North Korean propaganda poster - We should learn from the party politics of the Anti-Japanese guerilla units (bit.ly/2hgfAtb)
North Korean propaganda poster - We should learn from the party politics of the Anti-Japanese guerilla units (bit.ly/2hgfAtb)
31/07/2017
The “Post-Truth” Illusion
Many have lamented the loss of “Truth” in contemporary media. But, is there an “ Era of Truth” in the media to begin with?
31/07/2017
The “Post-Truth” Illusion
Many have lamented the loss of “Truth” in contemporary media. But, is there an “ Era of Truth” in the media to begin with?

Oxford dictionary nominates “post-truth” the word of the year 2016 to depict campaigns of Donald Trump and Brexit referendum, where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”(Flood, 2016). Such definition understands the truth in terms of facts and objectivity and the prefix “post” claims a time being in which fact is no longer relevant.

 To tackle the notion of a post-truth era, a fundamental question is, did there ever exist an era of truth per se? Rorty (1997) refused to understand truth as “the accurate representation of natural order” since it is constrained in the realm of human language and history. Pseudo environment, as Lippmann (1922) described in last century, pointed out how self-serving perceptions diverge from complex social reality and how carefully selected facts are nothing better than a subjective interpretation of an event. Nonetheless, under the name of professionalism, American journalism has long portrayed itself as an entity in constant pursuit of social truth and unbiased representation of controversial issues for its audience. Values such as gatekeeper (White, 1950; Janowitz, 1975), objectivity (Hohenberg, 1973; Schudson, 1981), or social responsibility (Schramm et al, 1956) were highlighted as an integral part for print journalism as an occupation.

Such articulation contrasts with scholars who view professionalism less as an everyday practiced ethics but more as “an agent of legitimation” (Tuchman, 1978), or a basis upon which journalistic authority is exercised (Anderson, 2008; Nolan, 2009). In the groundbreaking work of Manufacturing Consent (2002), Herman and Chomsky insightfully pointed out U.S. news media create systematic false consciousness, in Marx’s term, of domestic and global reality that sustain the interest of privileged elites. In their analysis, a propaganda model is used to examine American journalism which, actively still, uses such label to criticize performances of media systems in other nation-states (see, e.g., Buckley, 2016; Timberg, 2016).

American journalism, despite its claim of objectivity and cosmopolitanism, must confront with “domestication” of international news production that other newsrooms also face (Clausen, 2004; Alasuutari, et al., 2013; Joye, 2015). A good example is Hong Kong’s sovereignty transfer to PRC government in 1997. Casting light on a global event, thousands of news practitioners gathered in Hong Kong and wrote stories that offered a sense-making interpretation to their national audiences. Chan et al. (2002) explored the role of foreign policies, ideologies, and cultural backgrounds played in the framing of international news.

For example, while reporters from Mainland China referred more to pro-Beijing sources, British, Taiwan and Hong Kong local news agency tended to cite officials from their own sides. On May 19, 1997, Newsweek used a female model whose eyes are covered by the red five-star flag as the front cover story, which created a context that’s linked to the 1989 Tiananmen oppression and a beautiful capitalistic metropolis decaying in the hand of communist autocracy. This is in contrast with the festive tone of mainland Chinese celebrating Hong Kong’s reunification to the motherland, Japanese’ focus on the economy development of Chinese region, or British attention on the glorious retreat of the British empire (Chan et al., 2002: 19). The notion news domestication, challenging the assumption of universal truth, is in no way to essentialize each country’s news practitioners as unprofessionally biased. It rather points out that local audience need orientation in understanding unfamiliar foreign events, and print journalism used to help them re-contextualize what happened outside their country through a particular national lens.

In cyberspace where an abundant flow of information is burgeoning, the logic of traditional news media has been fundamentally rewritten. To begin with, netizens resist the concept of gatekeeper and embrace the alternative news that wouldn’t fall into their vision without the Internet. The distinction between content provider and audience become ambiguous. “Mass self communication”, as Castells (2007: 248) put it, is both “socialized”, in the way that information can circulate quickly through internet-based peer-to-peer networks, and “personalized”, in the way that this process is “self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception”.

In a borderless social media buttressed by transnational digital capitalism (Schiller, 2000), ordinary netizens, regardless of class, origin, education, are positioned into the role of an agent that can share collective imaginaries beyond the nation-state boundary. Sodalities of worship and charisma are no longer constrained to locality or nationality (Appadurai, 1996:7). The electronic media, so argued the scholars, magnified collective uprising and public grievance against ill-performed nation states in the Arab world (Lotan, et al. 2011; Khondker, 2011; Howard, et al., 2011; Howard & Hussain, 2013).

In the meantime, people start to realize, Twitter revolution isn’t a third world spectacle; it also takes place in the very heart of western developed democracy. Using examples of Los indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street movement, Bennett (2012) summarized the logic of connective action in digital protest ecology. “We are the 99%” was a popular personal action frame that is also inclusive for participants with different experiences, motivation, and expectations. That peer production of particular collective narratives can self-organize large-scale networked offline protest (Bennett, 2014) signals a shift of traditional journalism from constructing public opinion (Lipmann, 1922; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Herman & Chomsky, 2002) to endlessly chasing after it.

