Talk shows and googling monkeys: Effective political discourse in the Information Age

The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow famously proclaimed that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Along the same lines, one may say that the information age is present everywhere except in the political discourse of our time.

There is no debate that productivity matters. Countries, regions within countries and people who are more productive than others prosper; those who are not productive regress economically and otherwise.

Does political discourse matter in the same way? In present-day Sri Lanka, it matters perhaps even more than productivity. It is only through effective political discourse that we can collectively find a solution to the civil war that has been killing our people, dragging down our economy and corroding our society. It is only through political discourse that we can implement the economic reforms that are essential for improving the living conditions of our people. It is only through political discourse that we can reshape government in a way that it will help all of us to unleash our creativity in advancing the country rather than have it continue to be a drag on the entire economy and polity.

Improving political discourse is of the greatest urgency: the window of opportunity for keeping Sri Lanka whole will not be open too much longer; as India, especially Southern India, accelerates into sustained economic growth, the consequences of our lack of success in reforming the economy will become more serious. In countries with functioning governments, productivity is the highest priority; in countries with dysfunctional government, political discourse is.

In the absence of regular and comprehensive media coverage of Parliament, I will take the numerous political discussion programs on TV (described hereafter as political talk shows) as representative of Sri Lankan political discourse. Public discussions or debates that political figures from various parties participate in are good; the comments below should not be interpreted as a condemnation of the format or the people involved. I am simply taking them as manifestations of the malaise of Sri Lankan political discourse, a malaise that we all are responsible for.

Lack of respect for facts

Present day Sri Lankan political talk shows use a studio-based “talking heads”, live format that is very cheap to produce, which may contribute to their proliferation. There is no effort made to provide a context or factual background, as is the case in the leading show of this type in the US, Nightline. There is no effort by the station and the journalists that it employs to provide a counterbalance to the tendency of the politicians to misstate facts, make errors, or simply lie.

The reasons for the lack of specially prepared background segments are obvious: such programs cost money; require skilled journalists; and are difficult to do at short notice. The absence of a counterbalance from the journalists is less easy to explain. This could perhaps be caused by the lack of time and resources to research the problem. Politicians’ lack of trust in journalists could also be a cause.

In a world bereft of facts, ideology becomes everything; the possibility of a neutral arbiter ceases to exist. In addition to the lack of respect for facts, Sri Lankan political discourse is characterized by the substitution of vehemence and repetition for informed judgment.

Considered conversation that is respectful of differing views becomes devalued in favor of those who can “flatten” their opponents by rhetorical legerdemain, evidenced by the usage of the term “flat nyaya” in colloquial Sinhala meaning the doctrine of flattening one’s opponents. When the objective is the flattening or annihilation of opponents, the possibilities of common ground and compromise, the key ingredients of effective political discourse, disappear.

In the TV talk shows, there are three types of participants. The first group does not rely on any notes; they simply rely on memory (or make up facts; the audience cannot tell the difference).

The second group brings a lot of notes and documents to the studio. However, these notes are for the most part photocopies of newspaper articles. The newspaper articles are generally reports of speeches made by one’s opponents and are used to demonstrate contradictions. Sometimes, the notes that are brought to the TV debates include information from other sources. Those making allegations of corruption against their opponents (and those seeking to defend themselves against such charges) bring voluminous files with them said to contain copies of incriminating (or exculpatory) documents. For the most part, the incriminating documents are little more than anonymous letters containing allegations. They are rarely made available for public examination and verification.

Members of the third group, negligible in number, actually take the trouble to research a problem and bring relevant facts to the debate.

The first two groups pollute the well of political discourse. When erroneous facts are asserted with certainty by persons in dual roles of authority (as political leaders and as persons recognized as being worthy of TV exposure), those facts tend to be taken seriously. Wrong facts thus become the basis of decision-making either by politicians or by the public.

The audience segment that is less gullible senses that some of the facts being presented may be false but is not in a position to distinguish between the outright falsehoods and the more or less correct information. This leads to the devaluation of all the facts that are presented and the conclusions drawn based on them. This is a classic manifestation of pollution, where even the inputs of the few who take the trouble to research their positions are rejected.

A modest proposal

In an ideal world where TV stations are driven by the public interests and have access to unlimited resources, the remedies would be easy to identify. In this world the TV stations would be willing to spend what is necessary to hire and train good journalists and to give them the necessary resources to investigate subjects of political significance.

