Events of last week offer a stark reminder of why trusted news is so important — and reminds us that freedom of information isn’t guaranteed and it does have a cost.
The explosion of social media as the source where many Americans get their information as well as the shrinkage of local news sources has given birth to an disinformation epidemic in our country, where its harder and harder to discern credible information and where mistrust of traditional news outlets is rampant. It’s a situation that’s as much the fault of the media itself as political leaders who dilute facts for their own gain.
The information revolt led to five people dead during the Capitol Hill insurrection and tens of thousands more in the unceasing threat we face from COVID-19.
When our phones light up with news alerts about a presidential tweet — or news that a president has been banned from social media sites — it’s clear how central those platforms have become in disseminating information in contemporary America.
Social media has gotten rich from the phenomenon. In the meantime, traditional journalism outlets struggle to pay for staffing, expertise and support in many cases because their standards and processes of practicing and publishing fact-based news runs counter to the clickbait, hot takes and outrage that viewers see on social media. In-depth journalism may reveal uncomfortable facts and raise questions about common beliefs, but that ethos to hard looks and tough questions can help Americans make informed choices. That’s the kind of journalism that must be revived and must be valued and supported by local communities. That kind of news is not cheap, but it does underwrite the basic function of our freedoms in this democracy.
Over the last four years, President Donald Trump’s social media posts, aided by the social media companies themselves, created a feedback loop for likeminded supporters. Critical analysis, verified facts and other views were conveniently ignored. In such an unchained information environment an angry mob emerged, one that believes that American institutions are rotten and that gasoline could be poured over our basic norms and ignite the conflagration Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol.
One example of how social media has fueled anger and disinformation is Facebook. Through the campaign season leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3, the social media giant prohibited paid political ads, a key source of the company’s revenues during the 2016 election. The company’s rationale in 2020: such ads amplified disinformation. But when Georgia’s U.S. Senate campaigns went into overtime, Facebook ended its ban and began buying politically motivated posts again, despite the local and national importance of the two races. It readily allowed partisan and often inaccurate information to permeate the personal feeds through the Jan. 5 vote.
Likely, your Georgia-based Facebook feed overnight became much like your Georgia-based TV channels: a constant attack by ads from parties, candidates and political action committees. In a survey by Citizen Browser and reported in The Markup, a nonprofit group that follows the influence of social media content, partisan media and messaging elbowed out traditional media coverage from Facebook user feeds.
Here’s the effect of Facebook’s decision, according to The Markup:
- David Perdue’s campaign spent up to $25,000 to reach nearly a million Georgians with one ad.
- Raphael Warnock spent $1.2 million on Facebook to blast out 205 ads.
- Facebook stopped some voter guide materials as it allowed candidates to gear up in early December.
- As of the third quarter of 2020, Facebook was on track to surpass the previous year’s $70 billion in total revenue.
Scrolling through Facebook, or Instagram, you might care about cute photos of children and pets. But Facebook cares about making money. Your feed gives the company an opportunity to do that, nuance and verified information be damned.
And Facebook isn’t the only crowd making money off the polarization of the U.S. While Trump loyalists raided the Capitol, some of them were making money by livestreaming the event as they went in. One site, Dlive, helped one of the insurrectionists make $2,000 through his real-time footage. That user had already been kicked off Twitter and YouTube.
And while we are talking about nuance and presentation: If you were watching the mob descending on the Capitol on Wednesday, you probably noticed that TV commentators were struggling with language for what was happening. Here’s a piece to read that talks about how the media portray events, rumors and people and how the events of the week makes us all take a step back and think about the approaches now and those we took on the road to where we are today.
We’ve enabled the comments section for this — what’s your read on all of this?