Fake news and agenda setting 3.0

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If Augustus had Twitter, he’d mainly be tweeting thumbs-down emojis next to Mark Anthony’s handle.

It’s true: misinformation campaigns, fake news, sensationalized, or “yellow” journalism, and cherry-topping news events is nothing but new—all that’s different are the communication channels that are being used.

But how are these new mediums influencing its proliferation, often at an exponential rate? Well, by looking at these phenomena via agenda-setting theory, we can gain some insight on why certain topics are more salient than others.

Agenda-setting theory is simple to understand. Popularized in 1960s, it mainly looks at how the media influences what topics and ideas audiences deem as being important, either passively (by the merging of separate topics/information to form a broader/generalized idea), or actively, by only selecting certain topics that are often directly correlated to that media organization’s ideological and/or socio-political stance.

However back then, when newspapers and TVs were at the prime, this model was quite vertical, starting from the top (the source) down to the audience (the receiver) at the bottom. In the US for example, the “big three television networks” (ABC, NBC and CBS) were clearly the cultural hegemons of American society from the 1960s until 1980s.

(Thanks! MTV;)

On the other hand, at present, we’re living in a digital media landscape that’s more horizontal, that is, with the growth of the internet and especially social media, information is now shared “on equal grounds.”

Which takes me right back to fake news, misinformation campaigns, yellow journalism and so forth, and just one of the probable reasons why these phenomena have become headlines themselves—it’s called agenda-melding.

According to an article published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, titled “Agenda Setting and Agenda Melding in an Age of Horizontal and Vertical Media: A New Theoretical Lens for Virtual Brand Communities,”  its authors, Ragas and Roberts, state that agenda-melding looks at “the personal agendas of individuals vis-à-vis their community and group affiliations.”

This, tied in with big data, may explain why fake news has spread like a circus parade.

Let me elaborate:

In many Western countries, each internaut now has the freedom to access whatever information they’d like to, however, they will always do so through their own cognitive bias. That is, if I’m only interested in one particular subject, then my often self-selected social media feeds alongside other sources that make up my personal digital profile will make recommendations and search results that churn-out topics that are within the scope of that subject.

While it’s smooth sailing most of us, some fall in this trap and enter the whitewater. Essentially, they’re digging themselves into a hole. They may fixate on that topic and, thanks to fellow hole-diggers like themselves (their preferred community and group affiliations), their agendas become more polarized and all the good-old fashioned journalistic traditions of cross-verification and objectivity are thrown out the window. So, what’s actually fake news, becomes their real news, which is very, very dangerous.

So what are we, as communications professionals who often work for (or are) a gatekeeper, supposed to do about this new form of agenda-setting and ensure the circus stays out of town?

There’s a straightforward answer: it’s called ethics. Our prime responsibility is to not manipulate, but rather inform, backed up with real facts and proofs, and a %&#!-load of honesty.

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On woodworking and the ‘curse of knowledge’

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I often like to compare the communication process to carpentry. The lumber we use are our thoughts, language our tools and the blueprints what we wish to convey; our success can only be measured by one thing: how solidly we’ve built an idea in another person’s mind.

But even the best artisans have defects—let’s face it, we’re cursed.

According to the celebrated psychologist and psycholinguist Steven Pinker (whose name, no doubt, will come up numerous times throughout the life of this blog), at the crux of miscommunication lay a single imprecation that vexes us all: the ‘curse of knowledge.’

In a recent “CNBC Make It” blog post, Pinker describes this as “when you know something, it’s extraordinary difficult to know what it’s like not to know it.” It is, as the blog author states, basically a cognitive bias.

Although I alluded to this phenomenon in my post “Jargon in, garbage out,” where I stated that each of us is unwittingly yoked to one or more specific codes and that this affects the communication process, Pinker’s idea of the “curse of knowledge” goes beyond jargon and speech codes and enters a more intimate space where each of us, as communicators, need to be self-aware of how unique our own interior communication processes are.

