A new study from the Pew Research Center’s Journalism & Media group finds that 74% of people of color get news on social media sites, up from 64% in 2016.

The study also finds that 67% of US adults get news via social media, and for the first time, more than half of Americans over age 50 (55%) say that they get their news on social media sites.

Facebook dominates as the site for news: about 45% of all in the US get news there. 18% now get news from YouTube.

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A quick shout-out to those journalists who are placing themselves in harm’s way to cover the devastation in Puerto Rico, as Frances Robles and colleagues at the New York Times have done, and to those who earlier covered the evacuation of the western coast of Florida, as Tampa’s Fox 13 journalists did, and as the Houston Chronicle ‘s journalists continue to cover the devastation in and around south Texas and Louisiana. Journalists are creating helpful resources such as CNN’s stormtrackers and the Orlando Sentinel’s infographic that describes what a hurricane is. And then of course there are those journalists who are doggedly following the daily machinations of the Trump administration at The Washington Post, those finding innovative ways to use data at USA Today to reveal how power and influence operate on Trump’s golf courses, and those who are fact-checking rumors at the New York Times, among other places. There are also interesting innovations such as Buzzfeed’s Outside Your Bubble feature that directs your attention to the ways that various audiences across the internet are responding to the same stories. Let’s hope that stories like these both inform and encourage all of us to act as we can to address overwhelming problems and call our leaders to account.

 

It’s hard to talk about journalism’s positive contributions today without recognizing the imbalances that are shaping our experiences of news. What do we do about the fact that there are large swaths of the U.S. population who seem to live in a universe where facts, and even fact-checking, is met with resistance because those facts contradict their worldview, causing cognitive dissonance and a backfire effect? What about the reality of a hybrid news system in which there are so many purported sources for news today that the young, and indeed many of all ages, have difficulty separating fact from fiction, as one study by the Stanford Education group suggests? Today it’s easier than ever for us to practice what social scientists term selective exposure. And after all, we engage in selective exposure because, as anthropologist Pascal Boyer is quoted as explaining in Julie Beck’s article on facts in The Atlantic, “Having social support, from an evolutionary standpoint, is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life.” This means that we are predisposed to seek out facts that support the worldview that we hold and that those most important to us also hold – and it’s a threat to our very identity to try to deal with facts that challenge that worldview.

All of this leaves me with more questions than answers when it comes to the topic of how today’s young people are participating in changing the definition of “news” through their uses of social media. Yes, it’s a problem that they aren’t relying on traditional sources of evidence and verification and are instead tending to trust what their friends say rather than what is said by (fill in the blank with your own preferred source of news, recognizing that adults don’t agree on this, either). But for me, it’s important to begin with the recognition that this reliance on friends and those we trust for information verification is not a new situation, since social scientists say that as humans we’ve always been inclined to seek confirmation for the way we see the world.

The implications, then, are twofold: first, we need to help to create more support for cultures that value an evidence-based reality. This entails teaching young people how to evaluate information as well as how to grapple with ambiguities, such as when facts contradict their world views. Because dealing with contrary information can threaten deeply-held identities, it involves doing the kind of teaching and dialoguing that is sensitive and empathic and seeks to widen circles of identification rather than harshly reinforcing identity barriers. Also, based on my experiences in working with young people, such conversations involve trying to link new information with what young people know to be true from their own life experiences – especially when that lived knowledge itself is related to injustices that they and their family members and friends know about first hand. We as educators and leaders have to learn to find points of agreement and commonality so that we can support some aspects of what another person takes as truth even as we may also present information that challenges. But we have to do this while also recognizing and acknowledging former and present shared pain.

The second implication is related to the first, and it has to begin with a mind-bender: part of the reason that we think that there is so much support for an “alternative facts” universe is that it makes for a great news story. So many of us are craving information about what is going on that journalists and commentators are obliging our curiosity – as they should – by researching the topics of fake news and alternative facts. Some of this is highly entertaining, like The Guardian’s Top Ten Alternative Facts for a Post-Truth World that highlight films and books such as 1984 and Wag the Dog that seemed to presage today’s strangeness. But all of this attention feeds the sense that this is a large and influential trend that says something about what people actually believe.

