Thought For The Day – Festival Season – 23rd Aug 2018

In a bid to combat fake news, Facebook has just confirmed that it’s started scoring users on their trustworthiness. They hope this will allow their algorithms to de-prioritise those posts likely to be misinformed, so they appear lower down in people’s news feeds.

It’s a common criticism of social media, that all this sharing and retweeting merely creates an echo chamber where the same information is endlessly recycled until it becomes stagnant. And if it’s fake news in the first place, this process just reinforces the error: because if we see the same thing repeatedly, we start to believe it. So how can we help refresh public discourse, rather than being infected by over-shared viruses, rather like the air conditioning on a plane?

It’s Festival season in Edinburgh, in the Borders and in many other places in the UK. I’ll be at the arts, faith and justice festival Greenbelt this weekend, because I believe that arts and book festivals can help in our fight to combat fake news, because they improve the quality of our public conversations. Where else would you find the First Minister talking to Ali Smith about why novels are needed to heal political divisions; or hear Nelson Mandela’s daughter talking about her dad and how she answers her grandchildren’s questions about him; or see Rose McGowan talking about what it really feels like to take on Hollywood about the #MeToo campaign?

“Book festivals? A bit middle class?”- Perhaps they used to be, but the same internet which fuels fake news, also serves to democratise information too. Most authors make their material available online, much of it for free. And most festivals post videos online, or have media partners like local radio to make sure that everyone can join in.

I once saw Colin Dexter at a festival, talking about Inspector Morse. There’s a hush that always falls at the end when the author asks for questions. “I imagine you’ll need some time to formulate your questions,” he said, until someone bravely stepped in. And that’s the gift that these festivals can give us – whether we’re there in person or online. They’re a golden opportunity to hear a whole range of conversations and thinking out loud, to help us to formulate better questions, and to seek better answers.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

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