Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, warned of what he called “censorship by static,” as social media overwhelms people with information to the point that users are susceptible to disinformation.
On Thursday evening in Indianapolis, Engel received the John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association.
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Engel said that social media, which he once thought would mark the “end of censorship,” instead poses a different kind of problem.
“There’s so much out there. The way to confuse people is to overwhelm them,” Engel said. “I call it censorship by static. I mean static like what you have on your television set when you don’t get good reception.
“When we used to have television antennas, we’d get snow, so what you have now is censorship by static, where there’s just so much information, a lot of it false or rumors or unimportant, that the actual important voices get drowned out. And it’s a very insidious kind of way of confusing people, making people disinterested, making people easily manipulated.”
He said that journalists need to be aware that “there’s a new kind of tamping down of information that isn’t just cutting off the source. It is confusing people by overwhelming, forcing them to drink from a firehose where everything is not necessarily what it seems and something is deliberately put in there to be incorrect.”
Engel also warned about the future of democracy, noting that through human history it actually was the exception to the norm. He said that “most of what we’ve lived on this time on the planet, at least the time that we’re pretty much aware of what happened, democracy was not the model. Authoritarianism was the model.”
He said that the news media has a responsibility to “try and help people understand the world a little bit better, because if we’re just chasing eyeballs and we’re just feeding people more junk food, and in a society that is struggling with information obesity, I don’t think that’s going to help the planet that we’re living in, the country that we’re living in, going forward.”
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