Last month a fanatical Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to fourteen different people and institutions, all linked by one key characteristic: they were all critics of the President of the United States. One would assume such a brazen act of domestic terrorism would be quickly and heavily condemned by the President, and he would refrain from launching into a signature Trump attack on the media in the days that followed.
Nonetheless, he only managed this for a mere 40 hours after the discovery of the first explosives and even attacked one of the recipients of one of the packages, CNN. It’s not rare for a leader to be on difficult terms with their nation’s media, nor for them to take a particular dislike to certain branches. But the constant undermining of almost every non pro-Trump outlet, directly from the President himself, is an increasingly concerning issue. Free press is a cornerstone of democracy, and Trump is edging ever-closer to brazen censorship.
Just mere days ago, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta had his press pass revoked after he tried to stop a White House worker from grabbing his microphone mid-question. It’s the responsibility of journalists like Acosta to hold the White House to account, and the protocol alone of workers seizing microphones when the President dislikes the question asked is concerning. This follows the more alarming news story, which broke last month, in which Washington Post writer, Jamal Khashoggi, was killed within the Turkish consulate. Khashoggi was very critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam, and was strangled and then dismembered, with his remains reportedly being chemically dissolved. The killing was characterised as a rogue operation; however, compelling arguments have been made that the murder was in fact ordered by the crown prince himself. This is a horrifically more violent characterisation of the stifling of the free press, with implications that journalists are unable to hold leaders to account for their wrongdoings, or question their motives and actions.
If the past few years in global politics has taught us anything, it’s how important the truth is. From the regular updates from the Washington Post fact-checker on the number of lies told by Trump since taking office (6420 at the time of writing), to the launch of BBC Reality Check, the media is having to transform itself in order to continue bringing us the information it always has done. But this issue goes further than buzzwords like “post-truth”, “mainstream media” and “fake news”; it shows a startling glimpse into a future where the prime influence on public opinion is no longer media corporations, but instead the barrage of opinions each person is faced with every time they go online.
Not relying on mainstream media for all news is not exactly a huge problem; every outlet comes with its own bias and spin on a story. But to only get information from the internet is a dangerous extreme. Users are instead faced with 3.2 billion equally self-assured biases, that troll, argue and dox until the internet becomes one long terrifying game of Chinese whispers with the truth. A recent study from the Pew Research Centre showed that only 17% of people over the age of 65 were able to identify fact from opinion, a number made even scarier when you consider the voter turnout for over 60s in the last General Election was 64%.
Access to mainstream journalism is not getting any easier either, with more and more broadsheet publications having to put up online paywalls. In fact, research done by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that “poorer” member of the public consume “less and worse” news than their wealthier counterparts, being less likely to read their news from formal publications and more likely to use social media and search engines. It often feels like we’re currently living in the prologue to a dystopian novel, and this one looks to be leading to an “information divide” that means if you’re rich enough, the fake news, conspiracies, and trolls will no longer be your problem, while less affluent peers are left sieving through the depths of the internet in an attempt to find facts.
A society can’t claim to be liberal and progressive if its people have no way of accessing the cold, hard truth. On every level, from governmental to local, there are people and institutions that must be held to account and journalists are integral to providing that information. As activism and concern over social issues increases by the day, student and local journalists have begun to show their true skill in making sure the people they inform are not missed out when it comes to the bigger picture. Every story has an impact on every level, whether that be improvements to the QMU sexual misconduct policy after The Glasgow Guardian’s investigation, or justice being served after Glasgow Live appeal for tips for the police. Even stories at grassroots-level should have the the verification that readers just cannot get from social media.
The problem with turning to social media for news is not only the sheer number of voices, and their capacity for untruths, but also the echo-chamber-like nature of each individual’s feed. While some people are convincing half the population that everything will be okay, and there’s probably no point in voting anyway, the other half are being radicalised by minion memes made by cybersecurity officers sitting in the basements of Russia. Social media, and the bubbles of opinions it creates, is the perfect breeding ground for terrorists, such as the aforementioned pipe bomber, whose van was covered in Trump and right wing memes; the Toronto attacker who felt inspired by “incel” communities on reddit and 4chan; the Pittsburgh Synagogue attacker who was reported multiple times for hate speech on Twitter before his attack; and even the Sandy Hook shooter, who communicated almost exclusively with “members of a macabre online community”.
Journalism has always been there to provide the truth to the public, to expose the lies of those in power and to be the middleman between the ruled and the rulers. In these times, the media is needed more than ever, to ensure people understand the facts through the fabrications and to hold those in positions of power to account. There are many reasons why journalism in its traditional sense may be in decline, be that the fall of print and terrestrial tv, the rise of social media reporters or the transparency of increased internet access; but let’s not let journalism fall at the hands of those it should be holding to account. Trump is free to rant and rave about the “Fake News Media” being the “Enemy of the People”, but the press is still free to expose his injustices and lies. Because, in the words of American founding father Thomas Jefferson himself, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”