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The Fourth Estate struggling in the social media world

Written By: - Date published: 11:51 pm, January 27th, 2020 - 30 comments
Categories: facebook, International, internet, jacinda ardern, journalism, labour, Media, political parties, politicans, Politics, twitter, uk politics - Tags: , , , , , , ,


Ahead of the 2020 General Election in New Zealand, Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that her party is committed to run 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.

30 comments on “The Fourth Estate struggling in the social media world ”

  1. SHG 1

    The strength of that final paragraph is self-evident

  2. Sanctuary 2

    I question the impact of social media advertising on the general public. The true object of targeted social media advertising IMHO is to set the agenda and influence the framing of the debate of a traditional print and broadcast media that now relies almost exclusively on aging and out of touch political reporters embedded into the political class bubble, middle class junior journalists trawling twitter and instagram for clickbait and shock jocks for the talkback Taliban and more and more clickbait.

    If they think there is a culture war "out there" or that "middle NZ want <insert demand here>" or whatever because that is what they see on their twitter/Insta/FB feeds then that is what they'll write about.

    Personally, I think anyone who works as a journalist should be forbidden to have a social media account.

    • SHG 2.1

      That's not how this works. This is more likely:

      A couple of years ago a range of fan pages would have been set up covering a variety of topics with nothing in common other than that they were topical. Some examples I imagined in another post were fan pages entitled "Muslims For Jacinda", "Brown Lives Matter", "Fishing Fans Aotearoa". Those pages would have been carefully seeded with content designed to generate clicks and shares. A picture of Jacinda in a headscarf with a big text overlay reading "#EMPATHY"; a picture of Ihumatao with a tagline about Polynesian pride; a screencapture of Euron Grayjoy's fleet from Game of Thrones with a tagline like "still not as many busy as the Hauraki Gulf when the boys want kingfish lol".

      The content would get shared, the pages would gain followers, the pages would gain an algorithmic reputation for being high-visibility content publishers. Lather rinse repeat week after week for years. EVERY TIME something topical happens, post a meme about it. A picture of the Dothraki horsemen in GOT riding into the dark to get slaughtered, tagged "still a better plan than the All Blacks in the WC semifinal". A picture of Taika Waititi dressed as Hitler tagged "literally better than Hitler". Doesn't matter what it is, so long as it's current, entertaining, and gets people liking and clicking. And the sorts of things that people like the most and click the most and share the most will be carefully monitored and compared and optimised.

      As we get closer to election day certain voter segments will be identified as being more important for the election than others – white urban greenies, brown South Auckland factory workers, people in a specific marginal electorate, whatever. And all those carefully maintained and curated fan pages on all those totally irrelevant topics will change their names and mission statements. "Muslims For Jacinda" will become "Downtown Carbon Conscience", "Brown Lives Matter" will become "Pasifika Union Pride", "Fishing Fans Aotearoa" will become "A Voice for Northland". And THOSE fansites will start adding to their entertaining shareable content some thoughtful opinion pieces. "As a white Aucklander who loves the environment, I just don't feel that Labour really speaks for me"… "Talofa lava brothers and sisters! You won't believe what I heard at Hunters Plaza after church on Sunday – Labour wants to remove the word 'God' from the national anthem! Is this true?" … "Kia ora followers, I'm starting to feel like our boy Kelvin is getting shut out of leadership by the pakeha Wellington elite, can we really keep giving our votes to Labour when Kelvin keeps having to sit at the back of the bus? Just sayin…"

      Multiply by tens, hundreds of fan pages. None of them will be connectable to any political party, they're just totally organic 100% nonpolitical operations run by perfectly normal ordinary anonymous New Zealanders. And all of them will have spent years carefully building their audiences and carefully training Facebook's algorithm to consider them high-value content creators. It only takes a single electorate or a few percentage points to add or remove a minor party…

      Well, that's how I would do it anyway. If I wanted to win.

      • Sacha 2.1.1

        Great explanation, thank you. Too many people seem to think this stuff happens quickly or without determined effort.