For example, if we use the comparison of the communication process to carpentry again, although we all may have the same set of tools (language), each of us has—and draws upon—a unique inventory of lumber (thoughts) based on a combination of all the accrued experiences, perceptions and interactions that we’ve stored in our “mental lumber yard.” For some, this lumber yard may contain only plywood, two-by-fours and other standardized pieces of lumber. On the other hand, for others the inventory may be much larger, containing not only the latter, but also exotic woods like myrtle and ebony. Thus, what each of us wishes to convey in another person’s mind (the blueprint) is ultimately built differently.

The key, my fellow communicators, is knowing when to use the right combination of tools and materials efficiently. If you want to build a simple shed, stick to two-by-fours, plywood and the circular saw. On the other hand if it’s a DIY chess set you want, now’s your time to bring out the rosewood, mahogany and start wood turning.

A little-known communication system that changed the world in a big way

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Illustration of a relay tower in a semaphore line. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (Public Domain).

It turns out that one of the earliest means of transferring messages over long distances didn’t require kilometers of wires nor electricity, for that matter. All you needed was a tower, a few poles and sunlight…oh yeah, and a telescope wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

That’s right, I’m talking about Le système Chappe, or Chappe’s semaphore line, a little-known communications system that, at one point during the late eighteenth century, stretched thousands of kilometers across France and even crossed the border into present day Germany.

The idea behind the semaphore line is simple. Think of a relay race where a baton (in this case, a coded message) is passed from one runner to another. However, in the semaphore line, the participants doing the relaying are kilometers away from each standing atop a tower with a mechanical device made up of a tall pole and various long blades. Now, let’s imagine that a person wants to send a message from their city to another city 50 kilometers away. All that person would have to do is visit their nearest “Chappe” tower to start the information relay: that tower sends it to the next tower on the outskirts of the city and the message continues from one tower to the next, crossing the countryside at “lighting speed” when compared to a courier on horseback.

Pretty-neat, right?

Now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m giving this system such importance, after all, the idea behind visual communication methods–from simple lighthouses to signal flags–were being used long before Chappe’s system.

But there’s a difference–a big difference.

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Code used in Chappe’s system.

In contrast to other visual signaling methods that were limited to specific information being sent at across relatively short distances (i.e.: “Steer clear.” or “I’m not your enemy.”), Chappe’s novel system was unique in the way it encoded and transmitted complex messages via a set communication channel. The whole Latin alphabet plus numerals could be coded by simply changing the position of the pole’s arm and its blades.

This idea of encoding textual data was later implemented into the telegraph and still is used today in digital communications, only now instead of relying on a mechanical device, we use electronic signals that are relayed along a communication channel made up by a global network of satellites, radio towers and underwater cables.

A holiday story

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Behind every candle we light, stocking hang or aluminum pole we erect this season, is a powerful story—and stories, my friend, are not only at the heart of the holidays, but also at the heart of communication.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm where it’s proposed that human communication is all about the stories we live and live by.

Keeping with this blog’s style, I’m not going to delve in to the theory itself, instead, to show you why this theory rocks, I’ll do what I do best as an innate storyteller and tell you, that’s right, a story.

The hiding sun, the elk and the she-bear

Fehr’s eyes followed the trail down the snow-covered face of the mountain that glowed in the twilight. He turned to his fellow hunters and made a series of swift motions with his hands–It was time to turn back.

On a cragg the other side of the valley the rest of the clan–the elders, woman and children—sat waiting around the embers of a dying fire. Beyr, the former leader of the clan, tried to explain to his grandson, Ser, and the other children why the herds were gone now, but the little ones couldn’t make sense of it: After all, why would the bison and deer want to look for the hiding sun? But Ser didn’t care about that it made little sense, just hearing the story alone from his grandfather, with his perfect mimicry of a deer’s gentle gait or bear’s growl that put hairs on end, was enough for him to forget about his empty stomach.

