary to initial hype surrounding big data, the explosion of information available to us is making it harder, not easier, to achieve consensus on truth. As the quantity of information increases, the need to pick out bite-size pieces of content rises accordingly. In this radically sceptical age, questions of where to look, what to focus on and who to trust are ones that we increasingly seek to answer for ourselves, without the help of intermediaries. This is a liberation of sorts, but it is also at the heart of our deteriorating confidence in public institutions.

The current threat to democracy is often seen to emanate from new forms of propaganda, with the implication that lies are being deliberately fed to a naive and over-emotional public. The simultaneous rise of populist parties and digital platforms has triggered well-known anxieties regarding the fate of truth in democratic societies. Fake news and internet echo chambers are believed to manipulate and ghettoise certain communities, for shadowy ends. Key groups – millennials or the white working-class, say – are accused of being easily persuadable, thanks to their excessive sentimentality.

This diagnosis exaggerates old-fashioned threats while overlooking new phenomena. Over-reliant on analogies to 20th century totalitarianism, it paints the present moment as a moral conflict between truth and lies, with an unthinking public passively consuming the results. But our relationship to information and news is now entirely different: it has become an active and critical one, that is deeply suspicious of the official line. Nowadays, everyone is engaged in spotting and rebutting propaganda of one kind or another, curating our news feeds, attacking the framing of the other side and consciously resisting manipulation. In some ways, we have become too concerned with truth, to the point where we can no longer agree on it. The very institutions that might once have brought controversies to an end are under constant fire for their compromises and biases.

The threat of misinformation and propaganda should not be denied. As the scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts have shown in their book Network Propaganda, there is now a self-sustaining information ecosystem on the American right through which conspiracy theories and untruths get recycled, between Breitbart, Fox News, talk radio and social media. Meanwhile, the anti-vaxx movement is becoming a serious public health problem across the world, aided by the online circulation of conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. This is a situation where simple misinformation poses a serious threat to society.

But away from these eye-catching cases, things look less clear-cut. The majority of people in northern Europe still regularly encounter mainstream news and information. Britain is a long way from the US experience, thanks principally to the presence of the BBC, which, for all its faults, still performs a basic function in providing a common informational experience. It is treated as a primary source of news by 60% of people in the UK. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 October 2019 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Daily life, Media

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