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EditorialsUp Front 12/16

Up Front 12/16

A couple of weeks ago, as part of Bridport Literary Festival, I interviewed Times journalist David Aaronovitch about his book Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists. He is such an engaging speaker that there were questions which we never got to, and I imagine that discussing the result of the US election the day before could have kept many audience members engaged for hours. We could also have spoken about another book David wrote called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, especially in light of debate about the role of social media in disseminating ‘fake news’ throughout the run-up to the election. Voodoo Histories debunked many of the major conspiracy theories that have been given an extended life by the system of delivering tailored news and information to users of social media—in this case the delivery of stories that feed conspiracy theorists’ need for conspiracy. The practice of featuring content based on an algorithm to suit reading habits has been a source of irritation for some time, and although it could be said that manipulating readers has been a feature of the popular press for decades, the scale and style of modern ‘news’ delivery has changed dramatically. Not only does it reach an audience of people that may not have bothered to access as much news as they now do through their mobile devices, but canny marketers can make a living by preying on some of this audience’s need to be connected to social groups and socio-political positions. Whilst internet giants go on the defensive and claim to be dealing with the fake news issue, there is a deeper problem that won’t be so easily fixed. We live in a world where content is consumed in headlines. Headlines that are replaced by new ones every day, and few people can follow them all. This means that stories that for example might implicate people in crimes they didn’t commit are headlines they will live with for the rest of their lives. Whilst stories pedaled by pay-per-click operators, or even those with more sinister motives, will also stick in the memories of those that don’t bother to search beyond them. The truth may be out there, but we’re not always listening on the day it gets published.

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