Nearby Rea, his mother, kindled the fire with the only wood she could find. The young piece of wood snapped and crackled in the fire. She looked towards the children and wondered about when her husband would return and if they’ve hunted. “One can only live for so many days on roots,” she thought as her eyes traveled toward the dim sky. She saw the she-bear, and asked it to help the clan.

A growl deep in the woods and rustling…

Fehr stopped short and raised his hand. All stopped and firmly griped their spears. He held his fingers and made the familiar symbol of an elk. The hunters spread out. Fehr continued forward, careful not to make the slightest noise as he walked towards a lone elk trying to catch its breath. Fehr inched closer to the animal and noticed that it was bleeding from one of its hind legs, he squinted and saw four deep gashes on its thigh–a telltale sign of a bear’s claws. He drew his spear, took a deep breath, and hurdled it at the animal.

But he missed.

The animal ran out towards the right and the duff cracked under the sounds of running men. The sounds stopped. Fehr ran towards where the last sound came from and saw the animal in a clearing with a spear through its jugular…its last breaths in the cold air.

Having finished listening to Beyr, the children sat around the fire with the others. Rea sat beside the old man and asked him if the spirits have spoken. The old man shook his head. And when she asked him if it was time to return to the cave, he told her to wait until the she-bear was overhead.

Ser jumped up and pointed towards the wood below. Rea looked down and saw that it was the hunters, and what’s more, she could see they were carrying something on a makeshift sled behind them.

The two groups met at the entrance to the cave, and all looked at the animal in the torch light. Beyr, now wearing his headpiece made from a bear’s skull, danced around it and thanked the elk’s spirit for choosing to stay behind and not chase after the dying sun.

As the clan entered the cave, Rea looked up at the great she-bear overhead and thanked her for having brought them food and warmth on that winter night.

* * *

So that’s my little story about this special time of the year and whether you accept it as a ‘holiday story’ is entirely up to you. That’s the beauty of Fisher’s theory because, by understanding that we’re natural-born storytellers, we can use the narrative as means to transmit multiple abstract thoughts and ideas simultaneously. Stories stir minds and stir our emotions–and what’s more human than that?

So with that being said, let’s celebrate and share all the wonderful stories that are behind this time of the year; stories that, like the previous, all have a prevalent theme: family, food and, most especially, warmth–both literally and figuratively.

Happy holidays and happy new year!

My on-going battle with Whorf

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Nope, I’m not talking about “Worf,” the Klingon from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but rather of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis where it’s said that, in essence, our learned language determines the way we think.

Given the ongoing debate of the “language of thought,” I have found myself struggling to agree with the strict “Whorfianists” who believe language entirely determines thought. Instead, I say that language only partially influences the way we think, or better yet, how we perceive the world.

Don’t get me wrong though, I still highly recommend watching “Arrival,” where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is central to the story.

The way I look at it, each of has our own unique take on a system of symbols that by no means is determined solely by exterior influence. In other words—and I’m merely postulating this—, I think it’s safe to say that if two individuals are presented with the same exact cognitive task, each’s inner language will most certainly differ in one way or another.

Synesthetes, for example, perceive symbols differently. Some with this gift attribute colors to numbers and others ‘see’ a specific shape for each specific word and so on—for sure, this ability certainly must affect their inner language. But, who is to say that we all don’t, to some varying degree or another, have a similar ability and/or other ability akin to synesthesia that, at present, still remains undefined?

My belief is that we do.

And that’s at the heart of why linguistic relativity just doesn’t cut it for me. Yeap (and I’m going to contradict my first post here), we’re more than walking and talking pieces of meat that are tied to the means by which we do what we do best—communicate.

Intra-personal communication is an enigma—one that, hopefully, will one day meet it’s Alan Turing, that philosopher-scientist who’ll dare to go “where no one has gone before.”

Jargon in, garbage out

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Jargon created with help from the Corporate B.S. Generator.

“You buried the lead on this one and your feature is lacking a nut graph.”

If you’re a journalist you know exactly what I’m talking about, but for all you readers out there that were never privy to newsroom jargon, you’re probably scratching your head and wondering what the heck I’m talking about.

