The landscape of information dissemination is changing radically with the advent of AI-driven social media, challenging the traditional media's stronghold. This article explores the complexity of this transformation, focusing on the proliferation of fake news and its implications for society, traditional media, and, indeed, social media platforms.
The fake news phenomenon is not novel; it dates back to Roman times, if not earlier. In those days, messengers spread the news through word of mouth or written in newsletters known as "acta diurna." Often, these notices were exaggerated, distorted, or wholly fabricated, especially when relating to political events or figures. For example, politicians would spread rumours or false narratives about their opponents to undermine their credibility or to boost their standing.
One of the most famous propagators of fake news in ancient Rome was Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus. He used a campaign of misinformation to discredit his rival, Mark Antony, depicting him as a traitor under the influence of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. This campaign played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and ultimately contributed to Octavian's victory and rise to power.
This tactic was not limited to Rome. Much like religion, news has always played a part in controlling the public narrative, consolidating power, or justifying actions. The spread of misinformation was prevalent throughout history in every region; for example, in medieval times in Europe, news often involved sensational stories of depravities and deviance, used to justify wars or crusades and invariably the license to kill innocence.
By the 15th century, the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised the spread of information. While this technology made information more accessible, it also allowed false or misleading information to spread faster. Pamphlets and newspapers could be printed quickly and distributed widely, making it easier for fake news to reach a larger audience.
Throughout history, the motives behind fake news have remained consistent, though the methods of its dissemination have evolved. From Henry VIII to Napoleon, Churchill to Nixon, the news genre is merely a tool. It heavily relies on the human tendency to manipulate information for personal gain, political power, or social influence. However, the digital age, particularly the advent of social media, has accelerated its spread, and perhaps more profoundly, it has helped redefine the source of news.
The Rise and Rise of Fake News
Social media platforms have redefined how news is structured, delivered, and consumed. Platforms like TikTok, X, and Meta have become significant in political affairs, providing a fertile ground for widespread information sharing. The people's bottom-up news gives the top-down news a run for its money. Traditional media will continually downplay social media as unvetted fake news, seeking to debase the veracity of the source. The lines of truth have become blurry as the top-down (establishment) perspective is now challenged by a bottom-up (people) delivery, reshaping public discourse into a choice between a 'qualified lie' versus the 'unqualified truth'. The "you can trust my lies more" mantra no longer flies.
The proliferation of lies across media platforms has profound societal implications; the truth is impossible to discern, and the unwillingness to find it is no longer appreciated. The Times is dangerous....sorry, are dangerous, as even subtle lies, manipulations, and innuendos will and can shape government responses, influence organisational behaviours, and polarise communities.
The battle between established media and social media is merely a battle for hearts and minds, with truth taking a back seat. While social media platforms have democratised content creation and distribution, they have also inadvertently fueled the spread of fake news. Established media, on the other hand, fares little better whilst maintaining a cynical veil of integrity. The ultimate challenge lies in creating a well-informed society based on truth; sadly, it is likely that more bad actors will enter the fray.
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