Social media monopolies don’t produce informed citizens

CleanisHappy(Image courtesy of Robert Acevedo on Flickr)

Given my large number of Facebook friends who are former Internet Studies alum or current colleagues, and that this article was published by Buzzfeed, it was all over my newsfeed this morning: How Ferguson exposed Facebook’s breaking news problem

The gist of the article is that while Twitter has been buzzing with news stories, commentary, and live tweets about the protests in Ferguson over the past week, Facebook has been relatively silent. That’s true, and while Buzzfeed invites us to “blame” the algorithms or the users, I want to focus on us, the users, because our actions are what we have the most control over in the face of black-box, proprietary algorithms. The people I know who are most informed still have to work at it, even in the age of social media. But they don’t do much, just one key thing: they diversify their media intake and participation.

One of the greatest lessons that the broadcast media era taught us was that monopolies don’t work. I remember reading Benkler’s explanation of the Berlusconi effect – the way that controlling the media ramps up political power – which was coined after Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who used his ownership of the country’s main media outlets to his political benefit. Similarly, America has its own media monopolies, except these are owned by large corporations such as NewsCorp and Time Warner. These monopolies often lead to one, universal account of a story being perpetuated across all news outlets. Since no other angles are explored, audiences tend to accept this version as the story without further contention or dialogue. Then it gets pushed out by the next headline-grabber and everyone moves on with their lives, except the people whose lives were affected by the news event itself, like those in Ferguson who are still dealing with the circumstances and aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

Of course, social media has diversified the way we receive and disseminate information. But it still requires us to go out and get it from places where dialogue about politics and breaking news is likely to be happening. If you spend all your time online in a Facebook cocoon, then I’m not surprised you haven’t heard anything about Ferguson. The Buzzfeed article points out that Twitter and Facebook are vying to be people’s sole news source by introducing similar features to display what’s trending. But your friends would still be more likely to post a cute cat photo on Facebook than to rant about politics, and I don’t blame them. Facebook is not Twitter. People have different, although sometimes overlapping, networks on both of these sites. You can’t be sure that Aunt Millie, your pastor, and your former boss all want to hear about the violation of Americans’ human rights, but it’s pretty certain that none of them will raise a fuss about another ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video. So, you can blame the algorithms, and if Facebook is censoring ‘depressing’ content as it did in its controversial ’emotions study’ then that’s another issue, but it might be more likely that your Facebook friends are the reason you’re not seeing much real news.

Facebook may be apolitical compared to Twitter, but that’s like comparing the Family Channel to CNN (I mean, if CNN presented diverse perspectives on the news). News is out there and being talked about on the Internet but you have to go out and get it. In 2013, PEW reported that only 26% of Americans get their news from two or more social media sites. That means the rest of us are settling for cat pictures. If you think people should bring political and news-related discussions to Facebook, then start talking about these things on your Timeline. If you want to be informed and hear multiple angles about what’s going on, then get on Twitter, seek out independent news blogs, and diversify your media. Instigate conversations, bring them back to your platform of choice, discuss them with others often and loudly, and in as many forms as you can handle. Be the change you want to see, not the algorithmic victim.


UPDATE: After a week of mulling over this, I realize the above is a bit of an idealistic call for individuals to empower themselves in obtaining news/media diversity. It’s since occurred to me (or been brought to my attention by excellent thinkers) that not everyone has the time, money, and media literacy necessary to seek out a variety of independent news sources. I also downplayed the tyranny of invisible algorithms and the fact that most people don’t know the extent to which their newsfeeds are filtered. So, my take home message remains that I believe in empowerment through (social) media literacy and attention to our information sources, but I know it’s just not that easy. Here’s an Atlantic article with some good ideas of how we can tackle algorithmic sorting and give people more agency in obtaining information that’s pertinent to them.

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