Thus, the second implication actually grows out of the slim margin of good news that’s related to journalism. The fact that we are experiencing a dramatic resurgence of interest in and support for high quality journalism, as well as surging interest in emergent voices that are speaking from evidence of their lived realities, is evidence that many, and probably even the majority of people in the U.S., prefer an evidence-based reality to a reality that’s manufactured in support of a worldview. This then reframes the question of the future of news from one focused on human failings to one of system failure. How is it that our systems are making it so that those of the minority are threatening those in the majority?

And this is where we have to turn to questioning things like the rise of Facebook as a news distributor and propagator of fake news, as well as an electoral college system and a media system that inescapably favors coverage of the latest new political crisis instead of coverage on boring topics like laws and policies that for decades have been quietly yet effectively restricting voters from exercising their right to vote, or on how various groups and people are working outside of the spotlight to address those discrepancies in access to democracy. And those are topics for future blogs.

Here’s a study on news consumption in social media spaces that is worth highlighting, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. in March 2017 (too late for inclusion in our book, unfortunately). This was a study that analyzed the news consumption patterns of 376 million Facebook users over 6 years and found that social media practices are indeed changing the ways that we get informed. The study looked at how people interacted with 920 news outlets from around the world, and found that most people confine their attention to only a few pages within what the researchers determined was one of five news communities, thus affirming “strong user polarization.” All of the data for this study and its analysis were gathered and performed using the Facebook graph application programming interface, which is publicly available.  Because the data were preexisting, the authors did not seek ethical approval for the gathering or analyzing of the data and abided by Facebook’s privacy guidelines. The project was funded by the EU Future and Emerging Technologies Multiplex Project by scholars at the University of Venice’s Department of Environmental Science, Computer Science, and Statistics.

Basically, this is providing empirical data to support the selection bias that Facebook and other social media platforms reinforce. People tend to find information that confirms their view of the world.

The question, then, is this: what happens when Facebook, which has clearly come to play an important role in news distribution, is not required to abide by the rules that govern other news distribution systems? What are we to do when we as a public learn that Facebook can accept $100,000 for advertisements that convey false information and that have been purchased by fake accounts associated with a Russian troll operation? The problem with this lack of transparency regarding the purchase of the means to distribute false information, as Sunlight Foundation deputy director Alex Howard says, is that “It removes our ability to have transparency into who is trying to influence our politics, and any accountability for that influence.” He continues: “And it takes away from the capacity of the traditional organs of democracy — that being the press and regulators and other institutions — to figure out who is behind political messaging, particularly at crucial times,” as quoted in an article by Craig Silverman in Buzzfeed. Howard argues that Facebook should have to disclose the same level of information about political ad buys that television and radio stations are required to do.

To me, this seems like it should be an easy argument. Who would be against greater transparency in how ads are bought and sold, as such information might bring attention to those who seek to manipulate public opinion in order to win elections? And yet, when I looked at Buzzfeed’s Outside Your Bubble feature for the Silverman story, critics raised points that seemed to question regulation. On the one hand, some expressed deep distrust in the ability of the U.S. government to regulate effectively (this is a skepticism I don’t share, probably because I know my fair share of government bureaucrats in EPA and in health care who actively work to pursue the interests of the public and to put a check on the interests of the powerful few). On the other hand, there was what I’d call the neoliberal response: leave it up to schools to educate young people about fake news (I do think this is important, but not enough on its own). And perhaps most cynically, some said such regulations wouldn’t go far enough, because donors can still hide how they’re spending their money and there would remain a lot we wouldn’t know and couldn’t address (the most ominous, but insightful, of the critiques, I think).

I think Siva Vaidhyanathan said it best in his op-ed in the New York Times: “we are in a worldwide, internet-based assault on democracy.”  Facebook is undermining democracy in the way that it has been allowed to sell ads in a way that does not differentiate between the hawking of pharmaceuticals and the hawking of politically influential and appealing falsehoods.  They have not had to abide by political advertisement disclosure rules because they, and their legions of lobbyists, have claimed that they are a “platform” rather than a media company. But we have to start approaching Facebook as an international media company that is a public utility. It’s a new kind of entity that requires transnational oversight. We need new models for this kind of governance, to be sure. But if this last election is a sign of things to come without regulation, and many think it is, then we’d better get to work on this.