“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone,” said Alan Watts.
In the last 20 years or so, we have grown accustomed to the overload of continuously running news stories in major news channels. We often tend to forget that, these are just versions of the truth as seen by different media groups at best and propaganda at worst. The dilemma this has left us in is not an easy one to overcome and most of us are dealing with it in a way that most media/propaganda expects us to. Human beings need to have consensus on facts to thrive as social beings. In the absence of consensus, confusion, and conflict are inevitable. So how do we beat the propaganda machine and filter out the facts from the chaotic stream of information and misinformation?
In short, every media outlet aims at one metric as the measure of their popularity, which they in turn use to attract advertisements. For a media outlet like a TV channel, this metric is essentially the viewership and viewer engagement. In the case of social media, these metrics are called the number of active users and user engagement. More viewership/active users, implies more people are seeing the content. Higher viewer engagement/user engagement implies more people are interested in the story. Viewer engagement is usually measured by looking at the number of social media mentions for the television programs, social media handles, incoming calls or messages within a window of 24 hours before and after a show is aired. User engagement in social media is measured in the number of comments and shares the content generates within 24 hours of sharing it on the main page. Any media/social media conglomerate at any point in any working day is interested in growing these metrics.
The second most important aspect of any media conglomerate is to keep their advertisers and investors happy. This means they cannot report negative things about people who hold a significant stake in their working capital. They also cannot float any news which will paint any of their advertisers in a bad light. Usually, this is enforced by business contracts that are signed during the final sale of advertisement spots.
In other words, we do not know of any incentives that media groups stand to receive, for ethical and honest reporting of news. As any capitalist would tell you, if you’re not compensated/rewarded/appraised for performing certain fundamental aspects of a business role, that aspect cannot be assumed as a part of your business role and hence, you’re under no obligation to carry it out. So what happens if honest reporting has no incentive? It gradually ceases to be a priority and is replaced by increasing users and user engagement. The bottom line is that—the media is no longer under any obligation to report facts to you.
So given what we know about media outlets, how do we continue to use them to get authentic information about the world we live in? We can’t obviously completely shut ourselves off the world and live in ignorance. So what do we do? Albert Einstein believed that a purely mathematical statement is the only thing that will hold true anywhere in the universe. No matter where you are in the universe, no matter how intense the gravity in your planet is, no matter how strong a black hole’s gravitational pull becomes, if you add 1 to 1 anywhere in the universe, you’re left with 2. Our salvation as a species also lies in maths. More specifically, data and statistics should form your opinions rather than your favorite late-night host.
Let’s take the case of GDP growth in India. Most people think that United Progressive Alliance-2 (UPA-2) was one of the most corrupt governments to have ever been elected in India and Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is doing a much better job than UPA in terms of economic growth. However, data suggests that not only has India’s growth rate plummeted to 7%, the unemployment rate is at an all-time high, India also has a high number of NPAs (Non-Performing Assets) in its public sector banks, making access to capital even more challenging. Looking at this data, it is pretty clear that India has in fact slowed down as an economy, but is the Modi government to blame for this? To answer this question, we have to look at similar economies around the world and see if they recorded a decline, and if they have, then this can partially be attributed to a global decline. If we look at China, the situation is almost similar, the growth has slowed down and NPAs in its public banks are even worse than India (It has always been so in China). So we know there is likely a global slowdown and that has resulted in slower growth in India. But if we follow the media, the narrative we receive would be to either blame Modi/demonetisation for slower growth or worship Modi and paint a flowery picture of the economy. Neither of which seems to be the truth.
Often, social media sites and the content shared by major media groups are designed to generate a lot of user engagement. In a 2014 experiment titled ‘Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative Newsframes’ by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka, clear evidence of “negativity bias” or affinity towards negative news, was observed in most test subjects. The typical reaction to a concerning negative story among these test subjects was to plunge even deeper into it. This research also concludes that media groups continuously use this psychology to lure users into a vicious cycle of negative news which often triggers engagement (like comments/shares, etc) at some point. Furthermore, the study concluded that social media sites are designed to create a “you versus the rest of the world” kind of feel for the user. This explains why people get emotional reactions to negative comments, even though the original comment has nothing to do with them personally. Once users become more aware of the underlying social programming involved in making them react this way, they will know better than to engage in such interactions or let such interactions emotionally affect them.
Another important psychological concept known as confirmation bias haunts most people who spend more than 6 hours a week on average on social media, as per a research paper ‘Partisan Asymmetries in Online Political Activity’ by Michael D Conover, Bruno Gonçalves, Alessandro Flammini & Filippo Menczer. This is when you unknowingly assume something to be true and seek out information that would help you confirm your belief. In fact, this is extensively used by our brain whenever it gets an overflow of information (often contradicting). For example, if you read this article and googled ‘India’s growth more than UPA years’, you’re actively seeking out information which would confirm your internalised belief that the Modi government is doing better than UPA. You may find information which confirms your belief, but that is only because you sought out that opinion, from a pile of contradicting opinions on the same topic.