The Fourth Estate struggling in the social media world

Ahead of the 2020 General Election in New Zealand, Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that her party is committed to run a factual election and has signed up to a social media tool to help prove it. The 2020 NZ election will be an interesting case study of whether in the social media age there can be honest political debate free of misinformation and manipulation of facts.

In the era of fake news politics has become increasingly murky. The recent UK election has been the latest example of this. For politics and specifically democratic societies,  trying to adapt to this new era has been painful and disruptive. However, for  traditional print, radio and TV media the change has been profound. And not always for good.

As I outlined on my blog in November, despite many problems that it has caused, social media overall is a force for good. It allows for greater diversity and gives a voice to those who have been under represented in the media. In an era where everyone has camera on their phone, people can record and share events globally in seconds on a number of platforms. Social media provides a platform where people can build communities of shared interests and beliefs. And in politics, social media has helped engaged young people in democracy. Also social media has meant stories get public attention that mainstream media didn’t bother to report.

And this is the issue with mainstream media. It has never reported everything. It couldn’t. There is too much news in the world to fit into one 30 news broadcast or a 40 page newspaper. Often accusations of bias or corporate media blackouts steam from the media not covering stories, are due to limited space. These days much more can be reported, as what doesn’t make the headline news can still be put online. And if the BBC or the Financial Times don’t report a story – chances are it will still end up on social media and if its of interest it will quickly go viral.

The downside of this is that we live in a world where anyone can get anything published on social media. And anything online can go viral. Often this is good, but also it can mean fake news (aka bullshit) ends up filling peoples twitter feeds.

For this reason traditional media still matters. People may not buy papers like they did 25 years ago, but they take a report by CNN or The Daily Telegraph as far more creditable than say some guy called Nick Kelly who does his own blogs (with questionable uses of apostrophes and grammar). But how do these respected media outlets cypher through all the “news” online and seperate wheat from the chaff? The truth is they have really struggled.

About a decade ago there was a spate of fake celebrity death posts online. People would create a fake news that say Jon Bon Jovi had died – CNN or whoever would report this as being fact – and minutes later Jon would contact the station informing him of it mortal status and the report would be swiftly removed. This was embarrassing for media, and upsetting for fans (and even more so for the poor sod reported dead).

Fake news and lying is nothing new in politics. Politicians are being economical with the truth is par the course. And yes often they got away with it. But sometimes a clever journalist would catch them out. The old rules of engagement were, if you get caught that it was game over.

One of Trumps legacies in politics will be the way he has managed to blatantly lie and contradict himself, yet survive. The guy contradicts himself on his own twitter feed. He is calculated to have lied 5276 times since becoming president. But he gets away with it, at least till now, by saying his critics are spreading fake news. In 2020 it is now difficult to tell what is true and what is false. When once respected mainstream media have again and again been caught out reporting fake news events, someone like Trump has free rein to lie.

In the 2019 UK election accusations of fake news were constant. Days before the election an image was published of a child at Leeds hospital lying on the floor due to a lack of hospital beds. I used this image in my blog post about The NHS. Soon as the image was published, there were multiple posts online claiming the image was fake. So while papers like The Mirror were reporting it as real, other media were reporting that the image was fake. In the end many who supported the government chose to believe it was fake. Whereas those supporting opposition parties were likely to believe the image was real. The truth became a matter of opinion, based on what you choose to believe.

Complete objectivity in reporting is a bit of a myth. There is not and has never been a purely objective news source. Certainly in politics where there are conflicting policies, values and ideologies being neutral and objective is near impossible. This is not to say that there aren’t ways media that can provide a reasonable degree of balance. And some journalists do this very well. But sadly in 2019, the media struggled.

It is easy to blame journalists and the media. But we also need to understand the environment they operate in. Newspaper circulation has declined rapidly in recently years. While papers can publish stories online, they have to compete with other free media, so make no money in posting stories online other than what they gain through advertising. The decline in revenue has meant fewer journalists, and pressure to do quick high impact stories rather than invest in in-depth investigative journalism.

Breakdown of UK daily newspaper circulation, 1956 to 2019.
The above graph shows the decline in print media circulation from 1956 to 2019.

In TV and radio, commercial pressure have created an environment thats is not conducive to quality reporting. Some still manage it, but many believe the quality of journalism has been dumbed down over the last 30 years.

In 2020 it will be interesting to watch the NZ election to see if the governments announcement about running a factual campaign works out. In particular will the opposition parties sign up to similar factual campaign pledges. Whilst this may seem unlikely in NZ, the chances seem far slimmer in the US where Donald Trump is up for reelection this November.

The future of journalism is uncertain. Traditional media will more and more be operating within the realms of social media both to seek information and to disseminate it.  There is a great need reliable and trustworthy sources of information, as far as this is possible. Certainly one would hope that public broadcasters will be up to this challenge. Sadly, as my next blog will outline, the UK’s BBC so far has not stepped up to the plate.

 

 

 

 

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