Journalism in the Social Media Age

It’s a movement that began in Silicon Valley as a brave new world of sharing and connectivity. Its founding fathers predicted a golden era of social interaction and social media has now amassed 3.2 billion users globally. But with world leaders tweeting each other volleys of provocation, and our personal data mined and monetised in ways the regulated media can only dream of, social media platforms have hitched their wagons to the internet goldrush to travel to a destination a universe away from that original, disingenuous fantasy.

Facebook is a business controlled by one man with a golden vote, a business whose industrial data collection and AI machines map in minute detail the interactions between humans – the likes, posts, statuses, follows, comments and group affiliations – and engage our attention so compellingly they can predict our behaviours with laser precision; they know us better than we know ourselves. Facebook generates more ad revenue than all American newspapers combined.

With no regulation, and lawlessness rampant, are social media the new Virtual Wild West, run by the biggest guns in town? And where does that leave the conventional journalist, the Lone Ranger of truth steered by ethical codes of integrity?

Millennials embraced social media enthusiastically. Small wonder; the platforms offer the convenience of interaction, information, sharing, befriending, entertainment, learning, networking, political expression…. connecting with the whole world from a device you carry in your pocket. Many of this demographic are content to just keep on clicking ‘Agree’ without reading the terms and conditions. And they lack the skills required to identify a credible source; the phenomenon of Fake News has flourished.

With an extraordinary amount of data on their desired audience and a lack of regulation or accountability, businesses, organisations, elected officials and less scrupulous or even repressive regimes can target a vast and sedated audience for their chosen purposes, safe in the knowledge their readers are unlikely to perceive bias or apply a sceptical analysis to what appears in their feed. Ripe for manipulation, public opinion is shaped by partisan, inflammatory or even fake messages, co-ordinated across multiple platforms. Whilst not every user will be persuadable, those around them may well be radicalised by a video they saw on YouTube or convinced, by disinformation a ‘friend’ shared on Twitter, to change their vote. 

The ability of propogandists to micro-target the politically susceptible saw a tsunami of polarisation sweep through the 2016 American presidential election. US intelligence discovered less than 100 Russian operatives reached as many as 150 million social media users in an orchestrated campaign to sow political chaos. This, together with the change of algorithm which enabled a filtering of what a user was able to see on their feed, ultimately contributed in a significant way to the Trump victory. Hard to believe? When Russian developers launched Face App, this same number unquestioningly handed over a private photo of their face, paired with their name, and then shared the resulting realistically aged image with all their friends. 

As Anil Dash observed, in conversation with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU, when two thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, and platforms are making editorial decisions, those platforms are producing journalism; journalism unfettered by the ethical benchmarks imposed on conventional media. 

The social media are hostile territory for print and broadcast journalists, constrained as they are by regulatory codes. In an environment where anyone can post ‘news’, be that truth, untruth, information, misinformation or disinformation, without fear of consequence, the impact is far-reaching. For a journalist, the constant live feedback of likes, shares, comments and follows, as well as more insidious trolling, legal worries and the pressure to be connected round-the-clock, are implicitly linked to livelihood and career progression. Social media have become an essential and compulsive element of a professional journalist’s working life; one with the potential to cause envy, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem from a drip-drip torture of pressure that can’t be turned off. 

Add to this already challenging environment, the fact that of the two thirds of US Facebookusers who treat it as a news source, only one quarter actually read the whole story (Pewresearch). It’s easy to see the odds are stacked. 

But knowledge is power. The revelations of the 2019 documentary, The Great Hack, blew wide open Cambridge Analytica’s use of the data of 87 million Facebook users to manipulate voters and evinced a startling response when the platform’s userbase and revenue growth began to flatline. It seems there are limits to the abuse of trust users are prepared to tolerate. 

Consider also the alliance of Roger McNamee (former mentor of Mark Zuckerberg), Tristan Harris (ex-Google) and Jim Steyer (founder of Common Sense Media). The Wall Street Journal has called them the “New Tech Avengers” and they are on a mission to clean up Social Media-Ville and the very real threat they perceive it poses to democracy. 

In the UK, there’s a new sheriff in town. Boris Johnson’s government has pledged legislation to regulate the tech giants, placing them under a statutory duty of care and aiming to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.

Journalists can help engender a healthy scepticism in the social media user by encouraging a questioning of facts, an examination of the identity and veracity of those posting ‘news’ stories and an interrogation of the authenticity of images and video shared. With clear blue water between the rigorous verification work of the conventional media and the indiscriminate posts on unregulated social media platforms, there may be a rebalancing test of trust, or maybe the townsfolk will raise a posse to hunt down the perpetrators of disinformation. 

And not a day too soon, for new challenges lie ahead. Advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, 5th generation mobile networks, virtual reality; all will create new and presently unpredictable opportunities for challenges to human rights. 

It’s time to circle those wagons.

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