Lying with facts

Published 20.05.2018 23:28 Modified 20.05.2018 23:29
Lying with facts

With information now easier to access than ever thanks to the internet, the manipulation of perceptions is largely being carried out through more subtle means rather than with blatant lies

With another year gone in a blur, we have entered the month of Ramadan once again. But the holy month began on a very sour note this year as the saddening violence last week continues to occupy our thoughts. My prayers go to the loved ones of those who lost their lives to Israel's brutal attack and I wish for a speedy recovery for those who were injured in the protests.

Although the suffering of Palestinian people has been going on for decades, the recent developments have made the fickle eye of the media turn toward the region once again.

Throughout last week, the violent consequences of the decision of the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem have been covered in the media. Rather extensively even. Perhaps the critics of Donald Trump decided that their displeasure toward the current U.S. president who is under investigation exceeded their bias against Palestine in favor of Israel.

It was a chilling sight mired with contrasts. On one screen we had the smiles and lifting remarks of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump during the opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem. On the other, however it was smoke, blood and tears as the Palestinian people who were protesting against the embassy's opening were gunned down. It was a scene that would not be out of place in a Hollywood movie that depicts a dystopian future where the few elites rule from their palaces, indifferent to the suffering of the majority.

Only it was very real. It was a scene that was hard to wrap one's head around if you were separated from the harsh realities people face in the region. Who knows, in the future people might look back and think how the world stood by and let it happen, just like we look back on the past atrocities that have been committed throughout history.

But in line with the spirit of the Reader's Corner page, we will focus on the media side of the things even though it is closely tied to the political and humanitarian aspects of the situation.

As I mentioned, compared to previous situations where Israel undertook similar oppressive action against the Palestinian people, the mainstream media usually at large averted their eyes with a single article at most. However, this time, the media was surprisingly more invested in the situation with articles, interviews and so forth. Yet old habits were hard to break as quantity did not translate to quality.

Even when the violent methods are employed by Israel for the whole world to see, the ingrained bias managed to shine through. So much so that, in many cases, the readers expressed their extreme displeasure of the subtle manipulation and propaganda in the articles and the mainstream media's headlines on the subject through their social media accounts.

Distorting the truth

We will get into this with examples and the reactions hand in hand but before that, let us say a couple of things about propaganda these days. In the age where information is free and easily accessible for everyone with internet access, it is very hard to get away with publishing blatant lies and factual mistakes. Not only is information there to see but tales of your misdeeds can easily be made known these days.

All it takes is one person with an investigative bone in their body. As they publish their findings on social media, even under a propaganda piece, it reaches the majority of their readers, costing credibility.

Therefore, media organizations who wish to influence your outlook to certain events and situations can only use subtler methods to achieve their goals. These can be benign as they try to promote worthy causes like equality, tolerance and education. But they can also be quite harmful.

There are two ways to go about it when it comes to subtle manipulation. The first one is easy: Turning a blind eye. This can be done in a variety of ways. By not giving air time to an event you wish to obscure or feel that is not in line with your goals and worldview, you can smother the information from reaching the masses.

Similarly, media organizations can de-platform people by barring them from appearing on their channels or publish their statements or interviews. Thankfully though, these types of information control methods are losing their effectiveness.

Although we criticized social media and its flaws numerous times before, this is where it manages to shine. You no longer need a big media company acting as a megaphone to have your voice heard. Even if you are unable to find a mainstream platform, you can easily find alternative means if your discourse can find support in the public. This is also the case for small alternative media companies and programs as finding readers and funding is easier than ever through specialized platforms designed for this purpose such as Patreon.

The other type of information control however is more insidious as it is harder to detect. It is a type of manipulation where the company provides you the information largely intact with some key facts missing or glanced over while influencing your outlook to the event with clever word choices, article structuring and so forth.

It is harder to detect because it affects the subconscious and it is harder to put your finger on the issue when there are no factual mistakes. It is also hard to argue against without an extensive background check and prior knowledge on the particular situation.

Mysterious deaths

This second type of information manipulation was at play during the coverage of the latest developments in the region. Here is an example from a tweet by CNN sent on May 14:

"Death toll rises to at least 52 people during clashes along the border fence between Israel and Gaza, Palestinian officials say. More than 2,400 people have been injured."

Let's pick apart the problematic parts. The overall tone of the tweet suggests that the situation was a two-sided affair with "clashes". However, after a cursory look, you can find out that all the numbers in the tweet belonged to the Palestinian side. It was a one-sided situation where one side had the guns while other did not. The word "clash" indicates that this was not the case. It heavily downplays the power disparity between the two sides to the point of being blatant untruth.

When you click on the link in the tweet, another problematic title awaits you. "Dozens die in Gaza as U.S. Embassy opens in Jerusalem". This is also problematic wording, but let us move on and look at a tweet from New York Times from the same day:

"Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the U.S. prepares to open its Jerusalem Embassy."

How did they die? Was it a heatstroke? Or perhaps a flash flood? The wording of the tweet downplays Israel's part in the deaths. Where's the part that shows that Israeli soldiers were the ones to open fire and kill protesters. Did the tweet contain any factual mistakes? No, not really. Did it misrepresent the situation with careful wording? Absolutely. Although the title of the article linked in the tweet did not repeat the same mistake, it read: "Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as U.S. Embassy Opens in Jerusalem."

Similar examples can be found that largely suffer from the same mistakes seen in these two tweets. They imply there is no power discrepancy between protesters and the Israeli army and fail to convey who is getting killed by who. This faulty reporting also caused outrage on social media as readers called out the reporting companies for giving watered-down version of the events.

This discrepancy between reality and its coverage can be due to two reasons. First one is easy to condemn. It could be due to a deliberate attempt to convey a situation in a biased manner. This in turn becomes a clear-cut situation where ethics and journalistic principles go out of the window.

Another reason might be at work here as well. Ingrained biases along with unintentional yet established word choices can cause these types of problems with perception. If this is the case, it must be acknowledged and changed for the better with training and oversight. Some phrases used due to their precedence need a good hard look. After all, that can very well be the difference between outrage and indifference when it comes to the news.

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