Barriers and Bubbles – Fake News and the Future of Journalism

“This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Sir Winston Churchill 

People will look back at this time in history and say “this is where it started” and what has started is the end of our fourth estate as we know it – it will never be the same.

“Fake news”, although not a new concept or term, has become quite the buzzword in recent years.  Granted there are many moving parts to this overarching theme, it would be careless for us not to recognize President Donald J Trump as an instrumental  proponent, as of recent, in bringing the concept of “fake news” front and center stage.

I found this back and forth between the President and CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta a great example of this new paradigm.


There is truth in the idea that greater details elude us the closer we are.  While people may hold President Donald J Trump responsible for being the match that ignited the flame that is now fake news, I have come to hold an alternative perspective.


This. Was. Inevitable.


The 2016 presidential election and the rhetoric pushed by President Donald J Trump was simply the foreshadowing of a larger paradigm shift within an institution that has not experienced massive change since the invention of the television and 24-Hour news cycle.

President Donald J Trump was simply the first blatantly observable symptom of this change.

Now, there are many moving parts to this topic and while I wish I could thoroughly discuss every single one of them, I actually want you to read this article.  So in the interest of not being ignored, I have consolidated my perspective into a few comprehensive points that I wish for you to consider.


#1 – News Flash: The Media Has Bias


To this day, for some reason, I am still taken aback when I hear people say things like, “the media is so biased”.  My internal reaction to statements such as these is somewhere between “duh” and “no shit”.  Let me explain why this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

To begin, first let me share two graphs with you:


Media Ownership - Logicrats


Media Ownership 2017 List - Logicrats


It would do all of us a world of good to understand and realize that the “media” is first and foremost a business.

Now, given that the “media” at large is owned by multinational conglomerates, it should not surprise us if we find overarching biases depending on the topic or event in the spotlight.

I know what you are doing right now…you’re looking at me as if I am a conspiracy theorist…stop it.

This is not a conspiracy theory, this is business 101.

Let me ask you: what is the primary function of a business?  If you answered “make money” or something close – then YES! You are correct!

Terms like big business and corporations are often synonymous, in our culture, with the word evil.  I get it, it can be frustrating and hard to stomach some of the things we hear and see big businesses do – but I feel this cultural frustration with big business is often highly misplaced; this is why we can never seem to regulate or deregulate just enough.

What I would humbly submit to the people out there that may hold these sentiments is this:

Businesses and corporations are nothing more than tools and the goodness or badness of a tool depends on when and how it is used .

Once we truly understand this concept as a society, we will begin to understand that if we attach business to anything – it’s primary function will be to make money THEN whatever we hoped to accomplish.  Now attach this understanding to “news” and voila – welcome to our “mainstream” news and media outlets.

Do you know what unbiased news looks like?  A list of events and facts.  I know – sounds dry.

Would you watch a guy or gal sitting on a newsdesk listing off a series of events that occurred today?  Probably not.  But you may end up watching a (semi-scripted) opinionated discussion about some event.  Especially if that opinionated discussion affirms your preconceived notions of the event – you see where I’m going with this?

The media competes in the attention economy; the currency – your attention.

I am often reminded of this scene from the HBO Series: The Newsroom about the Casey Anthony case that illustrated, in a very entertaining way, the peculiar similarities between traditional news presentations and sports highlights.

Spoiler Alert: they are similar.


This only begins to illustrate the immense pressure that is undoubtedly present to keep your attention.  This, in the context of business, is inevitably going to create (at the very least) subtle biases in the content that is presented…


Sometimes not so subtle.


Couple the fiduciary duty of a business to create value for stockholders and the fiduciary duty of a news organization to report on the things that matter to us most and you inevitably create “do not go there” or “let’s not go there too long” situations.

Having said all this, there is often a second part to the sentence when I hear people say “the media is so biased” and that is:

so you can’t really trust them.

And THAT is the punchline.

The general public has long held a silent mistrust in the media due to it’s obvious display of bias on a daily basis.

Bias is not the same as dishonesty or perhaps more dangerous – intellectual dishonesty.  But we say “biased media” with the same tone as “liar”.  This nuance is very important to understand.  Although I would agree that presenting information with heavy bias can produce the same effect as lying – they are not equal.

If I was to give you a metaphor, I would say biases are the colors of a painting; the painting being the truth.  One must understand various perspectives of a given situation to be able to see the full picture.  An “unbiased” report is inadequate.  Even simply stating facts can be done in a biased manner.  Let me give you an example:

Imagine you own a NBA team and you are looking for a new player and a scout comes to you and says the following:

 There is a player I just came across, he scored 15 points in a game.

Now if he left it at that, what would you think?  Probably that the scout is giving you the simple facts and that the player is not too bad.  He’s probably not the next Michael Jordan but he’s not bad.  Then he proceeds to tell you:

He only played for the last 2 minutes of the game.

Now what would you think?  Probably that the scout has your best interest at heart and he’s handing you a fortune and that this player quite possibly is the next Michael Jordan or Lebron James.  Then he proceeds to tell you:

He was playing against a group of 3rd graders.

