An opinion is a personal belief about something. It’s just a point of view, at a certain moment in time, coming from a certain person, about a specific situation.
News is a group of information on a certain topic, which claims to be verified by a group of trusted individuals, information which should be pertinent to a certain audience.
And a fact is just a certain situation that was, is and it will always continue to be in a certain way, regardless of anyone’s opinion about it, and despite any allegedly verified news about it.
Here’s an example.
Opinion: I think the Earth is flat.
News: The latest NASA satellite made a full circle around the Earth today.
Fact: The Earth is round.
Why this introduction?
Because we reached a tipping point in the way we perceive reality, and this tipping point is about how we perceive – and act about – all of the above concepts.
The Explosion Of Opinion
Until 10 years ago, opinion was confined to a very small group of people. It was probably close friends, relatives, work colleagues and, every once in a while, groups of people, shortly coming together for a certain goal. Like a wedding or a conference.
In the last 10 years, though, the social space of opinion exploded. With the rise of social media, everyone can broadcast his / her opinion to potentially tens of millions of people, instantly.
That’s way more than we can handle.
We all have a basic skill of differentiating between opinions, news and facts. If a colleague at work says something, we can infer if it’s an opinion, a news or a fact. We have a basic understanding of the context, of the person and we can balance the information relatively easy. It’s like keeping a few vegetables in a pot. A part of the pot is opinions, another one is news and the rest is facts. Under normal circumstances, we do know exactly what’s in the pot.
But when a part of this pot becomes way bigger than the others, our skill is challenged. We just have a hard time processing all the information, taking in all the huge stream of opinions (in this case), and the “natural” bias is to equalize, to flat the pot. And so, parts of it become intermingled.
Specifically, we tend to mistake opinions for news, or facts – and not because we are not equipped to make the actual difference, but because our processing power is challenged.
I do think that, eventually, after many cycles of learning, our processing power will adjust, somehow. Wether if this will be a human psyche adjustment, or we will successfully use AI for it, that’s another question. But I do think, sometimes, in the foreseeable future, we will come to terms to it.
Alas, we’re going to be in a very rough ride until this happens.
The Big Flood
Let’s steer away from the pot metaphor for a while and let’s think about oceans tides.
Under normal circumstances, we know exactly how high or how low a tide will be at a certain moment. Under “normal” circumstances, we also kinda knew how much opinion, news and facts are going to swing around. On a regular day we could take in some news from papers, TV or radio, some opinions from our friends and family, and we would have to face a certain number of facts (like gravity or rain).
We’re now at a moment when the “opinion” tide is way, way bigger and, more importantly, way more unpredictable than it used to be. As we get more and more exposed to the social networks, we take in new opinions at an unprecedented speed. These opinions also tend to coalesce, to group together, by forming trends. And these trends also tend to grow bigger (sometimes by the minute, if the trend is becoming viral) and so, we are suddenly hit with a huge tide of opinion, which, in its unstoppable charge, wipes out parts of what we thought it is news, and, in some circumstances, even parts of what we thought it was facts.
These tides are happening several times per day. The best examples are the (in)famous elections trends, in US and a few other countries, which turned opinions of a few into “unchallengeable” news or facts. Also, The Flat Earth Society, or conspiracies like we never set foot on the Moon are falling under the same definition. They’re all huge tides of opinion, which washed out big parts of our mental map, re-arranging it in different ways.
The alchemy of turning opinion into news (or facts) is still difficult to master by the masses. Only a relatively small percentage of the participants in the social network have the abilities (and, sometimes, just the pure luck) to build a relevantly big tide. We called them “influencers” now.
But, as with any other skill, in time some will get better at this. My hunch is that, slowly, this skill will migrate from the realm of the individual (or the “influencer”) to the realm of organizations (like Cambridge Analytica, but more stealth). The main reason for that is the cost of technology. If you want to set up a deepfake campaign, you will need more power than the average influencer. Most likely, you will need very performant AI (if you want to fake a video of Donald Trump, for instance), a relevant swarm of network entry points (servers, hubs, etc) to disseminate the information and, why not, a network of paid content writers who will support the campaign with “independent” points of view.
These stealth companies will eventually take the place of the current PR companies. Because, if you really think at it, a current PR company does just the same, only with incredibly inefficient tools.
Hopefully, we will all become just as immune to these new and “upgraded” PR companies, trying to re-arrange our mental maps, as we are now to the current PR companies (well, some of us, at least).
Until then, buckle up.
We are still yet to see the worse of this intermingling of opinions, news and facts.