Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, warned about what he called “censorship by static,” as social media overwhelms people with information to the point that users are susceptible to misinformation.
Thursday night in Indianapolis, Engel received the John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award from the Radio and Television Digital News Association.
Engel said social media, which he once thought would mark the “end of censorship,” instead poses a different kind of problem.
“There is so much out there. The way to confuse people is to overwhelm them,” Engel said. “I call it static censorship. I mean static like what you get on your TV when you don’t have good reception.
“When we used to have TV antennas, it was snowing, so what you have now is static censorship, where there is so much information, a lot of it false or rumors or unimportant, that the really important voices get drowned out. . And it’s a very insidious way to confuse people, to make people disinterested, to make people easily manipulated.”
He said journalists need to be aware that “there is a new kind of information tamping that is not just cutting off the source. It confuses people by overwhelming them, forcing them to drink from a fire hose where everything is not necessarily what it seems and something is deliberately put there to make it wrong.”
Engel also warned about the future of democracy, noting that throughout human history it was actually the exception to the norm. He said that “for most of what we have lived in this time on the planet, at least the time that we are quite aware of what happened, democracy was not the model. Authoritarianism was the model.”
He said the media has a responsibility to “try to 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 we live in, the country we live in, in the future.”