Today on Friday 2 June at 9.30 p.m., four out of eight of Lebanon’s television channels will be airing Shou Awlak, a new TV program discussing the country’s major challenges with people of different viewpoints. The program will be open to all media outlets to broadcast free of charge.
This goal is critical because, typically, people tune into the channel that reflects their views. This has resulted in echo chambers, populism and polarization. It has undermined what it means to be a citizen because we have no shared perception of reality or objective facts.
It is perceived wisdom that the go-to solution to remedy the problem of bad information is to counter it with good information. According to this theory, the best ideas win out in the open “marketplace of ideas.” And therefore, the way we should think about addressing the pervasive problems of fake news, misinformation and disinformation is to counter these phenomena with quality news, fact-checking and civil conversation.
However, there is a problem with this theory: those problems precede the advent of the internet and the changes it wrought. Decades earlier, many countries around the world opened up their broadcast spheres to private channels, which contributed to a greater offering of information, perspectives and opinions. What could be wrong with that? Well, more choices and more voices did not make conversations healthier but rather more convoluted and fragmented. Pluralism, once an ideal journalists would aspire to within a medium — say, by representing different opinions or narratives in a single news broadcast or talk show — gave way to the rise of “editorial orientations” among major media outlets. Citizens seeking balanced information could now go to different channels representing different orientations in order to get that balanced picture. But narratives are in competition, and often irreconcilable with each other. The perceived — and, at times, real — misinformation of competing outlets becomes a reason to “correct” perceptions of major news stories and issues. This has created a race to the bottom, where the media as a whole have become actors in a struggle for narratives. Rather than making our societies more pluralistic, more tolerant and more accepting, open media markets have fostered bubbles, echo-chambers and divisions at the expense of quality journalism. This is the case not just in Lebanon, but indeed across the world, including in the United States and established democracies.
At this point, two potential remedies are typically proposed: In the first, the nostalgic will be tempted to conclude that things were better back in the day, that a much smaller media offering gave people a common basis of facts, a shared reality based on which people could air and discuss their differences, negotiate common societal values and debate concrete policies. As a result, greater investments in public broadcasting and stronger regulation of private broadcasting could bring back a return of the good old days. In the second, proponents call for more right-minded formats that espouse the noble values of public interest journalism — more quality journalism is what we need to remedy the many ailments of our discourses. But both of these well-meaning proposals regard the demise of our information spheres as a supply problem. They ignore the fact that channels are actually offering people what they want. We may conclude that they have gotten people hooked on fast food — and that it’s a pity. People will choose McDonalds over the new vegan joint if the latter is either enforced on them, or if it’s buried in a tiny alleyway off the main street littered with fast food restaurants.
Our open broadcast model tries to address this dilemma. It does not rely on regulation. It does not add yet another new offering because as the information space becomes more fragmented, the potential for “good information” to make a difference diminishes along with it. Instead, we propose weaving together what is already there to re-establish the shared arena that has gotten lost in this corrosion of our public spheres.
Shoul Awlak will be live simultaneously on Télé Liban, Al Jadeed, OTV and NBN, in addition to a series of radio channels. To those who did not join us, the door remains open as long as our editorial independent, public interest orientation is safeguarded. We do not employ editors from the TV channels that broadcast Shou Awlak, nor do they have a say in the topics or guests we choose. Instead, we have hired a dedicated team to create an independent, public interest program that seeks to adhere to the highest standards of journalism and media ethics.
In Tunisia, where the Munathera Initiative has been operating for a decade, we proposed such a solution in the run up to the country’s 2019 presidential election debates. Several channels, each representing its own editorial orientation, were competing to organize and air their own debates. We partnered with all of the country’s channels to create a joint project, which not only reached the largest TV audiences in Tunisia’s history, but offered an example of democratic accountability across the region.
The marketplace of ideas has its merits. But it is standing in our way because it ignores that human attention is limited, and because pluralism as a system of media presenting competing narratives is not the same as media presenting competing opinions in a single offering. It has created greater division, fostered echo chambers that can be observed around the world, and is often fanning the flames of conflict. With our open broadcast model, we hope to offer an innovative way to address this problem afflicting not only Lebanon and the remaining Arab world, but also the more established democracies.
Belabbes Benkredda is the founding director of the Munathara Initiative and a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.