Media and Communication in Post-Factual Age: An Interview with Bajram Mjeku
October 02, 2018
Bajram Mjeku was born in the Republic of Kosova. He studied at the Faculty of Philology, University of Prishtina and has published articles on media culture, journalism, the sociology of literature, and the sociology of memory. He has a long experience as a publicist, journalist, and editor and has documented and contextualized important social facts in a scientifically critical way. From 1991 to 1999, he was the co-founder, journalist, and editor of the Kosova Information Center (KIC). He is the author of two books, editor of four books, and edited over 30 various scientific and literature textbooks, including university textbooks. This interview is conducted by Labinot Kunushevci, ISA Junior Sociologists Network associate member, who holds an MA in Sociology from the University of Prishtina.
LK: The “fake news” notion has been declared the most widely used word in 2017. Does this mean we are living in a post-factual age?
BM: Facts always remain facts. Fake news was instrumental to accomplishing certain goals through journalism in the past as well. In particular, this was the case in the Communist camp until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. In Communist Yugoslavia, journalists were officially regarded as “social-political workers”, meaning that they were part of the regime and an instrument its propaganda.
Your question reminds me of a fact from the early 1990s. During those years, I worked as a journalist with the Kosova Information Center (KIC). At the time, my country was being ruled by the regime of a Serbian tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic. In front of the headquarters of the President of Kosova, Dr. Ibrahim Rugova – the KIC I worked at being next door – my colleagues and myself were challenged on a daily basis with a bitter reality. At least five buses would depart every morning to the European states. They carried people fleeing the Serbian violence and terror. Tens of buses were leaving from other cities of Kosova as well. We were faced with a serious challenge: whether to publish the news on the migration of Albanians or keep that silent? It worried us deeply that the daily news of systematic violence against Albanians by the Serbian police, on the one hand, and the massive migration of Albanians from Kosova, on the other, would create collective despair and further incite migration. We opted for telling the painful truth that was happening every day.
According to the scholar of mass communication Ibrahim Berisha, in the present days anyone can transmit media productions: in text form, visually or acoustically. The transmitter can offer false or reliable information. Today everyone is a news media producer. The type of news known as “fake news” could threaten the objective truth. But in the media trade such news becomes attractive, since it operates as a business that brings profit.
Today in online media, fake news travels faster than a “reliable source”. According to Collins Dictionary, the term “fake news” is a typical rhetoric of Donald Trump, who uses it as a tool to degrade news that do not satisfy him in the course of his presidential campaign.
There are two ways of sorting out the accuracy of a piece of information: the real truth and the virtual truth. This affects the public opinion, which relies more on fake news than on facts or social reality, therefore the deception (fabrication) is often recognized as certain, and the notion of truth is fragmented.
The media reacts to recent trends, to sensibility and public demands, to the dynamic of communication; the circumstances of trade tend to chase the logic of cost-benefit analysis and sensation through fake news, which is producing more confusion than information. Showbiz news and images in particular don’t provoke critical thinking but emotionality, instinct and sentiment. As a result, they are producing demands rather than offers, which mostly ends up in conflict.
The limitless production of mass information has endangered the truth through a loss of meaning. The paradigm of liberal and neoliberal societies has contributed to this virtual drama, where the borderless freedom of everyone is promoted while the lines about the freedom of individuals and the integrity of the other are not clearly drawn. In effect, this has contributed to the loss of trust in news reports.
After the recent scandal and manipulation of Cambridge Analytica, many users have started losing trust in Facebook. After allegations about misuse of personal information, its founder and executive director, Mark Zuckerberg, was compelled to answer questions and provide explanations in front of the Congress members and was even subject to investigations.
In Kosova, fake news has been extending its “kingdom” for several years now. This is due to the fact that the practice of smearing personalities or institutions, regardless of their authority, is happening in Kosova with unbearable easiness. The reason for this is a fragile justice system, which does not work for either the accuser or the accused. Overall, there are some efforts to apply laws and some of them created penalties for those who deliver false news, as done in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines and so on.
LK: What would be the best way of dealing with online media public opinions and comments, which quite often seem to be the product of social frustration and escalate into aggressive communication, that potentially turns into hate speech? Is ethics being challenged by online communication?
BM: Journalists of my generation are “the last of the Mohicans” of written journalism. In the beginning, we felt quite comfortable with the trend of online journalism. The wild race for news, unfortunately, paved the way for intrigues, to weave the “spider’s net” for false news, which has severely hurt the journalist’s profession.
