Down the rabbit hole

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This is a time that would get the most optimistic feeling a little paranoid. I write a couple of articles some months ago about the dangers that social media platforms could pose to our freedoms and access to information. Facebook, I noted, uses algorithms to decide which posts you get to see, depending on what you’ve indicated are the things that interest you in the past. There are ways of controlling the content you see on Google, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms, all designed to present you with what they think you’d like to see. The danger, I thought, was that they could also use the same methods to present you with what someone else wanted you to see.

Paranoid? Alarmist? Apparently not. You will have read about the problems Facebook are having because of the link that has been shown between their database contents and a company called Cambridge Analytica. The company used Facebook profiles of around fifty million “friends” to provide false news stories, videos and other media during the US election to blacken Clinton and promote Trump. Now it transpires that the same tactic was used during the British referendum on Brexit, to sway the vote in favour of the U.K. leaving the European Union.

To add to the links, it was a Canadian who developed the algorithm used in both cases, in part through a Canadian company, AggregateIQ, based in Victoria, B.C. The financial links to the Russian Government are gradually becoming clearer too. The assumption is that these companies, and those who were behind them, such as Steve Bannon, are still active in preparing for the American mid-term elections in November, and even in Canadian elections here in Ontario. The world is getting smaller every day.

More paranoia? That’s the big picture story. The problem is how to decide on the proper attitude to, and use of, platforms like Facebook in our own everyday lives. How can we know that we aren’t being fed what has become known as “fake news”? Perhaps it is significant that the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, AggregateIQ, and Russian meddling in elections is coming from traditional print media outlets like the Guardian in Britain and the Washington Post and New York Times in the U.S.

This might seem a million miles away from North Grenville or Merrickville-Wolford, but for the fact that it was the profiles of regular people that were being used to spread disinformation to them without their knowledge. I would repeat what I wrote months ago: we’ll need to be much more aware of what we read, to judge it carefully for its source and consistency. I know there are people in our own community who like to disparage the Times, claiming that it is all just our opinion, that we’re not a “real” newspaper, etc.

This is not a phenomenon confined to North Grenville, however. Other community newspapers around the province have been faced with similar attacks, even from municipal councils. The Voice of Pelham, in the Niagara region, had their communications with the local municipal council ignored, their papers left in the Municipal offices trashed, and all because they had reported on council activities. They were met with cries of “not a real newspaper”, in spite of the fact that they, like the NG Times, are a member of the Ontario Community Newspaper Association and News Media Canada.

You may have seen the article in the Ottawa Citizen last weekend about the disagreement which has been impacting on our relationship with the Municipality of North Grenville. Let me here express our thanks to the many people who wrote letters, or posted on our website and social media, supporting the Times. We are grateful, indeed.

There is a real need for the media to report on municipal affairs. This is not always a negative thing: much of the time, things go along smoothly. But when it comes time to shine a light on more negative aspects, it should not be seen as an attack on democracy, or an unacceptable intrusion on what doesn’t concern us. We need to accept the role of the media, while remaining cautious and not accepting everything we read as factual and reliable. No-one is infallible.

But given the events surrounding elections and referenda, and the ease with which Facebook and the public have been used by governments and those working for vested interests, it is vital that newspapers and other media platforms are open and transparent. If readers know where we are coming from, our “biases and opinions”, if you will, then it makes it easier for readers to judge for themselves. We do not, and will not, ever agree on opinions and positions. That is the joy and strength of democracy. But we must be properly, and accurately informed.

The freedom to be so, and to state our opinions and ideas, is one which we should be most careful to protect. That is our job, our responsibility and our privilege.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this article David. As always I see the inevitable… that your oversight editorial board would struggle with you (as editor) to strike a balance between ‘being open and transparent’ and ‘stating our opinion’. These cannot always align perfectly… How does NGTimes do this? What objective reference or board or persons have you established to help inform this debate?

    Chris

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