Everyday, before I start my day, I open the internet browser in my phone on my way to work and check the latest news. This has become a more frequent habit since the pandemic started. I find it useful and interesting to know what is happening, not only in my country, but in the whole world in general.
I like, as anybody else, knowing the truth, however, no matter how hard I try I do not usually succeed. The access to actual and not distorted information is quite limited. We are exposed to an almost unlimited amount of information explained from different perspectives and sadly, for different purposes.
When I studied the Degree in Communication I was told that media and communication were considered the fourth power in a political system. Even though it does not officially belong to the other three official powers (legislative, executive and judicial), it has a strong influence on society and the way it thinks. Governments, big companies and other influential groups know this perfectly, so they always try to find a way to take control of any media channel, e.g. television channel, newspapers, social networks. Through them, they make public just the contents they consider population’s focus of attention must be. This is called the gatekeeper theory, which means that the owner of a certain media, so to speak, decides what story must be told on the news.
For example, think for a moment that a television channel has a weekly 40% audience rate on average, and that 70% of the shareholders belong to the owner of a big entrepreneurial group known for owning factories in developing economies, where employees work for more than ten hours a day, in horrible conditions, paid a rate per hour so low that hardly allows them to get out of a situation of poverty. Now let’s imagine that the following events happen in the world. In one country, there is a general strike so successful that working conditions change for the better and labour force have a better life-work balance and earn a higher salary. In another country, the government informs to the public they cannot keep paying the pensioners, so they decide to delay the retirement age and instead of 60, people can retire at the age of 62. What is more, the income tax and the employee’s social security contribution have increased. In order to help companies hire more people, their corporate tax is reduced from 30% to 28%.
If you were the director of contents in this television channel and you had to choose between one story or the other, which one would you choose to make both the shareholders happy?
Of course, you would tell the story of the second country. Thanks to your audience rate you can have a stronger influence on society’s general opinion. In consequence, you will have a population more willing to think that in order to save jobs and the economy, they have to work longer hours, pay more taxes and accept lower salaries.
However, thanks to the internet, everyone can access to unlimited amount of information in all imaginable forms and sources, so probably, somebody will spread the news that better working conditions are also possible. The same gatekeeper theory applies here: you can open a blog, tell about the other country’s solution to improve better working conditions. This can be helpful, indeed. Even in my book The Dagger (La Daga), the protagonist, a young journalist, uses her blog convinced that media must be used to chase corrupt businessmen (it is a critic to the actual system and media usage. The book is not meant to convince you from using media to point out every bad guy every single moment. Real life journalists have to be careful with what they publish in order not cross certain legal lines for a good story) but it is meant to help you understand that the owner of any media platform decides the contents and what you will be informed about in order to influence the way you are thinking.
The problem in all this comes that we do not only have access to unlimited information, but also to unlimited disinformation. I am sure you have heard that journalists often write fake stories. It can happen, but not because of their fault entirely. They have little time to investigate, contact sources, verify as much information as they can and write a story about a topic they are not experts in while trying to be linguistically accurate. For example, during the pandemic, many journalists with little knowledge of medicine are writing these articles you read everyday about how antibodies, tests work and how the coronavirus is passed on. I would not be surprised that health workers’ eyes bleed almost every time they read about them. As I said, I do not blame the journalists. They do their best as we all do in our jobs. Of course, some of them, against their profession, take the opportunity to express personal feelings in their articles, in order to influence the way you think.
The problem comes when intentionally, the owner of the media platform, call it a blogger, professional or just your neighbour upstairs, writes something fake in purpose or not, with little or no evidence at all. The content is viralised and then we have a new conspiracy theory that also have a powerful effect on what people think. For example: that masks contribute to make people more ill and weaker against the COVID; when, if you talk to a health worker, she might probably tell you that masks are designed to prevent you from passing on any infection to another person. Long time ago before the COVID, surgeons have been wearing masks when opening somebody’s body. This is to prevent them from passing on bacteria or other infections to the patient through droplets when breathing. I think this is the reason why. But I suggest you not to believe me and talk to a health worker, doctor, nurse, or whoever you want to so that they can provide you a better explanation.
When information and disinformation coexist at the same time, it becomes extremely difficult to believe what it is true or not. We should believe what official media says, but we have seen the contents are controlled by someone whose interests differ from us, so it might be telling the truth in a certain way or the truth they want us to know. About the non-official media, it can be true or not. We do not know, especially if we are not experts in a certain topic or we cannot prove it. What do we do? Do we watch the news? Do not we? Do we believe them? Not? We can ignore the news for a while, but we cannot be always kept in the dark.
At this point is when critical thinking enters the game. I think it is crucial and necessary to challenge the system to help society change for the better. But let’s be honest. We were not taught in school to think or question the status quo. On the contrary, we were taught to believe everything we see and hear without questioning it, follow the rules and what we are told. Even love our leaders as it happens in George Orwell’s novel 1984 (a must-read).
In my opinion, critical thinking is considered dangerous for the stability of a nation. As it happens in 1984, “too smart” people are vaporised since they can pose as a threat to the government. But in my opinion, it is even more worse not to think critically. It makes people blind and follow a call that is not theirs. This is why I think that in Spain and Catalonia there have been so many confrontations over the past years and decades. On both sides, politicians used media to tell that the other side was dangerous and some even dared to use the word nazis or terrorists to describe the Catalan separatists. Outside Catalonia, we were shown as rioters who burned containers the whole time (some extremists did). On the other hand, Catalonia has been telling its people that Spain has been robbing them and that our language is being discriminated and other bullshit (also a lie). This ended up in a situation out of control in which members of the same family ended up in fights due to different ideologies.
As people blindly believed what they were told without questioning it, the situation got out of control. Broken families, companies left Catalonia and some Spain, thanks to the show that politicians from both sides created for their own purpose, involving people in a fight that is not theirs, brother and sister against brother and sister.
This does not happen only in Spain. Sadly, it happens all around the world.
This is why I find essential that we must start thinking critically, to question everything that surrounds us. It is not a matter of believing or not what we hear or see, but a matter of considering there can always be another alternative to that truth. As we have seen, behind the piece of news there can be hidden purposes beyond telling a story. If we just take for granted it is real, we are just losing the power to decide by ourselves and become simple puppets.
However, if we question what we hear or see, we have the power to decide by ourselves if to believe it or not, and up to a certain degree (we might believe 50% for example of what a source says). That will allow us to keep our freedom as humans to decide about our future, to avoid being manipulated by other parties and keep our freedom. I know that in some cases, we do not like thinking by ourselves, but this is not the way how things should be done. It is essential that we start learning if what we want is a better future.