      • RedLogix 2.1.2

        Best written comment in agesyes. It lays bare a terrible weakness in our democracy; we always tolerated so called 'low information voters' because we figured they'd randomly cancel each other out, and then there was the fabled 'wisdom of crowds'. But what if you had a method of tilting them all one way, a totally deniable method like this?

        It reads like you know what you're talking about SHG.

        • Gosman

          Maybe you should start worrying once you have actual evidence that this is happening in any meaningful way. Until such time this is merely a hypothetic scenario.

        • SHG

          But what if you had a method of tilting them all one way, a totally deniable method like this?

          I kinda implied this but just in case I’ll lay it on a bit thicker:

          Some of the most powerful manipulation the Russians did on Facebook during the Trump campaign was not getting to an audience and then convincing it to vote for Trump; it was getting to an audience and then convincing it to not vote at all.

          One of the examples I looked at was a fan page initially created and founded as something like “Texans for Jesus”. Once it had momentum and algorithmic power it was repurposed into a black activist fan page posting “black lives matter” memes.

          Come election time what it focused on was targeting black people and telling them that the system was rigged, that No True Black Person could vote for Clinton, and that the wokest course of action was to just stay home.

  3. Sacha 3

    The Facecloth tool that some parties have signed up to does not stop lies being spread – it just clarifies to some extent who is doing the spreading directly if they are not using associates and footsoldiers instead.

    Expect lots of lying and inept cooperation by people amplifying the messages in the name of 'calling out' the liars.

  4. Dennis Frank 4

    Tribalism can be seen as an organic process, since human nature is part of nature. Where beliefs come in is at the interface with culture. Political parties, due to identity politics, operate more like tribes than ever before. The belief system they promote performs the same psychosocial function as ethnic religions.

    The important bit of this is the necessity of conformity to the prescription. So anything will be used to spin a suitable interpretation. Facts are largely irrelevant to this organic process, due to it being rooted in nature.

    • RedLogix 4.1

      Lot's of so-called progressives here still repeating mantras that were locked in sometime during the 70's or 80's and they haven't noticed that the ground has shifted since then.

      Tribalism will always be with us, just as loyalty to family, to community and nation will be. These all have a sane place in our lives, they create structure and belonging. We are first and foremost social creatures, in this belonging is the deepest drive and logic will always take the hindmost seat.

      But there is an over-arching pattern of humans embracing ever widening moral horizons, increasing the range of people we care about and slowly but surely reducing the class of people we consider outsiders. The inevitable next step along this path is extending this horizon to the entire human race, the great big vision of a united humanity. In essence the tendency for smaller scale loyalties to fractionate and divide, is balanced against a universal tendency to connect and bind.

      The core problem we have with globalisation is this, our moral horizon has yet to catch up with our material grasp. We've created a global world of trade, travel and communication … but we don't yet know how to relate to it. This is obvious to me whenever I mention the notion of a federated world government … even the some of the most progressive and thoughtful around here go into the emotional equivalent of anaphylactic shock.

      • Dennis Frank 4.1.1

        Yes I've always seen it like that too. Globalism to me as an idealistic sixties teenager was inevitable. I think reform of the UN has been delayed too long – just removing the security council veto would suffice to take us to the next level of geopolitical competence.

        Tribalism returning like a zombie from the realm of the dead has been quite a surprise, so to see it rationalised via evolutionary psychology was enlightening for me.

        • RedLogix

          Which is why I always pushed back against indentity politics. While the claims of these groups are based in a reality … oppression and exploitation are after all real things … basing an entirely political philosophy on this pushes us down the path of division and alienation, in an era when all the constructive work waits to be done around a common purpose, common good and unity.

        • RedLogix

          Tribalism returning like a zombie from the realm of the dead has been quite a surprise, so to see it rationalised via evolutionary psychology was enlightening for me.

          Bret Weinstein who is an evolutionary biologist argues that there are really only two ways social cooperation evolves. The first is very ancient, it is based on genetic relatedness. It goes back billions of years and as long as we are embedded in a biological body this will be part of us.

          The other is much more recent, it is based in various kinds of reciprocity. But not only is it a lot newer, it's more fragile. It really only gets going in humans around the time we invented agriculture 10,000 years ago.

