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Fake news in the post-truth era

Posted on February 23, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The proliferation of social media – Facebook, Twitter and the like – has unleashed a torrent of opinion from tens of millions of people daily. Sorting through all the information that comes our way each day is impossible; no sooner have we read one article or posting but we’re buried under a pile of newer ones.

Social media has produced another effect: the decline of good manners. The Internet has become a cathartic, psychic dumping-ground for society’s accumulated negativity. The emotional stresses and strains of modern life are nakedly revealed in online discourse, oftentimes through ugly behavior that can only happen when true identities are hidden. The opportunity to generate information and comments anonymously has removed natural barriers of decency that influence how we treat each other in conversation. Courtesy provides social lubrication that smoothes conflict, and the effect of its disappearance is starkly visible. Insults, trolling and online threats are commonplace.

Simultaneously, objective reality has come under suspicion. Fictitious news sites generate “alternative facts” which by all appearances seem legitimate. This is happening nationally; stories about Barack Obama running a “shadow government” from a bunker under his new home blocks from the White House, are an example. If as a society we are unable to agree on facts, those elements which together comprise objective reality, we are doomed to continuous conflict.

Fake news happens locally as well, sometimes the result of sloppy reporting, using third-hand accounts instead of on-site observation or failing to properly review video recordings of meetings before making assertions. And mixing opinion with reportage blurs a beneficial distinction between the two. Much of what passed for reportage during the recent Leaf Blower election, for example, was embedded within opinion.

Sometimes subtle, other times more explicit, shading the news with opinion is nothing new; the Hearst newspapers of the early 20th century manufactured the Spanish American War single-handedly. What is new is the rapidity and breadth with which such information can now be spread.

What used to be called “press standards” are now poorly defined. The “democratization” of the press through social media and digital communication has indeed opened up the opportunity for innovation and a diversity of approaches, but from a propagandistic perspective, it has also furthered the value of lying. Those intent upon spreading falsehoods, defaming others, generating fear or hatred and sowing discontent have never had it better.

Our goal at The Sun is to clearly provide accurate information about events and happenings in our community, and reserve opinion for opinion pieces. This is not to say we do not have an editorial position, but we endeavor to keep it separate from our news reports. That said, we do focus on topics which we feel are important to Sonoma Valley, and making decisions about what to report and what not to report in itself contains some unavoidable bias. Such is the case for all press outlets in deciding what topics or events to cover.

In this issue, you’ll find links to an online survey asking you to tell us what you like about our publication, what you want more of and what you care for least. We hope you will take the time to help us continue to make The Sun the very best local source of independent views available.



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