The new guardians of information

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Each morning, as I start my day with a cup of coffee, I take a quick glance at the three freshly delivered newspapers on the dining table. Scrolling through the headlines, I always wonder how the editors decide which news to get on the front page for that day, and which to relegate to the inside pages.

In the early 1990s, I worked as an early-night news anchor for the newly opened ABC-5 TV station. I remember being impressed by the large number of reports available from which the newsroom staff had to distill the final list of early evening information. Reports were listed in the order they should be read, which could change at the last minute.

Sometimes there was room for “breaking news” or “live reporting”, leaving no time for the final bits of the original programming. Some of them were saved for the next day’s programming, or stored as payloads, or thrown away as stale news. Seeing this, I marveled at how newsrooms like ours, in effect, decided for the public what was important to know about the world on a daily basis. I was struck by the enormity of this responsibility.

It is the power, or the burden, of selectivity. It has less to do with whether something is true or false – for not all truths can be realistically reported – than with what should be considered relevant or important, or worth knowing. . It is a matter of judgment, which goes beyond simply determining whether something is factual or not.

In the world of the mainstream media, the guardians of the faith in sound judgment are the editors, who are responsible not only for checking the facts but, in fact, for enforcing a discipline of rationality and judgment. common sense in selecting information. They are the guardians of what Nietzsche described as “the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing and hearing, the enjoyment of the lack of discipline of the mind, the joy of human unreason”.

Because of the compelling force of this faith, it is not surprising how different newspapers and broadcast networks, regardless of their ideological leanings or ownership, tend to mirror or echo each other, as if a invisible hand urged them to report more or less the same news every day. There is no conspiracy here. Much of this is rooted in the training of professional journalists. It is encapsulated in notions of what constitutes good journalism.

In this regard, publishers and media owners have very little or no control over the news selection process. As sociologist Niklas Luhmann put it in his book “The Reality of Mass Media”, “[their] the freedom to make decisions in the choice of the information they disseminate is far less than what critics often assume. “

The internet has turned this whole mass communication ecosystem upside down almost overnight. The new technology has made it possible for the massive dissemination of information virtually by anyone with access to any of the social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, etc. This capability was once the monopoly of newspapers and broadcast networks, which offered no room for readers and listeners to react to news in real time. It was essentially a one-sided relationship, meaning unchallenged power.

In the early days of the new information superhighway, many of us celebrated the advent of social media as the ultimate democratization of mass communication. We welcomed the blogger as the model of the citizen-journalist and welcomed the overnight proliferation of independent websites that reported events from a non-traditional perspective.

This newfound freedom of communication, which its practitioners sometimes enjoy in full anonymity, has the effect of masking the more insidious and disproportionate power of online social networking services that disseminate our posted communications. These global conglomerates are the new information kings. The more traffic they can generate on their platforms, the higher their income. They know that good news rarely gets as much attention as bad news, that truth isn’t as sexy as lying, and that intense conflict and disagreement generates more interest than consensus. They have defined their algorithms accordingly.

Unlike traditional media publishers and gatekeepers who struggled with their conscience every day by offloading the burden of selectivity, owners of social media platforms freed themselves from this burden by letting their algorithms automatically do the work of selecting information. in their place.

Maria Ressa, in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize the other day, rightly called these social media giants “the new gatekeepers.” They are the ones who “let a virus of lies infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, our anger, our hatred and paving the way for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world” .

Maria stressed the need to fight disinformation with facts. “Facebook,” she said, “is the world’s largest distributor of information, yet studies have shown that lies mixed with anger and hate spread faster and farther than the facts.” But I would say that the facts too can be “mixed with anger and hate”. Therefore, fact-checking cannot go any further in tackling the virus of hate, fear and resentment. We need to question the whole business model that works through these internet based media companies. As the new custodians of information, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube must be held accountable for what they allow their users to post on their sites.

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