09 Nov 2019 From smoke signals to algorithms: The evolution of media in the Caribbean
It all began with the smoke signals. And one might ask, why begin with this example? As efficient, accurate and reliable this mode of communication was, and is too wherever it is still practiced, we would use it as an analogy for the current scenario in the media landscape.
Smoke signals are one of the earliest methods of communication known to humans – simplistic in design and effective in delivery. From the Great Wall of China to the Greek Empire, where historian Polybius created a system where the signals were visual representations of the alphabet – this might be the inception of text messaging as we know it today.
We might also remember, the newspaper being the essential brew every morning, one had to catch up with the news and happenings, looking forward to sharing sections. News, Sports, and Entertainment were pulled out and read intently by each family member and savoured for their content. It was content sharing 101 and discussions followed.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, the Great Wall of China still stands tall, while the glory of the Greek Empire is told in carvings of the pillars in the ruins that stand in Athens and other cities across the country.
The smoke signals might find their place in the yellowing pages of history, long gone and forgotten, and now replaced by the touch screen devices that bring information to the palms of one’s hand.
More so, the rapid advances in Information Communication Technology (ICT) has changed the face of communication, especially news gathering and dissemination; add to that the advent of the social media, which has been a game changer. It is the age of real-time, tailored and customised, interactive and personal news platforms, though in their early to late teens these social media platforms are the driving force behind the new age news and information consumption.
One might also see it as “youthful exuberance”. Come to think of it, Twitter was launched in 2006, Facebook 2004, Instagram has not even reached its 10th Birthday, having been launched in 2010, but it is estimated that over three billion people access and consume information and news through those platforms combined, that is almost half of humanity right there.
The Caribbean is also in the thick of the race of this digital superhighway – and the changes in the media and communication space are quite evident. As much as the social media platforms allow the ease and freedom to access information, there are the flip sides to this ‘freedom’ of one’s expressions. There is no or minimal controls or checks for verification, authenticity and credibility and factuality of the distribution and sharing of news and information. The the phrase ‘fake news’ has become as common as the cup of morning coffee.
The problem herein is that the creators and those who share some content, are unregulated, which has given room for sharing in a public forum, personal vendetta, slander, and bias. But the bigger problem is the gullibility of the audience, who often, with impunity, takes such information as authenticated and factual, and share it in their networks, creating a web of deceit and instigating adverse and violent behaviour.
In an article “The Science of Fake News”, David Lazer describes the rise of fake news as
the “erosion of long-standing institutional bulwarks against misinformation in the Internet age”. He further says that the concerns over the problem are global.
“However, much remains unknown regarding the vulnerabilities of individuals, institutions, and society to manipulations by malicious actors,” he says, adding that a new system of safeguards is needed. (Lazer, David M. J.; et al. Science, March 2018. DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2998)
One can see, unfortunately, by the minute, posts that sometimes overshoot any iota of decency, common sense, or consideration for others. Those types of posts range from photographs and videos of road accidents, minors, altercations to hate speeches, religious overtones, political rants, conspiracy theories, explicit content and image. The impunity with which those posts are shared is scary and mindboggling.
Here, we need to understand that the online media, particularly the social media platforms, are a product of complex algorithms, binary codes and plethora of software and analytics that map the preferences, usage, perceptions and even moods of the users to ‘recommend’ content for them. For an average ‘non techie’ person, it is quite difficult to fathom why certain ‘paid or sponsored content’ or ‘recommendations’ pop up even when they are browsing non-social media websites.
Vulnerable to data breach
What’s more concerning is that social media companies are employing Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track, map and determine the preferences, moods and content consumption patterns of the end users, which has led to multiple instances of exposure of personal data of the users, Facebook, since 2005, has reported numerous breaches and hacks exposing personal information of its subscribers.
“Over the past 13 years Facebook has become a victim of its own success,” an article in Panda Security said. “With access to the personal data belonging to more than two billion people, the social network is a natural target for hackers and cyber criminals, but a relaxed attitude to security and privacy has only made it easier for malicious activity to thrive.”
