Defining journalism in the face of social media

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Above: At the TTIGF discussion; Mark Lyndersay, Asha Javeed, Daniel Hernandez and Shernon Osepa. Photo by Jacqueline Morris.

BitDepth#1236 for February 13, 2020

On a panel at the end of January, I sat next to Asha Javeed of the Trinidad Express as part of a panel considering “Fake News and its Impact on You” as part of the 2020 TT Internet Governance Forum.

The panel considered a range of issues. Daniel Hernandez of the Cybercrime Unit weighed in on the legal angle, drifting rather dangerously into contemplations of a need for regulation. Javeed lamented the time it takes to address viral fake news and overturn its influence.

My own contribution drifted in the direction of considering existing reality, which isn’t getting as much evaluation as it should.

Fake news isn’t something new. The aggressive refocusing of perspectives and  misdirection from established, provable facts is as old as duelling pamphlets stuck to walls and lives on even today in much better dress as bad public relations.

What’s changed fundamentally and irrevocably is the amount of effort it takes to prepare material that effectively counters a statement or hard data that’s inconvenient or damaging.

An effort that once required sophisticated advertising, careful seeding of word-of-mouth factoids and promotional outreach can now be achieved with a particularly clever meme. Especially if it features Liam Neeson.

But why is this so? Why is it so hard to bring journalism to the surface of a turbulent pool of misinformation, deliberate lies, amusing satire and careless gossip?

It’s handy to be able to able to blame all this on social media, but this isn’t really a social media problem, it’s a Facebook problem.

The nature of social media platforms differs significantly when it comes to passing along information.

Their handling of external links and how they accommodate discussion are important to considerations of the relationship between media and social media and the dynamic that results.

All of them disaggregate links from their source websites to a varied degree, but a link passed along on Twitter is likely to be retweeted in its entirety as part of a comment thread, and discussions are the most lively forms of communication there.

Linked-In breeds its own type of insidious spam, garbage masquerading as legitimate business information or opinion, but the nature of the platform tends to limit its spread not encourage it.

Despite Facebook’s efforts to bring advertising to Instagram, it remains the platform that most closely hews to a social media ideal of popular posts earning their audience and defining a niche. It’s also really difficult to push news in that environment, which determinedly rewards the personal over the professional.

Facebook’s feed

That leaves us with the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Facebook, where the illusion of a personal feed of information leads people to become aggressively territorial when unpalatable discussions spring up on “their” wall.

But Facebook’s news feed, which is certainly informed by posts from friends you’ve accepted on the platform, is both a black box of algorithms that serve up all sorts of marginally related detritus while flattening it all out into a stream of readily digestible information that constantly streams past its users.

That innovation, which overturned the relatively static and subject specific listings turned up by search engine feeds, turned information discovery from a directed, user-driven process into the modern equivalent of network television, a thousand things in your feed and nothing to inform you.

It is this exasperating aspect of Facebook that is both most addictive to the platform’s users, as code constantly evaluates what you find interesting, what your friends find interesting and offers the list equivalent of an echo chamber, reflecting back to you everything you might find agreeable.

Not surprisingly, journalism, which is untidy at best and downright annoying at worst, had found reach on the platform to be an uphill battle.

None of this is helped by Facebook’s continued insistence that it is not a publisher, despite having a presence that’s wooed 2.5 billion users with a mix of user generated posts, external links and media produced for the platform.

In this environment, it doesn’t seem possible to create an effective remedy for fake news and publishers and broadcasters shouldn’t waste more time trying to fix the unfixable.

What the media has needed right from the start of widespread Internet consumption of journalism is a way for its audience to find relevant work in a frictionless environment.

What the media has needed right from the start of widespread Internet consumption of journalism is a way for its audience to find relevant work in a frictionless environment.

Media houses first ceded that responsibility to search engines, then wailed when Google began to take all their traffic and their advertising.

Learning nothing from that experience, they allowed Facebook to build an empire with their content and the wailing began again.

It’s now clear that the only real alternative to fake news and the dominion of external platforms is the development of resources that consolidate journalism in ways that an audience will respond to, then engaging that audience with transparency and enthusiasm.

We are so far behind on this mission, across the world, that it might well be realistic to wonder if it can be done at all.

If journalism is to survive, let alone thrive, it must be done and there’s no reason it couldn’t start here in TT before expanding into the Caribbean to create a template for the world to consider.

All it takes is the will to stop fighting for crumbs and begin thinking about baking our own cake.

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