Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

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A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.

Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

Fact or Opinion?

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I usually listen to the radio whenever I’m driving. Rather than being a distraction, it is a habit that keeps me more alert. I tend to prefer talk radio but I’ve grown weary of political tirades, so my go to station of late is NPR. I enjoy the informative programming through which I learn lots of interesting facts. A few evenings ago I was returning home when I happened upon a newscast from BBC that lasted for most of the forty five minutes that it took me to reach my destination. I found myself feeling enchanted by the way in which the reporting was done. Refreshingly it was simply a recitation of factual events with no hint of editorializing. The news stories moved along so quickly that the narrator was able to provide information on literally dozens of world events of which I had little or no prior knowledge. By the time I drove into my garage I felt rather knowledgeable about situations from Turkey to Kenya to Myanmar. I found myself wondering why our own national news programs spend so much time on far less important situations, and why the reporters feel the need to discuss and analyze what is happening rather than just telling us about the events of the day without commentary. There is a certain irony that British broadcasting was so succinct and fact filled while ours now seems intent on creating controversy and inciting emotional responses. Perhaps we have brought this trend on ourselves because at the end of the day news stations are businesses and businesses must make money which means that they need high ratings. In other words we are pandering to the state of broadcast journalism by tuning in and accepting the politicization.

It used to be that news stories were based on “Ws and an H,”  such as who, what, where, when and how. Opinions were the domain of editorial pages and programs. We expected to hear differing points of view on Meet the Press, but the nightly news was more often than not an exercise in providing only information. We thought of remarks intended to change our minds as being propaganda. Now we endure personal attitudes in virtually every version of the news perhaps with the exception of local programming which still tends to follow a fact driven format. It’s enough to drive us all mad and it tends to encourage the airing of controversial stories over those that simply provide needed information, and then allow each individual to add their own personal spin to what they have heard.

I really believe that we need to more carefully delineate fact from opinion. We teach children this important concept from the time that they are very young, but then as adults we fall into the trap of accepting someone else’s thinking as factual. As a society far too many of us are blurring the line between actual news and editorializing. This has created culture wars and idealogical divisions that are unnecessary and has led to a tendency to defend points of view with false narratives and soundbites. In other words we appear to be living in an epoch that actually trivializes the news and our politicians are taking full advantage of the situation.

I have listened to old school radio programming in which Edward R. Murrow used words to describe world situations. His elegant use of the English language was almost poetic, but it also provided vivid mental pictures of what was actually happening, not how he felt about what he was seeing or whether or not such things should have been happening. That was the right way to present the news. In fact it should always be up to the listener or viewer to fill in the blanks of feelings and emotions, not the person who is on the scene giving us an update.

I actually enjoy the kinds of programs that provide an editorial analysis of current events, especially those that strive to provide alternate points of view. They give us an opportunity to think critically as long as they are transparent and willing to give each side of an argument an uninterrupted platform. I don’t mind at all when the guests debate one another, but I prefer for the host to be a moderator, not someone who joins in the fray. All too often these venues devolve into efforts to change minds and to advocate for one side over the other. That’s when I tend to sigh and then tune out. I suppose that I’d prefer just watching something like a Lincoln Douglas debate to feeling as though my intelligence is being insulted by biased reporting.

It’s funny how we teach students how to spot propaganda and then we unwittingly fall for it time and time again. We expect politicians to engage in such shenanigans because it is the nature of the beast, but when those charged with providing us with the news twist information to fit personal agendas I cringe. I believe that most people have enough common sense to decide for themselves how to react to the events that take place each day. None of us need interpretations. When those things happen there should always be full disclosure that what is being reported is a personal opinion rather than a fact.

I doubt that things will change anytime soon, so I will have to find alternative methods of seeking the truth. I would love for our American newscasters to learn a bit from the BBC. I think we would all be the better for getting more information about not only local and national events, but also the goings on around the world. We really do need to know about the problems in Myanmar and the elections in Liberia. We don’t live on an island and what happens in lands far away will indeed have an effect on things here. Ours is a global economy and we share a political symbiosis with everyone. We really are better served when we are informed. While we may be all abuzz about athletes kneeling for the national anthem, we also need to understand what the effects of famine in another part of the world will be on all of us. The truth is that we are spending far too much time being manipulated into arguments with one another when far more pressing issues are facing us. While we are being mesmerized by indignation over an individual’s sexual sins, there are citizens among us who are struggling with real problems that the infighting is preventing us from solving. While the media and the politicians are stirring up our anger and emotions they get away with making us believe that there is always somebody else to blame for the inaction that leaves so many in a state of distress.

We’ve got real work to do and it will only be done when we learn the facts and then decide how to address them. We can no longer afford to be taken in by propaganda masquerading as truth. Perhaps its time to quit rewarding the news programming that has so lost its way by providing them with the ratings they so need. If we were to turn them off and then boost the viewership of those who follow the old school rules of reporting without all of the chattering and blathering, then the spin might end. Until we do this we will be subject to the fighting that is slowly but surely tearing us apart and preventing us from accomplishing anything.  I don’t know about you, but I for one have grown weary of being manipulated.