Bubbles are dangerous. Bubbles that you might not consciously know you inhabit are not just bad, they are evil and furthers the polarisation of the social and political landscape. The internet had the potential to change it. This potential is now on life-support, and it is not looking good.
News aggregating algorithms, social media and ultimately us. From the bubbles that insulate us from different opinions to the false news stories that are shared, all contribute to the poor health of the potential of the internet. Ideological segregation, the internet had the potential to expose us to varied and different opinions helping us overcome it and allow us to have even more informed debates helping us navigate and evolve as a society. Can it still do that?
What is the effect of such technological changes on ideological segregation? On the one hand, with more options, individuals may choose to consume only content that accords with their previously held beliefs -Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, Seth Flaxman et. al. (accessed 04/12/2016)
Nobody likes being told they might be wrong, or that whatever opinion or belief they hold might not be the only one on whichever subject matter keeps the media spotlight at any given time. It is not a new thing that we seek out confirmation of our existing beliefs and views. Broadcast and print media may well be in decline, but we still have a broad range of print publications and broadcasters. Many if not all have a particular political leaning or favourable attitude towards one or more specific issues. These did, and still, do, the same thing as news aggregators and social media does. Pander to a particular mindset. The difference is that while print media is static, providing the same news and articles regardless of the individual that reads it.
The outlets that dominate partisan news coverage are still relatively mainstream, ranging from the New York Times on the left to Fox News on the right[…] -Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, Seth Flaxman et. al. (accessed 04/12/2016)
Internet news publications, aggregators and social media are dynamic; they can tailor the content to specific individuals based on collected data. The advent of social media, it can be argued, adds to this problem as it either introduces or enhances a social bias as well. On sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, etc. You add people that you consider friends, the more you interact with them, the more their content appears in your feed be it their latest update on what they were up to during the weekend, or news articles they share and the trust we have in our friends lends credibility to the news articles they share. (The Conversation, P. Menczer accessed 04/12/2016)
This difference between the two means that the print media and broadcasts since they cannot tailor their product (news) to individuals only to a bigger group, the spectre of news articles and issues discussed will be broader. This increases the chance of exposing individuals within that group to a more nuanced, if not, divergent view on issues.
Social media can also be said to expose people to different beliefs, opinions and general world view. However, it is more reliant on the person to not simply filter out those people from appearing in their social media feed, which takes us back to the issue of nobody likes being told they might be wrong. Even so, what it cannot help alleviate is the impact on false or seriously misleading news.
Stories about false news on Facebook have dominated certain sections of the press for weeks following the American presidential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more insidious. Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for tech companies to be more open and transparent calls the results “very profound, very troubling”. –Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian (accessed 04/12/16)
What constitutes misleading can be somewhat subjective, false is not. It is the fabrication (or consciously misrepresentation) of facts, research or events to advance or support an issue or argument.
False news and false stories are nothing new however the internet allows such stories to spread rapidly and in social media, there is not retraction published by the source, that is at best left to the comment section. The comment section might be read by the person who made the post however for the individuals who just read it and moved on they will be unlikely to encounter that. It certainly gives the quote attributed to both Mark Twain and W.S. Churchill a greater relevance in the modern world than either of them could envision.
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
The prevalence of false news and our inability to differentiate them from actual news has gotten to the point where even news organisations can find themselves citing them either as sources for a story or make them the story itself. Only offer commentary on the issue seemingly taking it for granted that it should be an actual story rather than a fabrication or satirical. It is not as simple as this; the amount of false news is of course not to blame on its own. I think it is symptomatic of a society that has become indifferent to the accuracy of the news being presented to them if it conforms to what they expect of it.
We should not let the news be driven by we expect of it. It should be motivated by a desire to inform, educate and improve the public discourse. However, until we, the consumers, make it more profitable, more so than just regurgitating snippets of news designed just to enrage or insubstantial entertainment.
Alongside this, we, the consumers of news, need to do some critical thinking and searching for supporting evidence beyond just a simple google search. We need to check the source, check the author and check the publication or site. In the age of social media, us the users have been handed the responsibilities that previously lay with an editor when spreading the news. We must also act as a journalist when consuming news, treat it as a reporter would an unverified source. With a healthy amount of scepticism mixed with curiosity encouraging us to try to ensure that false news does not gain a stronger foothold in social media or anywhere else.
If we fail at this, it is ourselves that suffer, collectively we will be less accurately informed. News drives the narrative of society. We react to it, form our opinions based on it, we base our decisions including who and what we vote for. The press, whether print broadcast, is now and has been one of the most important institutions in society. It is not without reason that the press and news organisations are the fourth pillars of democracy.
I think the biggest mistake the newspapers made was back in the infancy of the internet when in a rush to be first; they gave away their content for free. Sure, some tried paywalls and subscriptions, however, these solutions were not what you would call elegant (and that is putting it nicely) these were the days before PayPal, Patreon, Stripe or any other simple, secure online payment system existed. The threshold for using the ones that existed back then was prohibitively high; it was the realm of hardcore geeks, not the general population.
Whatever the reason, by making their content not only freely available but also free of cost they put themselves on equal footing with any other site on the internet. This did not leave them less credible as much as it rather gave credibility to publications that would otherwise have little of it, and to the outright fraudulent sites only because they shared a common platform.
The genie was however out of the bottle, and any attempt at putting it back is an ongoing endeavour. Even more so because the general internet culture as it emerged was championing “information should be free” which unfortunately was thought to mean free from cost, not free from censorship. I grew up with this, and it was a bubble of like-minded individuals. The internet was the new thing anything not on it was going to be phased out… this is where I now wish that the nuances of language would be better used. If instead, we had used the word “free”, as in the freedom to act, speak and write what we pleased and never to describe something as free of cost. The existing word for the latter is gratis (adverb, without charge; free.) If we had done this, the distinction might have been clearer then and now. Or perhaps it was inevitable. However, we ended up here:
The internet needs our help to make it what is should be, to realise its full potential when it comes to news and public discourse. Think before you share something, spend a few minutes evaluating the credibility of the thing you are about to share. If you thought important enough to your friends and acquaintances to read it should be important enough for you to spend those minutes.
The newspapers need our help too; they can’t put the free content genie back in the bottle, the work they are doing is as critical as it has ever been. Subscribe to one, if only a digital subscription¹. It gets rid of the annoying adverts as well; you know the ones you probably have an ad blocker for.
In closing I would say, read newspapers and read more than one, perhaps even one with a different political leaning than yourself.
¹ It is more environmentally friendly as well. – Marie Therese Norekvål Hayes, Skype call 04/12/2016
Written by Sindre Sandvik (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2016, this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.