By Dr. Ian Clarke
We live in a world that is rapidly changing in just about every area we can think of, including how we access information; while we still associate news with television and newspapers, the mainstream media are no longer as central as they used to be, because we are picking and choosing where we get our news and information from.
Now much of our news comes from social media: Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. In the USA they have a President who communicates through Twitter because he has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and can only manage to pay attention for 140 characters.
The traditional way of communication from the Whitehouse was through lengthy news briefings by the Whitehouse Press Secretary, but he left and was replaced by tweets, and now the press briefings no longer seem very relevant. Whether it is because of social media or because of the decline of the reading culture, people have lost the ability to concentrate on a complete newspaper article, much less a whole book.
They want to scroll through their smart phones, or scan the headlines of a newspaper, and only a minority of people actually read a complete article (at this point 50% of my readers have got bored and moved on!).
Who are the most important people in the news industry today? Who are the movers and shakers? Who do we listen to? Who makes the news? Who has the most influence on the public? Is it the commentators on CNN, the news anchor in Fox or NBS, the Twitter feed, the informed journalist from the Washington Post or the New York Times, or none of the above?
Unless we live in a totalitarian state, there is no single person or organization that controls the news we receive, but there are a number of influences, some of which are surprising because they are not human beings, but machines, bots and algorithms. The person who writes the algorithms that get a particular article, feature, piece of information, to the top of your screen has the greatest influence on the news and information you receive.
You probably realize that you are being targeted by Google and Facebook who have algorithms tracking your habits as a consumer, but you may not realize when you are being targeted by those with political interests, in order to influence your politics. During the American elections, the Russians were able to feed in thousands of fake news stories, through news bots programmed with targeted information.
As a reader of social media today, we are not only interacting with other human beings with opinions, but with programmed machines.
Because social media can be manipulated, and there are so many vested interests in the news we receive, people have become confused and don’t know which media to trust. Trust itself has become a crucial commodity. The New York Times and the Washington Post have become key players because many people feel they are trusted sources of information. They are still traditional newspapers, though much of their revenue now comes from on-line versions, but they are widely read because they are widely trusted.
Such papers do rigorous fact checking before publication because their reputation stands on being able to verify every news piece.
There is a great debate today about the value of news and opinion generated through social media, versus news from the mainstream press, with mainstream press saying that although they are not perfect, at least there was some filter and checks on what is published. But anything can go out on social media – real news, fake news, and news generated to deliberately confuse.
There has been a pendulum swing, from all our news coming through mainstream to a huge surge of news and information coming from social media. Perhaps the pendulum will settle in the middle, with us choosing news from both sources.
However, one thing has changed today: any of us can interact with anyone else in the world through social media, thus we can become the people who shape the news ourselves – which is how revolutions such as the Arab Spring came about, and why social media is shut down during elections by some governments.