Book review: The Search For Truth. Information, disinformation and the algorithms of social media

This is the the 2022 Quaker Lecture, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Verica Rupar is a professor of journalism at the School of Communication Studies, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, and chair of the World Journalism Education Council.

She reminds us of the social importance of journalism. At the end of the story, she writes, journalists are truth tellers, neutral interpreters of events. This strong belief is the essence of journalistic values defined as professional norms of accuracy, fairness, balance and objectivity. Moreover, journalists` responsibility towards the public takes precedence over any other, including the responsibility they owe to their employers and public authorities.

The big picture which emerges from the lecture is that the power exercised by journalists is shrinking and is being engulfed by social media which has no commitment to accuracy, fairness, balance, or objectivity. Moreover, it is beyond the power of journalism alone to redress the situation. That is up to society as a whole.

The influence of print journalism has been diminishing since the advent of TV and is in danger of becoming extinct. And television news now has to compete with social media.

Even in the good old days of print it was never easy for journalism to live up to its ideals. The owners of newspapers and television networks not infrequently wanted their papers and channels to reflect their opinions, which the public soon came to recognise. Governments were quick to adopt a hectoring mode when they felt some bias against them. Governments came over more heavily in war. For example, the Australian Government would not release the truth about casualties lost to Japanese bombing of Darwin in World War II. In Russia to-day, there is the prospect of 15 years imprisonment for spreading “fake news” about the war in Ukraine. The use of the word “war” is forbidden. The phrase “special operation” must be used instead. No mention is allowed of heavy artillery use against civilian targets. The Russian public, long used to deciphering official news releases, will soon figure that out.

Social media is a huge purveyor of information and disinformation. It played a constructive role in the pandemic, conveying educational material to millions during the lock-down, enabling meetings otherwise impossible, providing an ever-available market, and so on. It has also been efficient at spreading extremist views, gathering extremist groups together, and getting them into the streets.

Given that it is the journalists` role to convey the truth to the public, it was inevitable that Rupar would discuss the “post-truth” world, which, in a stroke, puts journalists out of business. The discussion of truth and reality draws Rupar over some old philosophical quagmires. What is truth, after all? The most direct answer is “correspondence with the facts”.  A belief or statement is true if it corresponds with the facts. To ascertain whether a statement is true, we need evidence. Collecting that puts journalists back into their element. We need them to convey important truths to society. Who will assist them?

There is one group that Rupar might have looked to for support: lawyers. At law school, they have to study a subject called “the law of evidence”. What counts as evidence and what sort of authority does it have? Trump`s effort to nullify the last election as fraudulent, collapsed. There was no evidence of votes being rigged. That line of defence held.

This lecture is not easy to master. It may have to be read more than once.

ISBN 978-0-473-63777-4.  Available from Aotearoa/New Zealand Quakers.  $NZ10 + $NZ5 postage.

Reg Naulty. Canberra and Region Quakers.

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