By Michael Shapiro
What started as a way to connect with friends, family and sometimes strangers has turned into a massive ecosystem for distributing all sorts of information. As social media has matured, the ways in which that information is surfaced has become more sophisticated. Algorithms that consume massive amounts of data figured out what we want to see and when we want to see it — the effect being higher engagement and more time on the platforms. The other, less considered effect, particularly at the beginning, is what these filters would do to how we consume news.
Social media has fundamentally changed everything. The algorithms and data created a world where we are predominantly shown things that we like, while viewpoints and perspectives we don’t typically “like” are filtered out. Bad actors have figured out how to exploit algorithms to deliver fake or entirely distorted information, presented as news. Partisans, while they may be acting earnestly, have learned how to deliver their messages and viewpoints effectively as well, without the counter balance of objectivity.
This phenomenon has had a deleterious effect on news and our civic lives.
Americans are generally aware of some of the effect social media has had on news consumption and, according to a recent Pew survey, a solid majority, 62%, think that social media sites have too much control over how the news is distributed. But the understanding of that effect might be somewhat different than what one would expect. In that sentiment, there is a pretty clear partisan divide. Republicans were more likely to report that they believed social media sites have too much control over what pops up in their feeds than Democrats.
While there appears to be a desire to have more balance in the types of news and news outlets that are presented to users, that desire is driven partly by partisanship — a belief that outlets that share their viewpoint are being unfairly filtered by social media companies.
To figure out how we got here requires us to go back a little ways in history. To briefly explore, Americans used to get their news in papers and on a select number of nightly newscasts, then the airwaves would shut down. 24 hour cable news was the first major transition, ultimately expanding what one might have considered to be news to include commentary — commentary drove ratings. Hunger for ratings soon became hunger for traffic as news moved online.
The rise of web 2.0 democratized who could build a platform from which to share a viewpoint. Some objective news sites popped up, but like cable news before it, there was a realization that having a specific viewpoint could be hugely helpful in generating traffic. Because the tools to build outlets became so accessible, relative to starting a print newspaper or broadcast TV station, many who would not traditionally be considered journalists, were able to participate in journalism or commentary presented as journalism. Add in the rise of social media, and you have yourself a force that has shifted what our perception of what news is and who produces the news.
We, as a society, haven’t done that good of a job redefining what news is and what news isn’t. Likewise, it hasn’t been that convenient for some to put in the effort; rather, it’s been more advantageous to attack traditional outlets and position them as “fake news” to advance a cause or ideology.
There is broad agreement, again according the Pew, that social media sites do tend to favor certain sites over others and that political discourse has become more negative, but again, there isn’t clear agreement amongst the public on what it would mean to fix it. This disagreement puts our civic health in grave danger. When we lack a broad consensus on the value of the importance of the role that thorough, objective journalism provides, we run the risk of devaluing the fundamental balances that make a democracy work. Pew’s survey shows this fissure in stark relief.
The question now is, have we gone too far down the rabbit hole? Are we helplessly hurtling toward a crisis, untethered by the gravity that journalism and democratic institutions provide? I offer that we aren’t yet there, but we are dancing around the edges. What is needed is a way forward — a way to restore trust in news.
I believe the way forward starts at the local level. Local news has the ability to not only call the balls and strikes, and provide through reporting, it also gives us the opportunity to have real conversations in our communities about the role and importance of news in general.
The first step is expanding local news coverage by any means necessary. We cannot allow the vacuum that has been left by declining local news coverage to be filled by blogs, online forums and agenda-driven websites that masquerade as news. The second step is acknowledging our role as guardians of the fourth estate and not being afraid to publicly speak truth to protect one of the most important facets of our cherished democracy, our free press.
Michael Shapiro is CEO and publisher of TAPinto.net, a network of more than 80 independently owned and operated local news websites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. This post originally appeared on Medium at https://link.medium.com/1qrqXMICM0, and is re-posted here with the permission of the author.