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Unexpected Irony in Town Hall on Media and Democracy

Unexpected Irony in Town Hall on Media and Democracy

The text of my my “My Turn” column in the Daily Item.

My Turn: Media and democracy

Irony can often be powerfully educational. At a recent town hall co-sponsored by The Daily Item and the League of Women Voters of the Lewisburg Area, the topic was fake news and social media. This is a laudable topic given the rise of social media, especially Facebook, the changing landscape of news and journalism, and, most especially, what we are learning about the 2016 election. The keynote speaker, rightly I believe, discussed how our own cognitive biases can subtlety yet powerfully shape how we understand information. Before anyone is actually making patently false news stories, we always filter. She went on to state that 65 percent of Facebook users get all their news from Facebook.

The audience around me audibly gasped. For all of us who believe that democracy and an informed citizenry are symbiotic — that the one cannot live without the other — the idea that 65 percent of Facebook users are getting their news only from Facebook seemed if not a deathblow, at least a staggering assault on that symbiotic relationship. Because, of course, news found on Facebook is flawed. It is not trustworthy. It is as likely to be cousin Mel’s discovery of how di-hydrogen oxide is everywhere (that is water, folks), as it is a sober assessment of the policy options for addressing health care insurance. Knowing, wise heads nodded. Yes, the youth and the youthful, the tech-obsessed, the twitterers and the Facebookers and the iPeople, they are all just as suspect as we thought. Yes, we were right: They are the nattering magpies beguiled by the latest shiny bauble.

Except, that is not true. The most recent research from the Pew Center, one of the best outfits doing this kind of research, found that 65 percent of Facebook users use the site to get news. Not all news. Just news. The survey asked if people got their news “Often, sometimes, or rarely.” Twenty percent said often. The speaker honestly misquoted a study and it was so believable because it fit a prior frame, a bias if you prefer, that social media is a scourge of frivolous or dangerous news reading and sharing that is itself eroding democracy. (The study can be found here:

We need to define social media. Broadly, it is platforms in which person-to-person connections are the infrastructure for sharing content. Content can be cat videos or it can be critiques of capitalism. And these platforms are owned by profit-seeking companies. I am under no illusion that social media is the damnation, nor the salvation, of democracy. I understand the concern that many Americans are not savvy consumers of news; that they are likely to believe and share news that is a hoax, is framed in misleading ways, or is simply misunderstood.

Though the irony of the town hall illustrates cognitive bias, this only further bolsters the concerns motivating the speaker and the town hall. How people, social media, its owners, and news creators interact needs to be much better understood by all of us. Simply wringing our hands and wishing people were less gullible or distracted by dumb, irrelevant, or even maliciously fake news is not enough of a solution. We need a multi-dimensional approach. Yes, educate users. However, the companies that own social media platforms must be involved, and even confronted.

The very algorithms they use to drive and shape traffic and clicks and eyeballs will amplify some “news” at the expense of others. The Silicon Valley ethos leads them to claim “we are just the messenger, bruh. We aren’t responsible for content. That is for old, traditional media.” That attitude shapes their policies about their companies. And it is worth questioning. Most radically, we need to look at new economic forms of news creation and distribution. Perhaps this is cooperatively owned local news entities publishing online, on paper, over radio.

Perhaps it is pools of money collected from communications companies and which are then competitively applied to by news creators. There are many options. The point is we need to think as creatively about how to improve news creation and distribution over all media as we do about those cute cat videos.

Jordi Comas, Ph.D., is an independent scholar, chef, and organizer living in Lewisburg. 

Also, Linda Beck, the keynote speaker, acknowledged she goofed.  I tried to leave her out of it by name….

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