Presenting the facts is a balancing act

Laura Frampton, Issue 117/11, p15, 01.11.2017

Museums hold a unique position of being trusted as guardians of factual information and as presenting all sides of a story

We seem to be living in a post-truth era where we encounter “fake news” and “alternative facts” daily. Truth, logic, facts and evidence from experts apparently don’t cut it any more.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year was “post-truth”, which if defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The term fake news began spiking on Google trends in 2016 and has remained high ever since. Fake news stories played key roles in recent political campaigns, including last year’s US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum. On hearing that he had won the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature, author Kazuo Ishiguro thought it was fake news.

An exhibition exploring fake news, which opens at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford this month, will show that the media distortion of facts is nothing new. It will feature the story of the Cottingley Fairies, where two children in 1916 faked photographs of fairies. These were published and widely believed, although extracts from the museum’s Daily Herald archive provides evidence of images being chosen, cropped and altered to show the story the editors wanted to tell. It will also include examples of fake news for political gain and examples of mistaken reporting, such as early newspaper reports on the sinking of the Titanic, claiming that no lives had been lost.

Media manipulation of the truth isn’t new, but it’s rapidly changing technologies that make today’s fake news different. We can now access information 24/7 from a myriad of sources. With limited effort, we can find people with opinions that align with our own, or to find “facts” that tug on a particular emotion and can help shape opinions. More invisible technologies such as click farms (where people are hired to click on paid advertising links to boost ratings and search engine results) affect the information we receive.

We all make choices about the information we consult – which newspaper we read, who we follow on social media, which websites we refer to – and it’s all too easy to exist in our own bubble surrounded by tribes of likeminded people.

Museums hold a unique position of being trusted, as guardians of factual information and as presenting all sides of a story. We can play to these strengths. But we must ask ourselves whether we should always present a balanced view when exploring subjects such as climate change. Should we tell both sides of the argument but stress where the body of expert opinion lies, or should we adopt a more activist stance? Data suggests that when someone’s opinion is based on beliefs, presenting facts that go against these can be perceived as a threat, entrenching beliefs and contributing to polarised positions. Should we therefore do more – both in our museums and online – to become places and moderators of debate and discussion?

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