Poet Rod McKuen famously said, “The medium is the message,” but today he might rephrase his words and say, “The media is our meds,” because half of the comments on social media conspire to doctor our thoughts and bend our minds.
I could hardly fault his viewpoint. It’s just as Gordon Hempton, the Sound Tracker who records the pristine sounds of nature for the Smithsonian Institution, quipped, that the sound of the wild is “information” but the 11 o’clock news is :entertainment” written for an audience.
Social media has taken us on a whole new turn with “fake news.” In the slang vocabulary of journalism, we have “filter bubbles – what happens to our worldview when algorithms fix the content of our streaming so that we only hear what agrees with our viewpoints – And BOTs – faked social media profiles. Professor Emilio Ferrara of the University of Southern California estimates that 15 percent of Twitter profiles are bots (about 50 million of them!).
Reality TV has given in to social media fictions, and those fictions are having impacts.
Science magazine reported on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision on the drug Flibanserin, which won “thumbs-down” on efficacy. The panel refused to approve it on the grounds that it wasn’t efficacious, but the company ran to social media and raised an outcry. Flibanserin treats low libido in women, and social media erupted with the false claim that men had 26 drugs to treat low libidos and women had none. The drug was approved, despite the concerns. A bribe, too, would have gotten equal results from the panel.
The problem has been a “free press.” Newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst, for example, blamed Spain for the sinking of USS Maine in 1898. I don’t recall the headlines myself, but they were provocative: “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain.” The words stirred America to war with Spain. But no one sank the ship; modern experts blame the ship’s obsolete construction. Somewhat antiquated when the new ship rolled off the tracks into the water, the ship’s coal bins were filled with bituminous “brown” coal that was unstable and gave off “firedamp,” a gas that burned spontaneously – probably igniting the ammunition magazines in the next bin and exploding them. Spain had nothing to do with the ship’s sinking at all.
Fake news flourished then as now, and leaders like John Haynes Holmes – a prominent Unitarian minister – called for more judicious journalistic standards. He referred to reporters as professionals “under pledge to an ideal that supersedes money considerations.” Papers began to win the trust of citizens with true journalism.
Today the tactic is to underpin the profession, browbeating its honor and banning its freedom to use words as the profession sees fit.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was given a list of banned words that the CDC couldn’t use in press reports; words like “fetus” and “evidence-based” were included.
Russian trolls have turned up on social media with fake news stories, putatively to flip elections in France, Germany and the United States.
While all this may turn our stomachs, there is another side to social media.
Science has been fastidious about truthfulness, and scientists who would publish their research went through a process of peer review to weed our questionable reports. Peer review means that submissions were sent to three or more peers for review, and if the reviewers accepted a paper, it went on to be printed, but often with a delay of one to three years.
That scenario changed with “preprints.” When papers pass peer review now, the editor immediately publishes it electronically (the preprint) and only later in hard-copy form. Many papers are rejected in the process; even good science is rejected, and some scientists have turned to social media to find their voices, self-reporting their results.
For example, a donkey with a broken back was made to walk again with stem cell therapy. The veterinarian hurried the research, but the cure worked; it was earth-breaking news. So he reported his success on social media. Otherwise, his efforts would not meet the rigors of peer review, leaving the science dead.
Stem cell research into mending spinal injuries is controversial, and government funding agencies (like the National Institutes of Health, are loath to fund the research, so the miracle cures of stem cells go unattended.
People on social media have stepped in to change that. Now private donors can be reached to make paraplegic donkeys walk again.
The current climate for science is bad. The Environmental Protection Agency’s head, Scott Pruitt, has hired a Virginia firm, Definers Public Affairs, to scout tweets by in-house scientists to discover their resistance, in this case, which scientists tweeted in support of keeping the EPA’s budget uncut.
It’s not always the obvious truth that “Scientists have to eat, too”; instead, something more sinister is afoot. As President Ronald Reagan’s EPA director reportedly said, “Science is like any dumb animal. Put a ring (funding) through its nose and you can lead it anywhere.”
Funding does move science along. But it’s time we paid more attention to the electronic billboard signs in the brave new world of social media that hound us. “Got truth?”
Bud Hoekstra is an organic farmer in Glencoe. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.