‘The Lost Atlantis,’ would a question mark matter?
These days, it is unusual to be alerted of news stories unrelated to politics, the economy, or human tragedies. And it is very rare to get breaking news related to the past, a past so long ago that it may be linked to legend.
But this is what happened last week when our news portals alerted us that the lost island of Atlantis had been found at the bottom of Lake Van.
The story circulated all over the internet. I saw it reproduced in media outlets all over the world, inviting huge attention and naturally, a vast number of posts and reposts on social media.
The source of the story was a dispatch by the Anadolu Agency:
Divers working for a group of researchers at Van Yüzüncü Yıl University and the Bitlis Governor’s Office, carried out an underwater search in Lake Van and discovered ruins of a structure, believed to be around 3,000 years old. The head of the diving team said that besides the large walls, they had found a lion-shaped stone.
From what I understood from the agency dispatch, the researchers were not archaeologists but were searching for the famous, albeit so far unseen, Lake Van Monster! Instead of the monster, they came across this unexpected discovery and will now wait for the archaeologists to accurately date and identify the ruins. The news story was accompanied by a short video showing the huge walls in the bottom of the lake.
In a very short time, the story was transformed into a much more attractive virtual reality for much of online media. The walls at the bottom of Lake Van became the “ruins of the lost island of Atlantis.”
But this was not the first time the legendary island of Atlantis “has been discovered.” The location of the lost mythical land, first mentioned in two of Plato’s dialogues, had been discovered just off the Straits of Gibraltar, only last January, according to flashing headlines in world news portals. On that occasion, the story referred to a documentary shot by National Geographic, where the divers had discovered a number of large stone anchors.
The speed by which a hypothesis turns into certainty, a probability becomes a fact, a myth becomes history, an opinion becomes reality by media today is frightening.
So, it was a relief last week, to come across the article by the editor-in-chief of the British Guardian newspaper, Katharine Viner, on the “mission of journalism in a time of crisis.” She views our times as a period of “dazzling political shocks and the disruptive impact of new technologies,” where in the past two decades “the public sphere has changed more radically than in the previous two centuries.”
She also says that while the discovery of the world wide web created a “utopian mood” of interconnectivity, we ended up having a new media environment whereby “publishers funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find, publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most extreme stories to boost clicks. Readers are bewildered by the quantity of ‘news’ they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable.”
All these may be too much to ask at a moment when “fake news” has crept in as a new component of the journalist profession; which means, unfortunately few would notice and even fewer would care whether the question mark was omitted from the “discovered Atlantis” story. After all, the story had enough clicks online that it would not even matter if it was fake.