“An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy” attributed to Thomas Jefferson*. Jefferson was a staunch believer in the necessity of an educated and informed population to sustain democracy. After all, how can you cast a vote for a politician if you don’t know their policies, their track record, what the party they represent stands for? How can you make judgements on their policies if you know nothing about how policy affects the way things work in the world? How can you choose between parties if you don’t understand what they offer and represent?
In the past, people heard “the news” about what was going on in the world beyond their daily horizons in lots of different ways. Smoke signals were used in ancient China, by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and by the indigenous peoples of the North Americas, who invented various ways of representing different meanings. In ancient Greece, Queen Clytemnestra is depicted as having arranged for fires to be lit on hilltops as a series of beacons so she would know whether the Greeks had defeated the Trojans. This would give her advanced warning to prepare for the return of the Greek fleet. The historian Polybius elaborated on this practice to devise a messaging method using beacons to represent letters of the Greek alphabet, in a kind of precursor of semaphore.
These early broadcasting methods were open and public, but the amount of information they could convery was limited. Full details of the victory or defeat, arrival, or other event they announced would have to be communicated later and more slowly. To get more of the details, you had to wait for the arrival of a human messenger. In Europe in the Middle Ages people welcomed travelling minstrels and troubadors as sources of news. They too provided a mixture of songs, stories, poems, and true stories. Because they travelled and spoke to lots of people, they were trusted authorities on reporting on events of interest. They could provide lots of details, and personal accounts. They are the inspiration for our name truba news. They reported directly about things they had seen and heard, making them the forerunners of modern journalists. However, we now know that eyewitness accounts are not always reliable and it must have been very tempting to dramatize “the news”, adding a few personal touches and embellishments, to make it more exciting to the audience.
Fake news, memes, and downright lies are often far more entertaining than the truth. The Internet was hailed as a “democratic” space where anyone could express anything, no matter how absurd, fantastical, extreme, or ridiculous. Many people weren’t drawn to the Internet as a source of well-reasoned, authoritative, and accurate news, but as a merry-go-round of clickbait, gossip, spite, and silliness. The irony is that in a world where there is more information available to us than ever before, we have made the processes of obtaining that information so muddled and fragmented it is harder than ever to find our own path to the truth. This problem is made worse by complex personalized algorithms that we cannot see and are not easy to understand. What biases do they contain? How have the sources they supply been chosen? Which news gets sent to you – is it the news you want, or is it the news they want you to see?
The problem with the advertising model that funds social media news providers such as Facebook, and search engines such as Google, is that they have more of a vested interest in news-as-entertainment rather than news-as-necessary information. If you rely on free news services, can you be sure you are getting the news you need to be well informed, or are you just being entertained and distracted in order to keep you clicking? At truba we are working to provide you with a personal news service that gives you the power to choose. Perhaps one day you want to be entertained, but another day you need to do some more serious research and be well informed. We recognise that you have different news needs at different times and we won’t shoehorn you into one algorithmic profile locked in a black box that you cannot edit or interact with. Only by being able to get up close and personal with your news providing algorithm can you even start to sort out the entertainment from the information.
*Although this is a popular meme, there is no hard evidence that Jefferson actually said it. However, it is the sort of thing he might have said. Does that make it completely false, or effectively true?