The Myth of Balance: Navigating Cyberbalkanization in a Post-Truth Era

The Myth of Balance: Navigating Cyberbalkanization in a Post-Truth Era

As an avid follower of the US presidential election and usually intermittent but more recently obsessed consumer of the news, it’s hard to make sense of the many voices coming from the White House and various news sources.  I understand that we can look at one event from different angles, but the levels of misinformation are troubling.  Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year is “post-truth” and the increased use of this word toward the end of the US presidential election demonstrates the struggle people feel in complaints over fake news and now “alternative facts.”   

In many ways the polarization in White House and US reporting reminds me of Israeli and Palestinian news coverage, and to some degree of Israeli and Palestinian versions of history and how it’s challenging to know where to start when you have two extremely different views on the same occurrence.  I’ve spent much more time working in grassroots peacebuilding thinking through historical discourses than I have contemplating how to wade through challenging news commentary.  

While the Internet could have brought us closer together by making information available at the tips of our fingers, it hasn’t.  The endless information available has also led to the splinternet or cyberbalkanization where we find our camps of supporters and followers and we circulate articles -- thought germs -- that anger us and exploit weak places in our brain and cause us to shake our heads at the absolute delusion on the other side.  We become our own sounding boards and instead of engaging with different opinions, we confirm our biases through repetition. [1]

Lewis Wallace recently wrote a helpful blog-like piece arguing against objectivity and neutrality, and instead arguing for impartiality, fairness and truthfulness in journalism.  Part of this resonated with me because among most contemporary historians objectivity is considered a long-ago deconstructed myth.  I’ve pondered this often in my own writing on the conflict.  Sometimes people say I should “be more balanced,” but what is balance and is it really important?  If you think about it, it’s a very relative statement.  We all approach the world from subjective contexts and particularly outside of well-controlled scientific experiment,  it’s impossible to disembody ourselves to look at something as complex as the world and interpret it in one way.  We need to understand our and others’ subjective approaches and be open and honest about them, with ourselves and others.  

Wallace argues that telling the truth and sharing the news from particular perspectives are not mutually exclusive.  First, we aren’t simply neutral, we are situated in our lives and in what we see.  Is it possible to stand in the center?  Is it worthwhile?  From a historical perspective the center shifts and changes.  Additionally, from both a religious and journalistic perspective, those who speak truth to power, who embrace a prophetic voice or a different point of view can be outliers, and sometimes when the situation in front of us is so extreme, more of us should step away from the center, the middle of the bell curve, and stand as outliers.  The more of us who do it, the less we’ll simply be outliers, and perhaps a greater movement will emerge.  

Second, Wallace calls for the presence of marginalized individuals in helping shape the stories that are told on an editorial board.  This is applicable beyond this realm, and in fact airing our own opinions amongst our friends should take into consideration other and minority perspectives.  Third, it’s important to tell the truth and check facts, and we need to take into consideration that news editors curate their information and subjectively choose how and what to report.  Telling the truth and bringing it to the forefront has become more challenging due to internet algorithms that control our social media feeds  and lies politicians and others have been telling with increasing frequency.  We shouldn’t worry so much about trying to speak to a center and appear neutral, Wallace notes, and “we can check our facts, tell the truth, and hold the line without pretending there is no ethical basis to the work we do.” [2]

As I’ve been thinking this through, I’ve distilled this into a few points I’m trying to keep in mind in my context, and maybe they’ll be helpful to you in yours.

  • Keep talking, extending empathy and loving each other across dividing lines. Talk about the issues that you disagree about, but find other things you enjoy doing together and do them.  Don’t get so detached from others’ humanity that you can’t begin to understand them.  
  • Remember that you’re more than your opinions.  Your opinions are constantly changing as you constantly change.
  • Forget balance and objectivity. Why strive for an ever-changing center?  Engage with your world and look at how issues influence not only the majority but the minority.  Listen to those minority opinions and allow them to change you.
  • Love others.  I try and live my life based on a value system that is largely influenced by the mandate to love others.  I don’t always live up to my own expectations, but I try.  What’s the best of your value system?  How can it positively influence your positions and actions?

If you have more ideas that you’ve considered in your own attempts to deal with this era of ever-more-confusing journalism, leave a comment and let me know.  I’ve drawn a lot of these reflections from others, and the best way to try and make sense of this new place is to try and do it together.


Notes:

[1] Many of these thoughts are discussed in Veritasium’s vlog “Post-Truth: Why Facts Don’t Matter Anymore.” 

[2] The past three paragraphs summarize and add to some of Lewis Wallace’s main argument in his “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.

 
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