I am currently teaching a journalism storytelling course at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, and during our first class we discussed why people generally distrust the media. Unsurprisingly, the answers ranged from misinformation and sensationalism to fake news. We briefly discussed how social media is accelerating its growth, but it bears spending more time on the subject.
Generation Z doesn’t know life without social media, so they get their news there and particularly on Facebook—aptly, Buzzfeed once called Facebook the “new ‘front page’ of the internet.” Only Facebook isn’t a media company, and journalism was never part of its vision. Yet with 2 billion + users a month, it commands the world’s largest audience.
On Facebook, the truth of a piece of content is less important than whether it is shared, liked and monetized, as Olivia Solon writes in the Guardian. The quantity of posts trumps quality, and the tsunami of clickbait drowns out well-researched journalism, which takes time to read and digest. Fake news spreads faster on Facebook than any other social media website (here’s an article about the 2016 US Presidential election), yet the company has shown little enthusiasm to take responsibility for it.
One could argue that even with a flotilla of fact checkers, Facebook still couldn’t keep up with the volume of information being published online at any given hour. But disinformation is being published on its platform, adding to skepticism, polarization and destroying confidence in journalism, which in my opinion signals a crisis.
For many years now, professional journalists have been struggling to prove their stories are legitimate. The public used to value the media as gatekeepers who investigated, fact-checked and verified information thoroughly before publishing it. They trusted our skills just as we trust those of a trained electrician to wire our house. But as the flow and experience of news has become increasingly focused on the user, it has weakened professional journalism—because now, everyone thinks they’re an electrician.
This is partially caused by algorithms. Online, they immediately kick in mirroring everything users click on, and differing viewpoints silently disappear as the world becomes reduced to like/don’t like. And don’t forget, Facebook creates algorithms to serve its goals. Such as when its news feed algorithm, which determines what users see on its platform, was changed prior to the 2016 US presidential election. According to social media educator Jennifer Grygiel, it pushed traffic towards posts by friends and family, making news content “significantly less visible to Facebook users.” Facebook controlled the flow of information—certain news just didn't show up anymore—without users even knowing it.
We need to hold Facebook accountable, though this will be a long process with legal and political ramifications.
But to do so, we have to start caring about the news. According to an article in ScienceMag.org, in America, people spend on average 460 minutes a day consuming media--but 400 minutes (86%) isn’t related to news of any kind. I’m guessing it’s Netflix, Instagram (also owned by Facebook), Youtube and gaming… My point is, if there is no drive to inform ourselves it's easy to be hoodwinked repeatedly. It’s impossible to hold Facebook to account and insist on it promoting well-researched news when you don’t care. Or not for more than 5 minutes.
The only solution I can think of (for the average person, not the lawyers who will spar with Facebook in court) is to encourage the public to practice critical thinking. For those of us awake enough and for any young inspiring journalist, I encourage you to take time when you consume news. Check yours sources—are they reliable? Read what the other side is saying, including publications with differing viewpoints. See the world in its complexity. For those who have the money, support professional journalists whose goal is to tell the news objectively and with integrity. Finally, realize the impact algorithms have on your way of thinking, news consumption, and life in general.