One of the most refreshing things about ditching TV and magazine subscriptions at home is that I’m no longer inundated with “news” updates every minute of the day. Don’t get me wrong; of course I think it’s important to keep oneself abreast of current events. But I don’t particularly need ten different interpretations of the manner in which this or that politician ate his bacon sandwich, followed by ten different reactions to those interpretations. I don’t need every editorial news show host and television personality on the planet telling me which things are relevant and how I ought to feel about them. I must say, for instance, that it has been especially lovely to be out of the U.S. during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
On one hand, it’s wonderful that so much information is so readily available and easily transmitted, that we can hear about goings-on on the other side of the world almost instantaneously, that we can connect the dots on a larger scale than ever before. What’s less wonderful is that the mainstream media is so blatantly biased, fear-mongering, sensationalist, and utterly manipulative. It’s nothing new; just do a little research into the wartime propaganda of any nation since the advent of the printing press and you’ll see it clear as day. We like to think that we’ve come a long way since then, that we’re less susceptible to that kind of manipulation, that the avenues of mass communication are more free and transparent and subject to scrutiny than they were in the past. I’m no conspiracy theorist, I promise, but this is simply not the case.
I’m not trying to get into the transparency/freedom of information versus security debate here. What I am reflecting on, however, is the fact that the mainstream media does its best to control popular opinion and to influence events–to influence us–by controlling the narrative. Failed attempts to do so make it more obvious: just this week, North Korea has been trying to stop the dissemination of photos of this hotel fire and refusing to admit that it happened. This comes just a few weeks after they clearly photoshopped these official images of Kim Jong-un testing new submarine missiles.
We expect this kind of thing from North Korea, but the media/government/corporations exercising this kind of narrative control is just as widespread (and often much stealthier) in the “free” Western world and elsewhere. Public (and personal) opinion is shaped through the stories we tell ourselves. Here’s another example of the media using photoshop to tell their own story in Syria, and yet another in Greece.
Throw social media on top of all this and you get an even bigger mess. Again, it can be hugely useful in the dissemination of information and ideas. Back in the day, our social networks were limited, for the most part, to those people and perspectives in our immediate vicinities. Social media provides access not only to information, but to a myriad of perspectives and commentaries to which we might otherwise never have been exposed. The downside is that false or misleading information can get around as quickly and easily as accurate information. Moreover, the soapbox forum that social media provides imposes its own pressures: if you had posted anything on Facebook opposing the gay marriage referendum in Ireland last month, for example, you’d have received as much vitriol as you would have if you’d skated through the street in rainbow hotpants fifty years ago.
So what can we do? How do we get around the leviathan that is the mainstream media machine? I don’t have a comprehensive answer. But I know that we can choose our sources of information carefully, think critically about the information we’re given, be unafraid to dig a little deeper, avoid limiting ourselves to only a handful of perspectives, and just be kinder to each other.