          Bret argues, quite convincingly, that if we allow reciprocity based cooperation to weaken and breakdown, we will default to our deeper gene based loyalties, or the zombie tribalism you're so dismayed by.

          In simple terms, backing people up against a wall, who have a genetic basis for co-operation, is very dangerous. It reverts us to an uncivilised state.

          • Dennis Frank

            Interesting – I wonder if that theory will attract support from others operating in the field. There's was a related event a few months back:

            "At a moment when society feels dangerously polarized, fragmented, and unstable, “Our Tribal Nature: Tribalism, Politics, and Evolution,” a Leakey Foundation Survival Symposium offers a forum for understanding our human urge to form alliances." https://leakeyfoundation.org/explore-human-behavior-at-our-tribal-nature-tribalism-politics-and-evolution/

            • Polly Wiessner will discuss why and how tribes form, the emotional and psychological impact of tribal culture on members, and how our tribal nature is evolving.
            • Alison Brooks will discuss archaeological evidence of the human behaviors that create large-scale social networks and communities, and the role such communities played in the evolution of modern humans.
            • Richard Wrangham will discuss the underlying psychology of human tribal behavior and explain why it is so distinct from that of other animals.
            • Mahzarin Banaji will discuss how our tribal nature operates within a broader social hierarchy.
            • Molly Crockett will discuss how tribal psychology influences the use and impact of social media.
            • Joshua Greene will discuss a strategy—which draws on decades of research in psychology, economics, political science, and anthropology—which aims to combat tribalism through mutually rewarding cooperation.
            • Frances Fukuyama will discuss our social transition from tribes to states and the propensity of states to seek legitimacy through tribal-like identities, which encourages the rise of xenophobia and nationalism.

            I hope they condense the expositions into a book. Actually, there's already one (and perhaps more): https://www.amazon.com/Tribalism-Evolutionary-Origins-Fear-Politics/dp/3319784048

            " Unearthing the most primal motivations behind the fear politics movements sweeping across the USA, Europe, and the Middle East, Stevan E. Hobfoll examines how the increasing sense of threat from the political and cultural “other” or “outsider” engenders an evolutionary, built-in “defend and aggress” response. This deep-wired evolutionary response is a defining aspect of our tribal origins and has allowed for the rise of propaganda, extremist politics, and―in turn―violence."

            "In this timely work, which binds theories in psychology, sociology, evolution, biology, linguistics, iconography, rhetoric, and religion, Hobfoll explores the tribalist roots of radical militant Islam, violence against women, white supremacy, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and an increasingly polarized and uncompromising political landscape."

            "Grounded in evolutionary psychological research, Hobfoll’s long term study of stress, and in conversation with contemporary academic literature, Tribalism not only offers an explanation for society’s worst impulses, but also points us towards the best protections against tribalism and other evolutionary traps."

            "Stevan E. Hobfoll is Professor and Chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, USA. He is a former Senior Fellow of the Center for National Security Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel. He has authored and edited twelve books, including Traumatic Stress, The Ecology of Stress, and Stress, Culture, and Community."

            • RedLogix

              Now step back mentally 10,000 years, imagine yourself at that time at the dawn of recorded history when the world was barely a few million humans, scattered widely, living isolated lives in small clusters. Everything pivoted around family, clan and the absolute leader. Belonging was fundamental, loyalty essential. Relatively reliable food meant that larger groups were appearing, and remained settled in one location. They needed narratives and mythologies that stepped up social cooperation beyond simple genetic relationships and developed stories to explain it.

              Inside the wall of the settlement was authority, order and stability, but also tyranny, exploitation and rigidity. Outside was threat, disorder and danger, but also discovery, opportunity and wonderment. This was a world in which the themes we're touching on were written very starkly into daily lives.

              Yet there is one obvious thread we haven't touched on yet, the role of religion in developing the structural narratives that supported the evolution of this world, as it fitfully moved from village, to city, to regional power and empire. Then to the nation state, and now onto the cusp of true global civilisation. This forum is not the place for to untangle this, but it is the missing piece in this miraculous, magical evolution.

              And yes those look like good reads. I’ll give them some time.