Regarding hate speech and social frustration, my feeling is that this kind of language and this frustration are more evident in the Balkans. The two former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, have advanced in the communication culture – this is not the case in other former republics. It is not coincidental that less than a decade after parting ways with the communist regime, those two republics became part of the European Union. Until the beginning of World War I they were under the rule of the Habsburg Empire, unlike the rest of the former Yugoslav republics who had been under the Ottoman rule for five centuries; therefore, you have little hate speech in their print and online media. They, along with Kosova, were part of the “Versailles Yugoslavia” and under the communist regime. They both recuperated easier, as they had consolidated the European culture a long time ago, while Kosova and Albania ended the last century with a war. In the case of Serbs and Serbia, weapons replaced hate speech. Three main levers there – academics, politicians, and national-chauvinists – provoked four wars through the warmongering language in the print and electronic media, leaving behind destruction and thousands of victims.
Not only has the online media communication been challenged but it has also been severely hurt. Journalists in the Western Balkans are ignored by the state when revealing the corruption and organized crime of political elites in newspapers’ front pages and news portals. These are the situations that provoke hate speech and badly hurt the journalists’ ethics. On the other hand, Barry Wellman said that the difficulty always lies in finding a balance between punishing hateful speech and incrimination.
In Estonia and elsewhere, there are cases of portals being penalized for hate speech made by the public and some cases even had to be treated in the European Commission. This is a good example of how the editorial responsibility of portals can be dealt with if they allow aggressive communication and publish hate speech texts.
LK: Many social network users face emotional and time confusion, associated with a loss of their sense of reality, which sometimes leads to extreme dependency, cause depression, psychological crises, and even suicide among young people. How can negative effects be prevented and the mental and cultural balance adjusted?
BM: The media culture has created “the virtual man.” Such types of individuals are more dependent on media products, on illusions and virtual fictions, than on real life. In addition, this has produced a kind of “emotional virtual sentiment” towards these products and their founders.
This portrays the cultural crisis, which originates from media pressure, the so-called cultural imperialism. The media does not only impact the cultural, social or psychic identity, but according to Giovanni Sartor, in the near future it could influence the genetical structure of mankind. The virtual man grasps the virtual reality, rather than the true reality. He is by far more overwhelmed by virtual characters than by his own social environment. Still, humanity and solidarity are coherent values, which cannot be replaced by any fictional media.
In his book, Media Culture, Ibrahim Berisha says that the technological consumption is challenging the cultural, anthropological, and social nature of the individual. The content of digital technologies influences the virtual personality. In a digital society, the virtual gains an unimaginable dimension, and may alienate the individual and increase their solitude and neurosis.
An official survey conducted last year shows that Kosova’s young people are the biggest Internet users in the Western Balkans. Immediately after the war, Kosova faced the “pressure” of information technology, in order to catch up with the trend of developments in the world. Concerning your question on depressive situations and suicides among young people, last year I asked for an official report on the matter from Kosova’s police and their answer was: from June 1999 to March 2017, 1,020 suicides took place in Kosova. This figure is very distressing for a country with only around 1.7 million people, and also with the youngest population in Europe. This number of suicides shows that on average two suicides took place weekly. Evidently, this big number of suicides is also a result of the war and the lack of prospects to have a job and a better life, yet the social networks and the extreme dependence on them have also played their part.
For example, in South Korea, there are two million people, mainly young people, who are treated in psychiatric hospitals as a result of Internet addiction. They have lost the ability to cope with reality.
LK: What are the risks of consuming media content under the effect of functional illiteracy, especially in the context of the cultural media industry prompted by cultural globalization?
BM: Social media has mostly hit genuine culture. Everything else seems fragmentary, dilettantish, mediocre. People should employ technology for their own needs and services, and not allow technology to exploit human time and mind.
Social media networks offer functional illiterates huge opportunities to put across thoughts, emotions, and uncontrolled feelings. Umberto Eco used to say that social networks have offered stupid people the opportunity to express their thoughts. Therefore, intellectuals, journalists, and people dealing with culture find it difficult to “demine” the terrain and then make their ideas, which are useful for society, functional. Cultural homogenization and cultural fundamentalism are a reaction to the globalization of culture. The tastes and desires of the people are affected and oriented through the media.
Manuel Castells said that societies that have an unformalized cultural and educational standard are less ready and less prepared to distinguish external pressures. And in this way, functional illiterates are mostly exposed to this pressure.