In the digital age, American news media no longer dominate the interpretation of global truth, because they need to face direct competition from rival agencies for international audiences. New ICTs allow the rise of party journalism in China (Tang & Iyengar, 2011). People’s Daily, Chinese largest mouth-piece newspaper, runs an iconic channel @People’s Daily on Sina Weibo with a fan base of ca. 48 million. More importantly, Chinese press shows a strong will for global influence. People’s Daily set up a whole-English channel on Facebook that has attracted over 28 million subscribers in November 2016, tailored for the international audience (since Facebook is blocked in China). People’s Daily presents a depoliticized style of information feeds, featuring soft news and human interest issues or posts about natural scenery, infrastructures, or rural development.

It has attracted criticisms as a propaganda channel promoting only the efficiency of China’s one-party government, including suspicions of “fake likes” or “fake fans” (Timmons & Horwitz, 2016). Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that People’s Daily gains increasing visibility in western social media, so does RT, Al Jazeera English, or Times of India. If anything, the proponents of free speech should be thrilled about the diversification of news sources. Only when exposed to plural interpretations of the world, rather than subjugating to a monolithic truth can man really appreciate the complexity of global affairs.

Contrary to technology utopianists’ imagination of global interconnectedness, identity politics in and through social media become fragmented and, disturbingly, radicalized. The visibility of information feeds in social networking sites hinges not only on each individual user’s fans and following network, but also on the platform’s algorithm-based recommendations. There is a fierce critique that computer-mediated algorithms in search engines and SNS trap the netizens in a “one-way mirror” reflecting merely their own interest (Pariser, 2011). Studies of group polarization (Schafer, 2002; Yardi& Boyd, 2010), echo chamber (Wallsten, 2005; Gilbert et al., 2009; Colleoni, 2014) and filter bubble (Pariser, 2011; Nguyen et al., 2014) show the infrastructural features of the Internet that actually hinder netizens from looking outward. Social media, despite the promise of world connections, nurture the culture of white supremacism (Burris et al., 2000), online Islamophobia (Ekman, 2015) and the far-right populist family (Chris Hale, 2012; Titley, 2014; Siapera & Veikou, 2016).

Instead of cultural globalization, we see angry netizens deeply stuck in the “clash of civilization” as Huntington (1997) suggested and to them the multicultural hybridization is never an answer. In social media, the criterion of news, rumor, disinformation, and propaganda has become increasingly ambiguous and often arbitrary. After nearly 30 years since the fall of Berlin wall, “propaganda” is reduced to a convenient label used by every like-minded group to blame people with different opinions, being it Chinese nationalist fighting American media imperialism, Trump twitting “China’ hoax of global warming”, or European parliament elite’s latest virtual war against “Russian disinformation” (EuroparITV, 2016).

Tornero and Varis trenchantly define our age as a technological civilization where communication is light, instantaneous and global (2010: 9-10). The emergence of post-truth era links to connective individualism, I argue, because netizens no longer believed in an absolute authority of news media because of their claim to be professional gatekeeper; they believe something simply because they want to.

The problem of western professional news media mourning netizens’ loss of interest in their well-organized facts in the name of truth and the unsettling rise of “hostile propaganda” is that they are immersed in their own discursive trap: Truth possesses never a substantial existence in public opinion. The discourse built around it is usually a craft of power assertion. The era of post-truth is fictional just as there never was a time of pre-post-truth. What is under the shift is that citizens, thanks to the new information communication technologies, no longer succumb to the arbitration of a unipolar interpretative authority but enter an age of networks where social facts are peer produced and circulated within a community. This technology-bound evolution has become the defining characteristic of new humanity (Tornero&Varis, 2010: 15) that is coming into shape.

But this is in no way saying that we will live a free life better off without the preaching from mass media. The Internet, while booming connectivity, also results in group polarization and echo chamber. What constitutes digital literacy in the so-called post-truth epoch is not so much finding universal truth again, but rather learning to respect people outside one’s own information bubble. Moreover, when a certain degree of conflict doesn't harm the interest of global media giants, they are happy to see people trolling each other and have no motivation to improve the algorithms for pure good.

Digital giants, be it Google, Twitter, or Facebook, must be seen as active agents that can and probably will exert certain influences on the trajectory of political movements taking place in their platforms. It is dangerous for netizens to assume providers of new ICTs are neutral and peripheral. On the very contrary, not only do business media “understand the new rules of the game” (Castells, 2007: 252) but they also are the very ones setting the new rules. They should be given more critical scrutiny since they are the potential determinant of structural capacities of different actors in the information society. []


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Zihao Lin

Zihao finished his Bachelor in Communication at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, and is currently a Master candidate in Media and Political Communication at Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include contemporary Chinese media system, cultural politics and deaf identity in the making.