Katherine Wagner.

Citizen Ink: Word of the Year prompts suggestions for change

‘False information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.’

These days, I trust very little of what I read, especially if it’s early reporting on an issue or emanates from a corporate, political or advocacy source.

It’s like I’ve opened my own personal branch of Skeptics-R-Us.

Reading between-the-lines is a new essential life skill.

Language has always been our primary method of communication across space and time. Modern communication technologies have expanded that reach exponentially.

On the positive side, technology has reduced costs, overcome logistics, and facilitated connections between human beings who were previously isolated from each other by factors such as poverty and geography.

On the negative side, technology is a scarily effective and efficient delivery system for all forms of propaganda, and technology-assisted data-mining targets us in unprecedented ways.

As individuals, we are waking up to this reality.

The 2018 Word of the Year, according to Dictionary.com, is misinformation: “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”.

Other words and phrases in the running: echo chamber– choosing to discuss and read information sources that only align with your specific political leanings and world view; virtue signaling – a superficial involvement with an issue, mostly for external approval.

Even journalism is changing. Long-held ethical beliefs around neutrality in reporting are being challenged by the concept of adversarial journalism (also referred to as advocacy journalism).

The line between reporting and opinion-editorials, in other publications, is blurring.

In 2017, Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year was fake-news: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.

The twist is, the term fake-news is often deployed inaccurately. Crying “fake news” can be a tactic to confuse and confound, to quell debate before facts can be examined, to muddy the line between opinion and fact, and to promote a particular political narrative.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year was post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In 2006 Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year was truthiness.

Language evolves to reflect reality and the pattern here is concerning.

However, it’s far from a new issue. In 1946, George Orwell wrote in an essay titled Politics and the English Language: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Orwell’s essay suggests solutions that remain relevant today: use clear language, ensure a literate population that understands when language is being used to manipulate, and uphold a free and independent press.

It’s hard not to grow weary trying to make sense of the noise created by corporate, organizational, political and individual interests. Eventually, it’s easier to tune it out. As average citizens with no particular influence on current affairs or public policy, how can we affect positive change?

Small individual acts are powerful when replicated by many people.

Suggestions:

• Research the ethics and professionalism of the news and information media you regularly consume. Choose a minimum of three, representing a range of mainstream perspectives.

• Set aside 20 minutes a day to read about global, national and local current events. It’s a great New Year’s resolution.

• Verify information, especially items in your social media newsfeeds. Sensationalist headlines often bear little resemblance to the content you are tacitly endorsing by sharing. Don’t repost anything without, at a minimum, first clicking through and reading the linked article. Bookmark, and use, fact-checking sites such as snopes.com

• Support those who are trying to maintain attack-free spaces for political discussion on social media.

• Connecting thought, expression and reality is a learned skill. In particular, a study of fallacies exposes manipulative illogical arguments. The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph (1937), is a good primer.

• In 2017, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian political novel 1984 climbed after Kelly Anne Conway coined the term alternative facts. The novel makes an excellent stocking stuffer.

• If the dictionary on your reference shelf is from your school days, or older than 10 years, gift yourself a current edition. Language constantly evolves, the meanings of words change and new words are created. My personal favourite is the Chambers Dictionary. The free online dictionaries do not compare.

• The Washington Post’s motto — “Democracy dies in darkness” — resonates in 2018.

Support to the fourth pillar of democracy.

My wish for 2019 is for a positive and hopeful Word of the Year.

Katherine Wagner is a member of the Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a former school trustee and member of Golden Ears Writers.

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