The Battle for Truthby Gord Hume
As this will likely be my last column for 2016, I wanted to leave you with something to chew over the next little while, besides your Christmas turkey and cranberry sauce. And I would welcome your comments and thoughts.
I spent much of my career in the media, first as a really green and young reporter, then rising through management to become perhaps the youngest major market radio station GM to eventually President of a broadcasting company and Publisher of a newspaper.
I then spent four terms in office in municipal government, and as you know since then I've written six books on local government and give speeches around the world.
My concern, and the topic I want you to think about, is how municipalities are going to communicate effectively and honestly with their constituents in the future. In fact, how will any official government sources communicate in the future?
The context is this: the Oxford Dictionary declared its word of the year' to be "post-truth".
They define it as circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The trigger, obviously, was the US Presidential campaign over the past couple of years, although I don't think this conclusion is related strictly to American politics. While there has always been an awareness of the emotional content and trigger-words used by politicians, I can never remember in my time when fake and false information runs so rampant.
Many of the fingers of blame point directly to social media. A recent survey indicated that 44% of Americans get their news from wait for it Facebook. Lord help us. We also know now that Facebook published many stories during the election campaign that were simply completely and utterly untrue (the Pope endorsing Trump is just one of many examples).
The hate-filled venom that spews from blogs, tweets and commentary on social media is too often taken as fact. Recently, an intelligent young couple from Minnesota told me that nearly 50 people associated with the Clintons had been killed/murdered/disappeared; their source was social media conspiracy theorists, but they believed it fervently. There is, of course, no such evidence. It did, however, influence their voting.
As traditional media continue to decline in size and influence, governments are being put in a more and more difficult position about how to inform, educate and sometimes even influence their residents. The traditional requirements and practice for legal notices (say for a re-zoning application) may today be quite ineffective in reaching the target audience.
We are now seeing government policy and often important announcements being released on Twitter or other social media. President-elect Trump seems to prefer this method of delivery, although it is clear that accuracy and facts do not drive his tweets. It has the added benefit of not having to face media questions and scrutiny from a press conference, so politicians are off the hook' on some of their more controversial announcements. One of his favourite techniques while campaigning was to berate the media and the crowds would respond with roars of approval. Some even threatened reporters with violence to the point where some media outlets hired private security to protect their reporters.
Politically, candidates for public office are trying desperately to build their own data bases and long lists of followers on social media. Some of that is to raise money, some is to exert influence on their voting decisions, some is to spread information' and to get them talking to friends and family.
The battle for the truth has gotten much harder in recent years. The shrinking of the traditional media has meant fewer resources for investigative journalism and fact-checking. And even when statements by politicians are revealed to be incorrect lies, let's put it more succinctly as news organizations in the US did with the Presidential debates and the campaign, it just doesn't seem to make much difference.
If you extend this to other fields scientific research, or medical forums, for example who knows what, or even who, to trust anymore. Information is a commodity in the minds of some. It is just something to be sold or used or disseminated for purposes that may not always be in the public good. What is very clear is that using the Internet as a reliable source has very severe limitations that the upcoming generation doesn't seem to understand or, worse, care much about seeking facts and legitimacy in their information. "If it's on the web, it must be true!" Um, not so much.
At a time around the globe when we are seeing an explosion of right wing and hard-right sentiments and growing protectionist and nationalist policies and politicians, information and data and facts are a precious commodity in helping people to understand policies. The problem increasingly is the source; and who decides what information goes out, and how it will be edited or monitored.
I wrote years ago that municipalities must be the trusted source of information for their community; they must be the repository of unambiguous knowledge about that town or city. But even then I did not contemplate fully the vast social media empire that has emerged, with all of its fake information and biased commentary.
So here we are today as a North American society we are forced to have a conversation about whether the news we just read or the commentary we just heard is true or not. Not do we agree or disagree, or have a fair argument about the policy itself no, we first need to decide if we believe the basic premise and the supplier of that information.
What scares me is when people stop asking that question. Has there always been bias in the media? Of course. But the core was truth and accuracy, and the media fought hard to ensure that.
Today the information and communication worlds have changed. I don't know what is next in this battle for people's minds and attention, but it scares the heck of out me.
I would love to hear your views
And please accept my warmest best wishes for the Christmas season.
Gord Hume is recognized as one of Canada's leading voices on municipal government and is an articulate and thoughtful commentator on civic government and community issues. He is a very popular public speaker, an advisor to municipal governments, and a respected and provocative author.
Gord was elected to London City Council four times. He has had a distinguished career in Canadian business, managing radio stations and as Publisher of a newspaper. Gord received two “Broadcaster of the Year' awards. He is now President of Hume Communications Inc., a professional independent advisor to municipalities.