The preoccupation that we could be drowned by too many news and advertising messages, and that we are “over-newsed and under-informed” may be yesterday’s headache. The challenge for the future is to ensure that we will not continue to be inundated by a Niagara Falls of bullshit.
All kinds of nonsense is liked and shared and fluffed-up wildly on social networks. It has become too easy to spread false messages on social media, where nobody checks if they are true.
Given this, it may become increasingly profitable for spin doctors, trolls and their clients to deceive online audiences. The attention economy is turning into a disinformation economy.
Even for global companies the chances of getting caught spreading propaganda seem to be decreasing, though the most spectacular case of Volkswagen last week and the less visible case of ExxonMobil, which surfaced in the media a week earlier, seem to prove the opposite.
However, comparing both cases, even reputable newsrooms appear to have had difficulties analysing exactly what has happened. In the case of Volkswagen, the media hype surrounding the finding that the company had used ‘cheat’ devices to register deceptively low emissions readings during tests, has so far destroyed 27 billion euro, or 40 percent of its stock value, and thus probably endangered thousands of jobs and livelihoods worldwide.
And somehow, by their excited reporting of VW’s fraud, journalists have created the absurd impression that before the scandal people buying oversized SUVs and diesel vehicles were blissfully unaware their cars were polluting the environment.
In the case of the oil giant Exxon, there has so far been no real media outcry, and no immediate consequences for the company’s stock value. This is despite the disclosure that since the 1970s Exxon may have hidden its own research that proved a link between climate change and its main product.
Meanwhile, British social scientists Carl Miller and Steve Ginnis have warned in The Guardian that even researchers dealing with social media are losing control over the data flood created by social media research. Experts can no longer judge which indicators of media use are meaningful and which are not. In case anyone was still unaware, it seems we are living in a Sodom and Gomorrah of fakes and data deceit.
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel 27.9.15