Post Truth Media – News in a Bubble?

I have a very old copy of “Understanding Media” by Marshall McLuhan on my bookshelf. When I was 13 there was a teacher at my school who was clearly a fan of McLuhan’s ideas and more than 50 years later many of those ideas still hold true but the context has changed.

“He suggests that the medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered through it, but also by the characteristics of the medium.”

At the time McLuhan’s book was published (1964) many of these ideas were revolutionary and novel. Now most everyone has heard “the medium is the message” and (hopefully) has some understanding of how the media publishing process influences the actual content that is received.

Back in the mid 60’s the television news was the big thing. The Vietnam war was often described as the first television war. The rise of the internet in the 90’s and the rise of social media in the last 10 years have accelerated and distorted the media fragmentation and medium effects that change what we learn about, when and the impacts and implications from those changes.

It is a truism to say we live in an attention economy. Often the voices which shout loudest get the most attention. The rise of “sound bites” and the supporting technology of cameras on phones everywhere has changed all of this. This can be a positive but it does also lead to wild speculation at times.

“At the end of April, a two-year-long inquest ruled that the 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 had been unlawfully killed and had not contributed to the dangerous situation at the football ground. The verdict was the culmination of an indefatigable 27-year-campaign by the victims’ families, whose case was reported for two decades with great detail and sensitivity byGuardian journalist David Conn.”….
……..What the families had been campaigning against for nearly three decades was a lie put into circulation by the Sun.
It is hard to imagine that Hillsborough could happen now: if 96 people were crushed to death in front of 53,000 smartphones, with photographs and eyewitness accounts all posted to social media, would it have taken so long for the truth to come out?”

From How technology disrupted the truth in which Katharine Viner writes that

“Social media has swallowed the news – threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences go far beyond journalism”

In many senses we are living in a post media age if that is defined by the old mainstream media of newspapers and television. Many of those media organisations had downsized or even closed down as their business models  (classified advertising in particular) have disappeared.

If we don’t get our news from newspapers and tv any more where does it come from?

And importantly how does the way that we consume news / media influence everything about that content. We should have our bullsh*t detectors on max but clearly there are newspapers and whole media networks that should quit and just grow mushrooms as they are up to their armpits in it.

Increasingly it comes from social media such as Facebook, twitter and any number of the online clickbait sites. When your main currency is traffic and click throughs then it is hardly surprising if even newspapers that used to be readable like the NZHerald are now just full of crap stories from the Daily Mail and similar.

Katherine writes about the lack of accountability that comes from an information bubble that filters out the truth in favour of gossip and emotion.

“Algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are designed to give us more of what they think we want – which means that the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. When Eli Pariser, the co-founder of Upworthy, coined the term “filter bubble” in 2011, he was talking about how the personalised web – and in particular Google’s personalised search function, which means that no two people’s Google searches are the same – means that we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared.

Pariser’s plea, at the time, was that those running social media platforms should ensure that “their algorithms prioritise countervailing views and news that’s important, not just the stuff that’s most popular or most self-validating”. But in less than five years, thanks to the incredible power of a few social platforms, the filter bubble that Pariser described has become much more extreme.”

In my world – most of my news media comes from actively scanning international news sites for particular stories and that is supported by the people I follow on twitter. Over 2000 of them are writers and researchers around the world on topics that interest me.

In that way my “alert” service is constructed by viewing a stream of content through outliers selected by me. It is curated in a sense by the biases and concerns of those 2k+ people I follow but compared to a Facebook stream I get a much wider view of the world at any particular time. The conscious bias from Twitter is easier to manage.

One old McLuhan concept I liked was that of “hot media” – which leads to feeling not thinking. When we have a mainstream media that is driven by click bait and immediacy we have a recipe that dilutes the truth and undermines the ability of consumers to understand or even analyse content.

There is no tacit appreciation of consequences. Everything is a rush. There is no way that even 10 years ago that something like the Brexit vote could be a surprise or that anyone would vote in favour of Trump.

On the other hand it does seem that at least a percentage of the support for Trump are votes to f*ck the system. That is voters have given up on the politics because they lack faith in that system.

What is really useful about Viners’ How technology disrupted the truth piece is that it helps us to critically look at some of the media implications of context and content.

The other thing is that media events often count on attendees to amplify the core messages of their particular moment / event. What is needed is less amplification and more questioning and questions.

P.S I personally think that the whole post truth analysis is wrong. I believe that voters care about truth in politics but ironically they don’t believe in the actual political system to deliver. Part of the answer to improving the signal to noise ratio in politics is to improve electoral systems and make them more responsive to what the public needs as opposed to what an elite supposes is best.