              • SHG

                Add to your list:Noah Yuval Harari, "Sapiens".

                • RedLogix

                  I've had that recommended to me by someone else in real life, so yes, it's time add to my reading list. Thanks.

                  Seventy thousand years ago, there were at least six different human species on earth. They were insignificant animals, whose ecological impact was less than that of fireflies or jellyfish. Today, there is only one human species left: Us. Homo sapiens. But we rule this planet.

                  Sapiens, the book, takes us on a breath-taking ride through our entire human history, from its evolutionary roots to the age of capitalism and genetic engineering, to uncover why we are the way we are.

                  Sapiens focuses on key processes that shaped humankind and the world around it, such as the advent of agriculture, the creation of money, the spread of religion and the rise of the nation state. Unlike other books of its kind, Sapiens takes a multi-disciplinary approach that bridges the gaps between history, biology, philosophy and economics in a way never done before. Furthermore, taking both the macro and the micro view, Sapiens conveys not only what happened and why, but also how it felt for individuals.


          • Billy

            A good argument can be made (has been made) by scientists, epigeneticists, that 1000 years of comparative outbreeding in Western Europe (the Christian taboo on cousin marriage) ultimately selected for universialism, but such arguments can veer into dangerous territory.

        • Gosman

          You would lose China the US and China within a matter of months if you removed their Veto.

  5. Enough is Enough 5

    Labour is playing the strategy game well so far.

    They are carefully creating a narrative that everything the right says online is a lie. The end game being that nothing they say can be believed and the reader is to assume the are full of shit.

    It is being pushed very hard on twitter by Clint Smith & Co.

    Hard to tell yet how successful it is, but it is clever.

    • Sacha 5.1

      The right are creating a narrative that the left are creating a narrative. Hard to tell how successful it is yet.

      • Billy 5.1.1

        well, over the past year evidenced claims have arisen showing that some American billionaires have been bankrolling political efforts, such as Super PACs, around misinformation and framing, and that these framing exercises are highly politicized. The piquant and convincing criticism of these efforts has not, primarily, come from the right at all, but the now tiny, put upon, activist left represented by the likes of Mintpress News, the Grayzone, and outlier, more worldly intellectual reporters like Matt Taibbi.

        Those already informed of these efforts see them for what they are and where they are really coming from.

        These features / arguments / rifts in the US political landscape are showing up here not coincidently. As noted, many of the voices and actors driving the centerist DNC narrative are also active here: Anat, Omidyar’s minions.

        It’s untenable for you to comtimue to paint the sincere and often thorough efforts of leftist anti-war intellectuals working to expose the influence of big corporates, the intelligence community, and the war lobby across the political spectrum as right wing – or Russian.

        • Billy

          it is going to be fascinating / horrifying to watch two national elections running side by side – in NZ and the United States – with the aforementioned forces or actors running the same framing exercises on behalf of Labour in NZ (apparently) and Elizabeth Warren, Clinton and Podesta and co. in the United States. How will their fortunes there effect their cousins or funding recipients here?

          Certainly, I think there is room for the libertarian left in both arenas – that the perfect candidate (not Bernie God bless him) could pick up the middle including the Midwest and run with it in the US) although i don’t see anyone in New Zealand politics willing to pick up what necessarily needs to be a pitchfork.

          • Billy

            Of course, the system is rigged to keep genuine anti-statist, anti-war leftists in the hole and such a movement would never be allowed to arise unless in a very controlled, somehow useful, fashion.

            Sadly, I see many on the statist left, and on this blog, articulating fears that the libertarian anti-war left is right wing or Russian propaganda, sadly (pleasing those whose business is the investment in munitions via shady firms like the Carlyle Group, no doubt).

            • Billy

              Who do you defend, Sacha, when you defend "the left"?

              I shouldn’t expect an honest or sincere answer, I think. You are very likely a careerist bureaucrat or party player who would be quite happy to take that fully-funded intern position in the US at MoveOn or Rock the Vote, thank you very much, just as any journalist who wants to stay working would be happy to shabby-chic it at the Columbia School of Journalism for a year (having been hand-picked by the US embassy).

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