I think the greatest single enemy is the misuse of information, the perversion of truth in the hands of terribly skillful people. Not my words. That is a direct quote from the greatly missed John Le Carre. He should know, a former spy who went on to become the greatest espionage storyteller ever. His very first book, “Call For The Dead”, was on the cusp of being published sixty years ago and how that title seems to resonate today. The battleground is different – a viral threat has replaced hydrogen bombs in the narrative – but information is still critical to self-defense in a global public health crisis. However, there’s a big problem.
Information socialism has arrived. Thanks to social media everyone is now a broadcaster – the ‘elitist’ barriers of licenses and legal responsibilities have been torn down. Like a 1950s Soviet collective farm, accountability and positive incentives die. Of course, this is fertile territory for bad actors wishing to manipulate the truth. Sadly, truth is not the only victim of these actions. The US is breaking records in a bad way every day in its battle with Covid-19. More than 300,000 dead and a death toll run-rate approaching 25,000 per week has been a tragic result of chronically poor information. Criminal even.
The undermining of the US election result has been all too easy for the Trump campaign. There are now more than 50 million Americans who believe the election was rigged thanks to the malign efforts of campaign lawyers and enabling media personalities at Fox, OANN and Newsmax. The echo chamber of social media and the targeted sharing of misinformation has merely completed the trust destruction cycle. It’s frustrating and …….deadly. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if US government messaging had represented the truth? We now know truth was not the goal thanks to the staggering New York Times’ reports of White House interference in the communications of the CDC, the very institution tasked with protecting the health of US citizens in a pandemic.
The protective benefits of social distancing, masks and reduced social contact was lost in a toxic political environment fueled by the social and traditional media all too willing to please their target audience bases. The consequences have been tragic in human terms but there is an even bigger challenge ahead. The arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine is a huge positive but the corrosive media influence on trust remains a huge threat. Providing individual broadcasting rights to conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine campaigners could undo the benefits of a vaccine. One suspects a Biden administration will demand more responsible media behavior. Already, we are seeing some interesting moves.
Fox News was forced to broadcast explicit 3 minute clips during various top-rated shows debunking the false accusations that Dominion vote counting machines were manipulated. Furthermore, both Google and Facebook are now facing commercial anti-trust litigation. Facebook, as we predicted a year ago, is actually fighting federal initiatives to break up the company. The fight for truth might be staging a comeback but more fundamental cultural shifts are probably required. Traditional media has strayed from its original role to provide information. Today’s traditional broadcasters compete in a consumer market where information socialism and ‘infotainment’ are inextricably linked. The following are probably the four most truth damaging trends:
1. Broadcasters now strive to deliver messages which their customer bases expect, irrespective of accuracy.
2. The arrival of Fox News in 1996 promised to give traditional middle America a voice. In effect, Fox successfully broadcast “the other side” to challenge mainstream media messaging.
3. Competitive pressures forced mainstream media to provide ‘balance’ and air the other side to every issue. But not every issue merits this balancing and has resulted in rampant “false equivalence” in almost all media. Think Hilary Clinton emails ahead of the 2016 election.
4. Finally, the disastrous evolution of “both side-ism”, “ balance” and “false equivalence” has produced an army of opportunistic broadcasting personalities who command huge air-time irrespective of their relationship with reality. Historically, broadcasters took responsibility and vetted contributors based on their qualifications, credibility and independence. That barrier to broadcast has been obliterated – welcome to information socialism.
Who knows what will be the tragic wake up call for traditional media but one senses there will be an event and a truth commission which will leave its mark. The consequences of the Iraq war and Trumpian complicity in pandemic deaths and Russian cyber intrusion are still up for potential debate but a failed vaccination program could be the ultimate Call For The Dead.