And that’s just fine if you’re scratching your head: Each of us, depending on what we do, uses some sort of lingo or another. Some are easier to decipher than others and some, like “trucker talk,” require full-blown dictionaries.

Communication professionals often like to refer to these language types as “codes.” In fact, there’s even a whole area within communication that’s devoted to their study. Speech Codes Theory (SCT) for example, introduces the idea that within every group of people there is a specific code that, if looked at holistically, shapes the framework from which each individual of that group views their outside world.

Interesting, isn’t it?

But instead of going in too deep into SCT, we’re just going look at one small aspect of this awesome theory for now: how, what I dub, “métier codes” influence an organization’s communication.

See, as a communications specialist, I’ve all too often encountered situations in the workplace where not understanding that each of us is hard-wired to one or more code was the main culprit of why something—be it as small as an internal/external communiqué or as large as a whole campaign—didn’t work out in the first place.

Here’s what I mean:  Given the structure of most organizations, we often find ourselves knee-deep in the quagmire of misunderstanding at the departmental level of communication, the IT team talks in one code, HR in another and so on…

Most of the time misunderstandings at the internal level are quickly resolved with a bit of good, old-fashioned face-to-face elaboration, but what worries me the most is when it occurs in external communications. Forgetting to switch codes here will not only lead to inevitable confusion, but can also have other, often more profound, consequences—like the unintentional exclusion of a specific demographic within your target audience(s), and that’s a major party pooper.

I’m not alone on the last thought: according to Business in the Community, a London-based charity that promotes (among other things) business development, job adverts that don’t cut the jargon out have become a “major barrier” for young job seekers.

Now let’s transpose that example to another type of advertisement, say like filling up all 90 characters of your Facebook click ad’s body with nothing but techno- or financial cant—it’s not only a complete waste of advertising real estate, but also complete waste of money.

So what’s my advice the next time you’re working on a draft? It’s as easy as following these two steps:

Step 1: If your audience uses the same code, proceed. If it doesn’t use the same code, then go to step 2.

Step 2: Use the K-I-S-S approach: Keep it simple, stupid!

We’re just talking pieces of meat

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It was my most humbling moment as a communications student: the realization that, after a really convincing Persuasion class lecture, we’re just walking and talking pieces of meat.

But that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

You bet your posterior it is. Because if it weren’t for our ability to communicate using language the way we do, than we—that’s all of us—wouldn’t be, well, us.

But before we dive, head first, in to the fascinating world of communication in this blog, I think it’s important to lay out some groundwork.

Let’s start with a working definition for the main type of communication I’ll be talking about from now on. Luckily the perfect definition can be found at Merriam-Webster.com, where communication is defined as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”

With this in mind, we can now establish what is needed in order for communication to take place:  First, we need at least two individuals that possess intentionality (we’ll talk about in another post), and second, we need both of those individuals to also possess at least one mutually-understood system that allows for both the transmission and reception of abstract thoughts/ideas, a.ka.,  language.

So when is it communication and when isn’t it?

Right now while you’re reading this we’re communicating. In this case, I’m the transmitter and you’re the receiver and we’re using visually-based system of symbols that, when put in the right order, correspond to the constructs of a spoken language. That’s right, written English. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg—because there’s a whole slew of other systems out there that we can use to communicate. Visually-based systems are obvious, but there are other systems out there that rely on our other senses, like our sense of touch (i.e. Braille). In fact, as walking and talking pieces of meat, just about everything we do involves communication. We just can’t help it, we’re natural-born communicators.

On the flip-side, when isn’t it communication? Well, since we’re the only animals on this planet that can talk about this phenomena, we’ll just stick to human communication for now, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t touch upon non-human communication at some point or another.

So as a biped bistec, all I ask for are two things while you’re on this blog: First, do what you do naturally: communicate. What that means is that I welcome your comments as long as you follow these 5 basic rules of blog etiquette. And second, which isn’t as natural for some as the first, is to always try to keep an open mind.