Most of us get our news from established and, in general, trusted media. Though these outlets are not perfect they are usually staffed by professionals who want to get as close to the truth as they can by researching and presenting data, discovering facts, seeking opinion from qualified and experienced experts and relaying this to us in an informative way.
While there is no such thing as a totally independent media organisation, operating without any bias and staffed by individuals void of all influences, we like to think that, in the UK at least, we are pretty close to that ideal.
As Al Gore reminded us, sometimes the truth is inconvenient. If someone tells you that a change is happening that will permanently disrupt your lifestyle then distress, denial and the search for an alternative view to support the status quo is a natural reaction. However, there are no alternative facts.
PR is sometimes viewed with cynicism. ‘That’s just PR’ is a throw away remark that implies that the message is just spin and trivia. However, as technical PR and content creation specialists we see our business-to-business work differently. In engineering, for example, where there is a constant contest of ideas, our role is to work with media to present facts, give experts a voice and create a better understanding of the work of engineers, scientists and technologists. Established media are our partners in this, providing credible and professional channels that are also an effective filter against spin.
Social media is a valuable addition, they provide platforms where everyone can express an opinion. Social media is simple to use and easily accessible making it democratic – because all opinions can be heard. It is free and immediate and has the power to rapidly amplify any message that gains traction – unfortunately even when that message is ‘fake news’ or has little basis in corroborated facts.
But can complex ideas really be expressed in short social media posts? Rightly they can point to longer blogs and supporting evidence – but how many just scan the short posts and digest the punchy message wholesale without further thought? Everyone has a right to expression, but are lay-people on a par with industry experts? And is it right to respond immediately with gut reactions before due consideration of evidence to reach a rational conclusion?
It is dangerous to dismiss expert opinion as quackery, to dismiss any inconvenient truth and to think that a simple appeal direct to the public validates every action. Social media is mass two-way communication and is equally able to express and amplify civilised opinions when actions run counter to public interest. So perhaps now is the time for reasonable people to engage to ensure that fact, valid expert opinion and rational action that is in the public interest are not swept away.
Trump’s use of social media is a doubled edged sword. It certainly helped win the election – so he not likely to stop his tweeting anytime soon. While his campaign may not have directly created ‘fake news’ there have been allegations that a few, who purported to be his supporters, may have been behind some postings. Indeed some of his opposition may also have resorted to such tactics too. Does comparing pictures of inauguration crowds actually mean anything? Or do these tactics just trivialise news and demean democracy?
Of course the creation, dissemination and access to news and information is an evolving and commercial industry. History is often rewritten as new documents and facts come to light through research – sometimes revealing what went before as speculation, mis-information or outright propaganda. So what are we to do? There is no simple answer. State sponsored censorship is a dangerous road to take. Self-censorship would be the ideal. The risk for social media owners is they become seen as platforms that don’t expand knowledge through civilised debate but descend to tunnel vision conduits of ever more narrow viewpoints expressed without thought or regard to facts.
In our work for engineering, construction and technology clients, we do use social media to signpost current news, events, to direct attention to substantive informative content such as features, white papers and other information sources. But social media is complementary to more established media, not an alternative. Never before have we had so much access to information, to platforms through which to express ourselves and be heard. Perhaps, we all need to learn to be good social media citizens.
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