At this point you would probably fire the scout for wasting your time and ban him from the building.  This small example illustrates the intricate relationship between facts, timing, bias and the importance of context.


#2: Social Media – The Attention Economy and Bubbles (Not the Fun Kind)


The Attention Economy

Now, the mainstream media outlets having bias, coupled with the dynamics of big business-anything is not a revolutionary connection-of-dots.  What is relatively new to the modern condition is social media.  When I say social media, I am referring to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Linkedin etc.

Social media, currently, has a value proposition that is unlike anything we have ever seen.  Remember, businesses all compete in the attention economy and social media packages consumer attention in a way like nothing else has ever been able to.  Currently, big businesses are just beginning to allocate the resources to properly market and advertise on social media platforms effectively.  During this “adoption” phase, the price of attention is an absolute steal for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs.

Here is a video by Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern, who illustrates quite effectively the value proposition of social media – specifically in the context of Victoria’s SecretWhole Foods and Super Bowl Ad Buyers.



All this is to say – attention is (currently) very cheap on social media platforms. This has created a tremendous opportunity, not just for smaller businesses, but individualsand THAT is the key point to understand.

Individuals, for the first time in history, have the ability to garner attention, through technology and social media, in a way that would have been impossible – I repeat – impossible pre-social media.

You no longer need hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure and studio equipment to produce and deliver content to the masses.

You need a smartphone and a data plan.


Bubbles


The “value proposition” that I referred to in point 2 is “valuable” because of the information social media platforms have to their disposal about everyone.  Interests, dislikes, purchasing behavior, political views, religious views – you name it.  It is gold for anyone with a business bone.

However, there is somewhat of a catch-22 for the everyday user.  Social media platforms allow us to interact and communicate with friends, family and businesses in ways that would be unimaginable to most, even 20 years ago.

But the social media apparatus has also created an environment susceptible to echo chambers and social information bubbles.

The reason social media platforms garner so much of our attention is because they push content that we like to see.  If they didn’t do this, they wouldn’t be successful social media platforms.

Now let me ask you a few questions that may help bring this all together.

  1. Do people generally associate with people they like and agree with in life or the opposite?
  2. Do people typically give credibility to people they like and agree with in life or the opposite?
  3. If you answered yes to the first two questions, then wouldn’t the same be true online?  On social media?

Now couple these notions with the fact that social media platforms depend on your attention to survive as a business…what do you think you will see on your social media feeds?

The simple answer is, typically things that you agree with or have a high tendency to “like”.

Now let me share something else with you…according to a Pew Research Center study,

As of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media. – Click Here For Full Pew Research Study

Logicrats - Bubble and Barriers - Twitter BubbleThis image I shared with you all in the beginning of this article is sourced from an MIT project called The Electome.  The Electome is a larger project where many different variables can be manipulated and visualized, this graph is just one particular visualization.  During the 2016 election, this project mapped out all twitter activity and created the visualization you see in this picture.  There were many different things you could plot by topic such as gun control, education, healthcare, etc.  This particular visual shows you all the twitter followers that have some general leanings towards Hillary Clinton and now now President Donald J Trump.  In orange you will see every verified journalist that has a twitter account.

During the 2016 election, a majority cluster of people inclined to support now President Donald J Trump, were not interacting or connected to ANY verified journalists.

This is a visual representation of a social information bubble.


It is important for everyone reading to understand, this is NOT an attack on conservatives or republicans;  any ideological group could be susceptible to information bubbles.


Conclusion


Social media has changed the landscape, plain and simple.  The barrier to entry to reach a vast audience has been removed.  Until larger corporations begin allocating proper resources, the price to reach a large audience will remain very attainable for the small business and individual entrepreneur.

While this is a tremendous opportunity for many, in the field of journalism, it will continue to create a very hazy line between verified journalism and opinionated news-like reporting.

This will afford many new and different personalities the opportunity to rise up to the spotlight that otherwise, would not receive any attention.  Take a look at this quick segment from The HBO Original Series Vice News which shows this phenomena and also discusses the twitter bubble I shared with you earlier.

These dynamics pose new challenges to our fourth estate, but I am very hopeful.  The Fourth Estate will have to adapt.  Social Media will give verified journalists the opportunity to branch out and brand themselves.

While a traditional media conglomerate may demand viewership levels in the hundreds of millions to sustain operations profitably, an individual may only require a fraction of the following to sustain an individual brand and production.

No longer will we necessarily endorse any particular brand of news but the brand of an individual.  In turn, journalists and news people will no longer have the protection of a corporate shield.  Intellectual dishonesty and intentional negligence will be a steeper price to pay in the public eye.

We will have to search through and endorse what we find to be true, not through a brand, but through the personal integrity of an individual. In this way, we the people, will reclaim the Fourth Estate.

Reclaim journalism as an honorable profession.  A profession that informs the debate worthy of a great nation.  Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important.  The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip…speaking truth to stupid.  No demographic sweet spot, a place where we all come together. – Mackenzie McHale (Newsroom – HBO) 

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  1. Fantastic! You’ve delivered again with another discussion about a relevant and controversial aspect of our modern culture.

    Reply

    1. Thank you

      Reply

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