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Is objective consumption of news overrated?

Cries to regulate free speech for the purpose of putting an end to fake news might miss the real reason why we consume such news

We have a subconscious need to prioritize fundamental survival goals.
We have a subconscious need to prioritize fundamental survival goals. (Photo: Reuters)

Most of us believe that we like to consume news to get an objective representation of everything that is going on in the world. Consuming accurate and objective news might even be considered an intelligent and virtuous act, one that makes us better-informed citizens. If you believe this, then, at the risk of alienating you, I would like to suggest that you might be wrong. If you don’t, then, well, you are in for some validation.

In many circumstances, social connection, finding a mate or getting politically powerful is more helpful to your daily life than understanding the truth of a particular fact or idea objectively. Evolution is slow. So, for millions of centuries, our minds have been shaped to grow this way and that hasn’t changed in the last couple of hundred years.

Social scientists Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their 2018 book The Elephant In The Brain, explain this idea further: “As we dig into our conversational motives, it pays to keep in mind that our ancestors were animals locked in the competitive struggle to survive and reproduce. Whatever they were doing with language had to help them achieve biologically relevant goals in their world, and to do so more effectively than their peers."

Before the advent of radio, television or computers, news was sourced mostly through word of mouth and newspapers (for the few who could read) and was the main topic of conversation at coffee houses in England, forums in Greece, sabhas or gatherings in India and mosques in the Islamic world. Despite the multiple news sources that we now have to equip our mental information backpacks, little has changed in terms of our motives in consuming and disseminating this information.

News has always been used as fodder to drive conversations with people around us and ally with them for social, political and sexual gain. Subjectivity thus takes precedence over objectivity. We would like to hold the beliefs that bring us the maximum number of allies, protectors or disciples, rather than beliefs that are likely to be objectively true. For instance, if you are a university student and most of your peers, professors and alumni lean towards a certain direction politically, it is in your interest to read and consume news from sources that adhere to that ideology. It could help you woo potential mates, land a job and garner social capital to hold powerful positions in the university.

Take the example of the 2019 general election. The conversations in news media were rarely centred around nuanced policy matters and governance. The majority of news outlets recognized that most of us don’t have a burning desire to know about such topics. We would much rather focus on the controversial issues, such as what the leader of the opposition party thinks about the Ayodhya Ram temple or the number of enemy casualties in an Indian military operation, rather than boring issues such as the disinvestment of public sector enterprises or India’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean, with little regard given to how much each of these issues impacts the life of the average citizen of the country. The controversial issues naturally promote wider conversations which allow us to signal our adherence to a certain ideology or belief in a relatively easy manner.

News media fulfil these demands by presenting the information that may be useful to us to drive conversations within our tribe. In most cases, even the anchors, writers and editors who deliver this news are coloured with their own set of biases and beliefs that help them survive, personally and professionally. Can you really separate the story from the storyteller? What we receive is their subjective view of reality, used by us to showcase our portfolio of knowledge to potential allies.

Cries to regulate free speech for the purpose of putting an end to fake news might thus miss the real reason why we consume such news in the first place. It is not in our nature to care about the absolute accuracy of the news presented to us. It’s crucial to note this behaviour is not driven by malice but, rather, by our subconscious need to prioritize fundamental survival goals. It’s not surprising that almost every news outlet in the world has been accused of sharing “fake news" by those disagreeing with them. “Reality is one," as the ancient Indian text RigVeda claims, “though wise men speak of it variously." In many cases the news that is labelled as fake could just as well be the reality of the world, as seen through the eyes of the various news editors that control its supply.

Indian philosophical traditions are comfortable with such ideas. The Jain doctrine of Syādvāda (syāt is Sanskrit for “may be") says that all judgements are conditional, holding good only in certain conditions, circumstances, or senses.

There’s also a famous parable in Buddhism about a few blind men touching an elephant from different sides and being asked to describe it. The men are unable to come to a consensus about what the elephant looks like and eventually come to blows over the dispute. Observing this, the Buddha remarks: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing. In their ignorance, they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus." Considering the nature of political debate on television and social media, the Buddha’s statement has aged well.

It is rewarding for us to let our minds believe the facts that we read or hear are the only truth out there, or that our version of the truth is the most accurate. We need to be cognizant of the reasons for consuming news. Since this article appears in a newspaper, it would be ironic if this were a case against consuming news. It’s not. It’s merely a reflection on our hidden motives for doing so.

Archit Puri is a consultant and behavioural sciences writer.

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