Virtual Reality is Here; It’s The Medium for Fake News

The thing from which the world suffers just now more than any other evil is not the assertion of falsehood, but the endless repetition of half-truths.

Chesterton made this statement many years ago but it is truer now because of instant global communication and what Montreal radioman Roy Green calls media who have become repeaters not reporters. We’re given distorted fragments of the world without context that collectively provide an inaccurate and incomplete picture. The result is cognitive dissonance exacerbated by the different view of each cultural group.   

The Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan, 1960s guru of the social impacts of technology and the media, was a student at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s. Many years later I taught a series of non-credit courses for seniors titled “Contemporary World Issues”. In one lecture I referred to McLuhan. After the lecture a woman told me that “Marsh” had carried her books home after university. On one occasion they were walking on Portage Avenue when Marsh stopped and started gazing up and across the street. Very quickly others stopped and started looking up. After several had gathered Marsh quietly moved away. When she asked him what was there he replied, “Nothing”. I asked if he provided further explanation. She said, “No, and I didn’t ask for more. It was just Marsh.” McLuhan later became famous for what many considered enigmatic ideas but especially for two enigmatic quotations.   “The Medium is the Message” (Understanding Media 1964) and, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” (Gutenberg Galaxy 1962).

I became more aware of how the medium is the message when a television station doing a program on global warming asked for ideas. Later the producer thanked me but said they couldn’t use some ideas because “they didn’t lend themselves to television.” A good example is showing pollution. The standard image is a factory chimney because it represents evil industry and traditionally it was identified as the source of pollution. Nowadays almost all that comes out of these chimneys is water vapor that quickly condenses into visible steam, but it is still used.

The one truth about Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is the effective use of the medium to sell the message. Actually, it uses images incorrectly to create a false message and is a measure of the power of the medium for propaganda. For example, he shows a black tern feeding its young a small fish, but says it is a pied catcher with a caterpillar. He shows ice purportedly breaking off into the ocean but it is actually an ice dam in a south Argentina lake that breaks off regularly when water builds up and it to burst. Deceptive images combine with many scientific errors to create propaganda worthy of an Oscar from the land of make believe. Sorry Al, but the end doesn’t justify the means.

The Global Village

Most people only use the words “global village” in McLuhan’s second phrase. It’s easy now with the Internet to understand what McLuhan meant. The village is a good analogy for the Internet world because people who live in a village think they know what is going and that they are at least generally familiar with the physical dynamics. The reality is they know far less than they think and often what they think they understand they really don’t.

But there is one group ever present in a village that can destroy people and distort information – the gossips. The media are the gossips in the global village. The problem is not new, it is just far more pervasive and invasive because of the electronic interdependence McLuhan identified.

Of course, you can ignore the media. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month and I feel myself infinitely the happier.” But this is not really an option today if you are going to be a responsible citizen. The power of the media is demonstrated when the first thing revolutionaries’ do is command the communications networks. Media power is not new. Thomas Carlyle quotes Edmund Burke (1729–1797) saying, “there were three Estates in Parliament; but in the reporters gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important than them all.”

Many years ago a young woman reporter in response to my comment about her professionalism told me never to forget that for the media, “the story is everything.” John Gunther confirms this with his disturbing comment that, “The first essence of journalism is to know what you want to know; the second is to find out who will tell you.”

You hope this is satirical but it is my experience; they already have the story when they seek you out. They keep you talking and edit out those portions that suit the story. This is backfiring because all I have to say is, I was misquoted, or, it was taken out of context and that is a given with the public.

Control of the media has increased in importance as we moved from the village to the global village. The focus is changed by McLuhan’s observation about the medium. It is increasingly visual in form and that changes the nature of the catastrophes reported. They also have to be potentially global in their impact and be reported on an almost daily basis so our expectations are now conditioned.  Paul Valery said, “If some great catastrophe is not announced every morning, we feel a certain void. ‘Nothing in the newspaper today’ we sigh.” Nothing fits this role better than environmental or climate issues. However, as Peter Leschak wrote, “All of us are watchers – of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway – but few are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing.” Who better on television than Obama at manufacturing catastrophes from which only he can save you? But as he repeats the message the misdirection and shallowness is revealed. On the other side radio lends itself better to careful wide-ranging discussion and we learn more by listening than watching about subjects that require context and understanding. This is why there is talk of restricting radio.    

Fred Friendly was a powerful influence in early television and he made a disturbing comment, “Today’s reporter is forced to become an educator more concerned with explaining the news than with being first on the scene.”

The assumption the reporter must explain the news is both an insult to the intelligence of the public and an open invitation to stop reporting and start editorializing. Too often I watch a speech only to have the television person then tell me what was said. It also assumes the reporter understands the subject and that is rarely the case with regard to science and climate change. In my experience very few media people have science qualifications.

So in the global village we have the lethal combination of the new major dominant medium of television, the need for sensationalism preferably in the form of a global catastrophe, reporters not qualified to even report let alone editorialize or educate on scientific issues, all issues are pre-determined by editors and owners of media. A. J Liebling’s comment explains, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Elbert Hubbard elaborates, “An editor – a person employed on a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.”

There is another aspect of the global village to consider and that is accountability. All of these comments apply to mainstream national and international media. The chance of being able to question people who report is virtually zero. In a regular village you can confront the reporters on the street or in the supermarket. The same situation applies to local politicians and none can hide better than national and international politicians.  

Now we have the Internet as part of the mix. Where the owners and editors controlled what you heard now a multitude of sources are available. It is a democratization of information, with anyone able to present their ideas or question others. It has all the growing pains of a new idea but its biggest limitation is verifying the source and credibility of the information. The ability to electronic doctor audio and video makes it almost impossible. This is why after release of an Osama Bin Laden tape it takes time to confirm. I understand some want to produce Elvis singing songs he never sang in his lifetime by taking individual notes from recordings. I remember the man who used aerial photos to locate Soviet missiles in Cuba saying he would not want to be in the business today because it was almost impossible to separate real images from doctored ones.

Misperceptions in the Global Village

McLuhan’s global village, the world created by electronic interdependence, is here, but it is virtual reality. It is not the real world or even a good approximation. Perhaps the best description of it is unintended in Erwin Knoll’s comment, “Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.” More information is more readily available to more people on the Internet, but this makes it more difficult to determine the validity. Sadly, we are not educating students to be skeptical or how to verify the validity of any work. We are indoctrinating them not educating them and as a result as James Callaghan said, “A lie can be half-way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

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