Should we worry that social media giants are taking over the publication of our daily news? Adam Bishop reports.

IN 2013, a PR executive by the name of Justine Sacco was boarding a plane to visit her family in South Africa, tweeting this moments before she boarded:

 "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!".

What ensued was a global phenomenon that saw hundreds of thousands of social media crusaders armed to the teeth with 140 character spiteful rebukes, hell-bent on the delivery of a cyber lynching.

The reason I mention this is because it exemplifies just how irrelevant context has become in the cycle of modern media consumption. On the whole, people now seem eager to react to the smallest tidbit of information, like a scornful cat ready to pounce.

Justine Sacco, as it happens in this case, was attempting to make a satirical observation about the world's perception of AIDS as a "black problem". But you see, with Twitter, it's hard to get across context and irony. A scroll down of Justine's previous tweets may have given you an inkling, but this would have required moving beyond the isolated tweet and investigating. And besides, if you fit the typical Twitter user profile, you were probably too busy loading as many outrageous expletives as you could into your response anyway.

It is this lack of collective will to investigate context and, well, facts in general, that is killing off one of the key ingredients needed to illuminate journalism as a noble profession — the pursuit of truth.

Whilst it is difficult to argue that social media hasn't brought any virtues to modern life, it is equally as difficult to assert that it has helped to improve the core state of journalism. In fact there is little doubt in my mind that it has served at the very least to accentuate the sound byte culture that the tabloid media had so carefully crafted before its arrival. And now like all self fulfilling prophecies, readers' behaviours have changed markedly in the past few years, with many now turning away from consecutive sentences of substance to instead satisfy their addiction to catchy clickbait and provocative images before swiftly moving onto the next meaningless scrap of fatuous transient discard.

This user trend is so much in vogue that last year Facebook openly declared its intentions to become a major news hub after forming a partnership with the New York Times to directly publish its news stories with other media giants to follow. At the risk of sounding like some kind of Orwellian conspiracy theorist crackpot, I have to ask why we are not hearing more objections to our complicity in creating a global super hub of news under the banner of one private company? One that has the algorithmic power to promote or suppress whatever news it desires. Weren't these the very same criticisms we levelled at Rupert Murdoch when he continually circumnavigated media ownership laws?

It remains unclear to me whether or not people are blind to this danger, or simply accepting of its inevitably. Either way, it is painfully obvious that having so much power in the hands of one private company is fraught with danger. One button is all it takes for an engineer at Facebook to block an entire topic from its feeds. If you consider that more than half of Facebook's users utilise the platform as their primary source for news, then we appear to have ourselves a journalistic crisis. 

The need to unfasten the social media world from that of bona fide journalism is an urgent one, and one that I candidly must confess has bleak prospects. The digital revolution has precipitated a mass pilgrimage from print to online, in the process diminishing the journalistic workforce considerably as publications struggle to monetise content. The hardest area hit has been the field of investigative journalism, with the harsh commercial reality for most media companies proving to be more of an immediate concern than the integrity of their respective content.

The proof of this is regrettably in today's rather inane media pudding. 

In the wake of major job cuts, even a non-discerning consumer of online news would surely have noticed the sharp drop in quality content from the mainstream press in Australia. I have been aghast to see such a dramatic shift taking place from respectable journalism to hackneyed tabloid trash from the likes of the Sydney Morning Herald, a once credible news site now trotting out trite human interest pieces and celebrity gossip in prime real estate. 

Now, despite my morbid tone, I do think there is a possible solution to all of this. Perhaps instead of our major media players engaging in a sordid race to the bottom, one possible way of winning back paying customers might be to create content worth reading? Feel free to label me a cockeyed optimist and demolish my online reputation through a series of caustic tweets for suggesting it, but to borrow a phrase from the film (and perhaps the aptly named) Field of Dreams — "If you build it, they will come". 

We can't put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to social media's influence over news consumption, however, this phenomenon does represent an opportunity for journalism to make a stand and clearly delineate itself from the world of endless micro updates — rather than integrating into the system. Lurking beneath the heady squall of dubious retweets, questionable trending threads and senseless post updates, resides an insatiable human appetite for the truth. 

But I'll leave the final word to the American political scientist Herbert A. Simon to close this argument for me, a man who attested to the notion that less can be more when he stated:

'...a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention...". 

#bloodygreatquotethat.

Adam Bishop is editor for satirical website The Fault Report. You can follow TFR on Twitter @TheFaultReport.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

 

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