But alas, we do not live in that ideal world. No TV stations are guided by the pure public interest. The government-owned stations in particular engage in flagrant abuse of the public interest. All the TV stations are losing money, making it difficult to hire and train skilled journalists and produce high-quality political programming, even if the managements were so inclined.

In the absence of possibilities of achieving first- or even second-best solutions, one falls back on pragmatic remedies. The Internet opens up the primary possibilities.

The Internet, especially when used in conjunction with the relatively sophisticated search engines of today, is a fount of information: not necessarily good information, but of information.

The Central Bank Reports can be found on the web as can statistical data. Political party manifestos, sometimes even in Sinhala and Tamil, can be located on the web. Annual reports of government and private institutions as well as scholarly articles in full text can be retrieved. So can vicious slanders and unfounded allegations. Photographs, audio clips, video segments, all these things can be located.

Relatively skilled journalists can extract all sorts of useful information from the web within a period of a few hours. Brilliant journalists can work miracles on the web. The Internet does not give us the Truth with a capital T; it gives us many truths (and many facts, not all consistent with each other) that we must weigh and measure and base our judgments on. And to top it all, the Internet is glamorous. It adds a veneer or modernity and sophistication to whatever it is associated with. And it is low in cost, compared to sending a three or four person crew out in a van to prepare proper program content.

The proposal is:

  • Conduct intensive training courses for young journalists on the use of the Internet for political, economic and investigative journalism. The resources for this kind of training are easy to obtain.
  • Assign a young journalist the task of preparing an Internet segment of 5-10 minutes on the topic of the day for that station’s political talk show. If the segment is longer, run it for the moderator and the participants while they are preparing for the show, perhaps even in the make-up room. Show an edited version at the beginning of the show and possibly at several other junctures in the program. The purpose here is framing the issues and introducing some facts into the discourse.
  • While the show is going on, have that same journalist/researcher do real-time searches on the issues being brought up in the show. As possible, as relevant, feed the results to the moderator. In a more advanced version, these findings can be shown on a screen that can be seen by the audience. In the West, forms of this are common in media and other settings, as anyone who googles the terms can easily ascertain. The “researcher” is humorously described as a “googling monkey” to signify the simplicity of the task usually performed using the most popular search engine, Google. The journalist’s work should not end with the end of the show; he/she should continue on what now becomes a verification of the statements made by the politicians on the show.
  • Instead of the current, somewhat peculiar practice of showing excerpts of talk shows on the news, consider the practice of showing the results of Internet-based verification exercises on the news or at the start of the subsequent talk show.

If one TV station were to follow this format and achieve some striking results in the form of exposing some misstatements or errors, it is likely that others will follow. The high-profile use that will be made of local Internet content is likely to create incentives for more useful information (as well as other kinds of information) being placed on the web. In order to prepare for the new environment, the political jousters will now have to employ their own Internet researchers. If we are really lucky, the research could even begin to influence what is said in Parliament.

The above solution is one that can be implemented by media organizations collectively, or even by one. It need not be implemented exactly as proposed. There is obviously room for improvement. But we cannot leave the solution only to media managers and owners.

What can citizens do?

Our politicians and journalists did not drop fully formed from the sky. They were shaped by society. The sources of the dysfunctional political discourse of our time lie in the schools where we did not place enough emphasis on context, on reasoned judgment, and on the search for common ground. The assessment criteria for essays that privileged the clever turn of phrase over the assembling of data-based conclusions and the examinations that rewarded memorization over research skills contributed to the pathological political culture of our time. Every debating team coach and participant who reveled in the “flat nyaya” is culpable.

If these are the causes, it is within our power to change them. Let us collectively introduce healthy communication practices to our school, encouraging the search for facts to support our conclusions, rewarding the adoption of respectful attitudes toward those with differing views, and reducing the weight placed on the “flat nyaya.” Ideally, these communication practices will be embedded in multiple activities throughout the curriculum. It will require the cooperation and the retraining of teachers, but it will complement the projects and related activities introduced in the last round of educational reforms.

The essence of information and communication technologies is their pervasiveness. If they are not in everything and everywhere, they fall short of their potential. The Information Age is not about technology per se, but about greater emphasis on the use and manipulation of information made possible by the new technologies. If we can improve the use of information in our political discourse, we will not only accelerate the dawning of the Information Age, we may even contribute to the resolution of the multiple crises that beset our beloved and tragic island.