Mindless Media and Fake News is the new Fast Food.
I wrote this 2 years ago for MediaPost, but in an age where the media and the President rely on endless clicks and attention, and various forms and motivations for “fake news” exist — it seems more apt than ever.
In the age of social media, the editor is fast replaced by the algorithm; curation and distribution comes from our friends, not newsstands; and our opinions are further reinforced and entrenched by selection bias. With major elections underway in the U.K. and U.S., with massive changes in journalism and news brands considering Faustian pacts with Facebook, now seems like a good time to discuss this issue.
For much of human history, our greatest daily challenge was finding food. So over millennia our bodies evolved to store calories, and to crave sugar as a speedy hit of energy. Centuries of communication later, and we learned to work together to grow and then distribute food. In the developed world, despite having a general abundance of the very best food in the world around us, our bodies still crave the crap, as is evident from the success of fast food and confectionery companies.
Our needs for news is following the same pattern.
Before Gutenberg, for millennia we struggled to get the knowledge what we wanted. Education was for the privileged, and knowledge was valuable and scarce. The invention of the Internet, of user-generated content, of blogging platforms and fast, free data has changed all that. Information is abundant, knowledge is easy and cheap, and as a result our greatest challenge isn’t finding out what we need to know, but cutting through the clutter. Our most necessary needs today are for filters of what is good for us.
In the old world, things were simple. We had a trusted relationship with an “information” provider. We’d buy newspapers and magazines, perhaps even subscribe to them. Their job was to provide us with a balanced diet of news and content. Some information would be titillation — perhaps placed on the the front cover to lure readers — but that would be balanced by thought-provoking, long-form sustenance on the inside. Newspapers would cover a variety of topics — sports to finance, politics to world affairs. In most publications, a variety of viewpoints would be expressed, often around a editorial agenda, but one we knew was there.
Newspapers worked because they had a symbiotic relationship with us. It was in their interest to nurture a lifelong relationship with their readers, to get both the cover price paid and keep advertisers interested. Click bait would never have worked when people paid for content.
Incredible changes in the news landscape have changed all this. The way we discover news isn’t with one provider and it’s not through the homepage or front page. It’s increasingly linked directly to social media, propagated by people we follow or like.
Our relationship with news brands is shattered. We’ve moved from caring about the publisher to caring about the writer or even just the opinion expressed. In a subscription-free world, we’re free to choose from any provider. We no longer buy news with money, we pay for it with our attention. What matters now is eyeballs reached, not keeping readerships happy. It’s the world of ever-more-clickable headlines.
This causes me grave concern.
in an era where anyone can publish, we’re removing the role of curation and editorial control, fact-checking, and quality assurance. From Periscope to Meerkat, Tumblr to Twitter, what’s fast and graphic trumps what is accurate and considered.
We’re rewarding pieces that are most-clickable or most easily digested, and our news diet shifts from good-for-us to snackable. The best journalists go unread and unshared, and long-form content dies.
But more than anything else, I worry about our viewpoints becoming more extreme and rigid.
Recommendation engines constantly funnel our lives into tighter, more compliant spaces. If we tend to click on articles on the New York Times about technology, the engines show us more of those articles. If we don’t seem to like right-wing friends on Facebook, it won’t show us those friends’ activities.
In a world of near-unlimited content, our viewpoints become tighter and more specific, aided by an abundance of material to support preformed opinions and often created to move opinions toward the extremes. Engines do this automatically and without our permission, so not only are we shown a distorted view of the world — but this isn’t obvious, either. At least when you were reading Socialist Worker or Scientology Times, you knew what you were getting. It’s possible now to harbor extraordinary opinions and believe you are not only obviously right for doing so, but in the mainstream.
I believe that every action has a reaction. Maybe now is the time to realize that our news is too important to get for free, that quality journalism costs money, that our attention should not be stolen for cents on the dollar.
I love Chicken Tikka Masala more than anything else in the world, but I don’t want to eat it every day. Our news needs the same variety. Perhaps micro payments can finally take off and we can get the diet we deserve. Otherwise, digital obesity and opinion inflexibility will set in at a time when we really need a healthy diet.