This past week@work Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the 2016 word of the year, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg realized his job description included a responsibility to combat fake news. In contrast, the week marked the death of an authentic journalist, PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill. Lincoln Center chose a new leader from academia and MOOC provider, Udacity announced tech job tryouts.
On Wednesday, the BBC reported “Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, reflecting what it called a “highly-charged” political 12 months.
It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.
Oxford Dictionaries says post-truth is thought to have been first used in 1992. However, it says the frequency of its usage increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared with last year.”
The Economist explored ‘post-truth’ in ‘The Art of the Lie’.
“The term picks out the heart of what is new: that truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance…
Post-truth politics has many parents. Some are noble. The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue. A sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform. The collapse of communism was hastened because brave people were prepared to challenge the official propaganda.
Post-truth has also been abetted by the evolution of the media… The fragmentation of news sources has created an atomised world in which lies, rumour and gossip spread with alarming speed. Lies that are widely shared online within a network, whose members trust each other more than they trust any mainstream-media source, can quickly take on the appearance of truth. Presented with evidence that contradicts a belief that is dearly held, people have a tendency to ditch the facts first. Well-intentioned journalistic practices bear blame too. The pursuit of “fairness” in reporting often creates phoney balance at the expense of truth.”
The New Yorker contributor, Nathan Heller examined one example of the phenomena in ‘The Failure of Facebook Democracy’.
“The unexpected election of Donald Trump is said to owe debts to both niche extremism and rampant misinformation. Facebook, the most pervasive of the social networks, has received much scrutiny and blame. During the final weeks of the campaigns, it grew apparent that the site’s “news” algorithm—a mechanism that trawls posts from one’s online friends and rank-displays those deemed of interest—was not distinguishing between real news and false information: the sort of tall tales, groundless conspiracy theories, and oppositional propaganda that, in the Cenozoic era, circulated mainly via forwarded e-mails.
Facebook is not the only network to have trafficked phony news, but its numbers have been striking. A much-cited Pew survey, released in May, suggested that forty-four per cent of the general population used Facebook as a news source, a figure unrivalled by other social networks. An analysis this week by Craig Silverman, of BuzzFeed, found that the twenty top-performing fake news stories on the network outperformed the twenty top real-news stories during the final three months before the election—and that seventeen of those fakes favored the Trump campaign.
If a majority of Americans are getting their news from Facebook, then Facebook surely has a civic obligation to insure the information it disseminates is sound.”
Which brings us to the initial response from Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.”
On Friday, he posted details of the projects in place to address the issue.
“A lot of you have asked what we’re doing about misinformation, so I wanted to give an update.
The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously. Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”
Buried in paragraph four was this nugget that seemed to transfer ownership from the corporation to the community, ignoring a leader’s civic obligation.
“We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”
Contrast this approach to the definition of the role of a journalist, courtesy of the American Press Institute.
“The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification – to gather and assess what he or she finds.”
So let’s return to the days of ‘truth’ and remember the contribution of journalist Gwen Ifill through the eyes of two colleagues.
‘What Gwen Ifill Knew About Race in America’ by Jeffrey Goldberg “An insufficient number of people have recognized what is obvious. Gwen’s death is a punishing blow to her family, and to her wide circle of friends, to her colleagues and to her viewers. But it is also a cruel blow to her profession, which hasn’t recently covered itself in glory. And it’s an especially cruel blow to her lovely nation, which is right now in need of her bravery, her farsightedness, and her willingness to tell the truth. Hers is an incalculable loss.”
‘The Life and Example of Gwen Ifill’ by David Brooks “Gwen worked in a tough business, and being an African-American woman in that business brought its own hardships and scars, but Gwen’s smile did not hold back. Her whole personality was the opposite of reticent, and timidity was a stranger to her. When the Ifill incandescence came at you, you were getting human connection full-bore.
I suppose every profession has a few people like this, people who love the whole profession, who pay compliments when its standards are met and who are tough when they are not.
Gwen’s death merits a bit of the reaction that greeted the death of the writer Samuel Johnson centuries ago: She has left a chasm, which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill.
Now that Gwen is dead, who is the next best thing? There’s nobody. There are many great people who will follow her example. But nobody quite reminds you of Gwen.”
In other news this week@work:
‘Debora L. Spar, Barnard President, to Lead Lincoln Center’ – Michael Cooper for The New York Times “In appointing Ms. Spar, who is also an author and a former Harvard Business School professor, Lincoln Center’s board looked beyond arts administration circles and decided to tap someone with experience running a large nonprofit and with a track record of raising money for capital projects — skills that could prove useful as the renovation proceeds.”
Mr. Cooper reported in a related story that you may want to share with the aspiring musicians in your life, ‘It’s Official: Many Orchestras Are Now Charities’.
‘Udacity, an Online Learning Start-Up, Offers Tech Job Trials’ – Steve Lohr for The New York Times “The program, called Blitz, provides what is essentially a brief contract assignment, much like an internship. Employers tell Udacity the skills they need, and Udacity suggests a single candidate or a few. For the contract assignment, which usually lasts about three months, Udacity takes a fee worth 10 to 20 percent of the worker’s salary. If the person is then hired, Udacity does not collect any other fees, such as a finder’s fee.
The Blitz initiative and Udacity’s evolution point to the role that nontraditional education organizations might play in addressing the needs of workers and employers in the fast-changing labor market for technology skills.”
In closing this week of work, I am still trying to clear the fog in my brain and understand ‘post truth’. I reside in the real word, but apparently it’s changing. What does work look like when words hold no meaning?
I’ll end with classicist Mary Beard‘s reflection on the U.S. election.
“Trump and Trump’s policies are truly ghastly, but you have to face the fact that a very large number of people actually voted for him. What is more, resentment at “the elite” has morphed into a proud contempt for truth, expertise and knowledge – not unlike Michael Gove’s jibe at “experts” before the Brexit vote. And in the broader context of political rhetoric, the idea that he won’t be as bad as he claimed is more, rather than less, worrying. I thought that the conciliatory speech was the worst thing I had heard all evening. The idea that he could be thanking Clinton for her service to the country (“I mean that very sincerely”) and be speaking of “binding the wounds of division” – when only the day before he’d promised to impeach her and poured salt into the very wounds he was now promising to heal – beggars belief. It has nothing to do with being “gracious” (as the television pundits had it), and everything to do with words not meaning anything. It was precisely what ancient rhetorical and political theorists feared almost more than anything else: that speech might not be true, and the corrosive effect of that on popular power.”
Photo credits: Facebook Menlo Park HQ courtesy of Facebook Newsroom Media Gallery, Mark Zuckerberg from his Facebook page, Gwen Iffil/Morry Gash AP