The problem of misinformation is not restricted to individuals alone, there are institution-driven content which is also trying to change perceptions of the people. In an article by Brian Weeks titled “Emotions, Partisanship, and Misperceptions: How Anger and Anxiety Moderate the Effect of Partisan Bias on Susceptibility to Political Misinformation”, he writes, “Citizens are frequently misinformed about political issues and candidates but the circumstances under which inaccurate beliefs emerge are not fully understood.”
Weeks further said that the experimental study he conducted, demonstrated that the independent experience of two emotions, anger and anxiety, in part determines whether citizens consider misinformation in a partisan or open-minded fashion.
“Anger encourages partisan, motivated evaluation of uncorrected misinformation that results in beliefs consistent with the supported political party, while anxiety at times promotes initial beliefs based less on partisanship and more on the information environment,” Weeks wrote. He adds that “However, exposure to corrections improves belief accuracy, regardless of emotion or partisanship. The results indicate that the unique experience of anger and anxiety can affect the accuracy of political beliefs by strengthening or attenuating the influence of partisanship.” (Weeks, Brian E., Journal of Communication, 2015. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12164.)
The 2016 United States Presidential election is one prime example of the political hegemony that, to a major extent, managed to sway perceptions of the voters.
The smoke signals just transformed into smoke screens, on a grand scale.
An article in The Washington Post by Kevin Curry published in 2016, quoted Pew Research Center survey conducted in January 2016, in which 35 per cent of respondents between ages 18 and 29 said that social media was the “most helpful” source of information about the presidential campaign.
For those aged 30 to 49, social media ranked third, behind cable TV and news websites.
“Of course,” Curry wrote. “Much of the news on Facebook and Twitter comes from traditional news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times.”
It is evident that the younger population finds social media especially useful, “in part because they can follow news recommended by people in their social networks,” Curry wrote, adding that a study by Eschelon Insights and Hart Research on behalf of BuzzFeed found that adults ages 18 to 49 trust news and political information shared from friends more than news delivered from other sources. Yet not surprisingly, social media is less popular among voters 50 and older, according to the Pew survey.
Older Americans still depend primarily on television and other traditional news outlets to learn about elections. The outcomes of the US Presidential elections have been under the scanner since 2016, which is a totally different point of discussion.
Misinformation beyond news
The increasing instances of misinformation extend beyond the traditional news items – there is a whole new ‘clan’ of “Do It Yourself specialists”, trying without impunity to force anything from losing weight, toned abs, and fruits and vegetables that are ‘sure shot’ cures.
Self help medications, from turmeric to magnesium, salads and keto diets, burning fat at the rate of speed of light and everything in between, there seems to be no dearth of individuals and groups trying to force their ‘magical’ concoctions down people’s throats. But then the harms would outweigh the benefits at any given time.
As much we are sceptical about the credibility of the content that is populating and being shared on social media platforms, all is not mired in negativity. The real time information dissemination has done a world of good for both content creators and the end consumers.
Studies estimate that nearly 64.5 per recent of people in the United States alone receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, instead of traditional media.
The real time transmission of information has its benefits. One can learn of severe weather patterns and occurrences and be prepared in advance. The social media platforms are used to expand the reach of education to a wider audience. Initiatives such as Khan Academy, with its base in the United States of America, have been formidable in giving access to free and quality education across the world.
Given that social media are still evolving, the freedom of expression accorded by the online platforms, has opened a universe of possibilities for the users.
But is self-publishing and social media everything negative? The answer to this question is simple. It is not, but users need to exercise judgment, vigilance, and commonsense when they decide to venture on those public platforms.
News is happening by the second right now, the story that is reported and posted on the World Wide Web has a short shelf life. What has happened today is forgotten tomorrow, or for that matter what happened this morning is overshadowed by what happens in the afternoon.
We have so much information on our hands, which is a good thing in many ways, as it gives us the power to pick, choose and refuse. The critical thing is to always check the sources from where this news is originating and not be swayed by the sensational headlines. There is more to content than the 280 characters that Twitter allows.
Smoke signals had limited “characters” too, but they were regulated, monitored and authenticated from start to finish. Perhaps we may take a cue from there.
Amitabh Sharma is a media professional from New Delhi, India, who has made Jamaica his home since 2006. He has over 24 years experience in media and communication and currently serves as Senior Copy Editor, Overseas Publications, and Editor of Sunday Gleaner, Arts & Education section.