(Note to readers: This is a copy of a “Letter to the Editor” of the Taipei Times that I wrote and was recently published. We hear so doggone much about “fake news” and “disinformation” and all that. What do YOU think?)
Much has been discussed in the media in Taiwan and the US regarding the seeming proliferation of “facts” that on the surface sound and seem true, but, upon further investigation, are just the opposite.
One term used to describe this situation is “disinformation,” a relatively innocuous term. A more extremist approach has been taken, on the other hand, by US President Donald Trump, who has popularized the description of (in his eyes) unfavorable media coverage as “fake news,” and he and his communication team have worked overtime to drive home the derogatory description.
While this attention-grabbing activity takes place virtually year-round, one particular time that the phenomenon regularly — and predictably — emerges is during political campaign seasons on every level from local to national government.
Certain political aspirants apparently feel that “anything goes” when it comes to what they either infer or claim outright about their opponents. Unfortunately an often unsuspecting, unquestioning consumer public accepts these individuals’ pronouncements as truth.
Looking back, as ready access to information expanded, citizens were presented with more avenues through which to ensure that they had the most current and, presumably, most accurate data on which to base their decisions. They felt reasonably comfortable with this situation because they knew that, at that time, media outlets had as part of their organizational structure editorial “gatekeepers” whose responsibilities included ensuring that the information being communicated was verifiably truthful, impartial and beneficial.
Entry into the 21st century has brought us, as news consumers, a plethora of avenues — most particularly social media platforms, but also increasingly vocal and partisan traditional news outlets — for accessing information, many of which are “unencumbered” by gatekeepers.
This is not to say that we are being subjected at all times to intentional untruths. Rather, we are faced today with the additional responsibility of conducting our own fact-checking to ensure that what we read, see or hear is accurate.
For older generations, this is an unfamiliar responsibility. As I so often have told my students for nearly two decades, I vividly remember when my grandmother would make a remark about some public occurrence. When I asked how she knew that, her response invariably would be: “I heard it on the radio.” From her perspective, “the radio doesn’t lie. Case closed; I have heard the truth.”
People who read, listen and watch today would be well advised to take the “facts” as they are presented via their preferred medium with a large pinch of salt.
I am not suggesting that all that one receives from the media is incorrect or intentionally misleading. Quite the opposite. As a former public-relations professional, I saw first-hand the lengths to which my colleagues in the media would go to ensure that the information they pass on to their audience is as accurate as possible.
Rather, I would suggest that one should be an active participant in the communication process. Take the additional step of cross-checking information that somehow sounds “iffy,” that does not quite match what one has previously been told.
News consumption today is comparable to a visit to the doctor — you should always get a second opinion before taking drastic action.