Journalists must break open populistic echo chambers

National narratives represent a bigger challenge than fake news says Garton Ash

© Photo by: Rainer Mirau for GEN

“Many, many newspapers are drowning. What do you do when you’re drowning?”

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, asked the question to GEN Summit delegates. The answer, all too often, was “more sensationalism, more dumbing down, less serious investigative content”, he said.

Garton Ash, who writes for The Guardian, has specialized on protecting free speech and looked back on more than 10 years of research in this area.

He said that social media — or “superpowers such as Facebook, Google or Twitter” fuel the development of narrow-minded filter bubbles where people read what corresponds to their thinking. But the media are not solely responsible.

“The real challenge in my view is not so much fake news but these powerful emotionally appealing simplistic nationalist narratives. ´Make America Great Again´, ´bring back control to Brexit´: How do you get into the echo chambers of populism and reach people?”

Garton Ash argued that fact-checking has become easier thanks to the Internet as it gave a voice to a diverse group of people. “The Internet offers an infinity of outlets.”

People have always tended to consume news in accordance to their own views. “What is new, is that this is being done on a global scale, 1.9 billion regular monthly users. In fact, we have a privately-owned global public sphere”, Garton Ash said referring to Facebook.

The monetising model of Facebook is a challenge as a self-contained system where news is distributed based on algorithms collecting user data and taking consumers’ behaviour into consideration. Garton Ash said that Germany was taking the wrong approach by implementing penalties for content that is “obviously illegal”.

“It is just a no-brainer that Facebook will pre-emptively take down more content than it should because it is afraid of getting wrapped over the knuckles with the 50 million euro fine.” There was a place for regulation, but the more efficient way was to get the platforms to adjust their algorithms which could be more powerful than “anything any national legislature can impose”, he said.

Timothy Garten Ash wants younger people to reach populists in their echo chambers

There was “a market failure in the marketplace of ideas”, he concluded. Disinformation and misinformation have greater potential because of our ecosystem. “If I were 40 years younger, I would be trying to bring good evidence stories into the echo chambers of the populace, so they actually break through to the people who voted for Trump or for Brexit.”

Watch his GEN Summit presentation below

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