Some reflections on the Reuters Institute 2016 Digital News Report (I)
Where consumers get their news is changing. Over half of the respondents to a survey by the Reuters Institute reported that they use social media as a news source each week. Twelve percent reported that Facebook was their ‘main source’ of weekly news. Increasing reliance on social media for news is a cause of anxiety for two reasons. First, because Facebook gives users the option to prioritise news and opinions that their friends are reading, it is thought that users can create their own echo chambers of agreeable opinions, putting them at greater risk of normalising extremism. Then there is the appearance of fake news on newsfeeds. The timely placement of falsehoods in newsfeeds has created fear that social networks have become the Achilles heel of democracy, prey to manipulation by dark political forces.
Should we be worried? Not very. Take the echo-chamber argument. First, concerns about the role of social media in creating news and opinion echo-chambers free from ideas and information that challenge us ignore how we use social media for news. Consumers distinguish between what the Reuters Institute calls ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ news sources. ‘Primary’ news sources include mainstream news organisations like the BBC or the Guardian. Secondary sources include distributed news platforms like Buzzfeed, Twitter, Google News, and Facebook. When consumers want to know what’s happening around an important event they will generally go to primary sources—usually established news gathering organisations with a long heritage of accurate first-hand reporting. When they want to check what’s going on in a more general sense they are more inclined to look at secondary sources. Secondary sources are the online equivalent of window shopping or scanning the horizon for anything of interest. Consumers’ preference for primary sources as a source of serious or ‘hard’ news strongly suggests that, being less inclined to take what they read on secondary sources as seriously as what they see on the BBC or the Guardian, they are less vulnerable to the potential selective bias of secondary news on social media.
Second, consumers distinguish between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ news. ‘Soft’ news is often about celebrities and lifestyle. It is also more closely associated with secondary sources of news, like Facebook, or Buzzfeed. ‘Hard’ news concerns important public events such as terrorism, or general elections. Consumers looking for hard news tend to find it from primary news outlets like the BBC or the Guardian. One in five consumers who say they are more interested in soft than hard news report that social media is their main source of all news. This is telling. The number of all consumers across the 26 countries surveyed by the Reuters Institute who report that social media is their primary source of news is only half this—one in ten. This suggests that it is the strengths of secondary news sources as a source of ‘soft’ news that commends it to consumers. It does not follow that consumers who rely on social media as a main source of all news treat this news as seriously as those who watch the BBC. They may simply be not all that interested in hard news. Therefore it seems likely that any weaknesses of social media, as a secondary news source, are more likely to be priced into consumers perceptions of how ‘hard’, i.e. serious or reliable, this news is. Again this suggests that they are less vulnerable to the weaknesses of social media platforms as a source of reliable news.
Finally ‘fake news’, because it appears exclusively on secondary news platforms, may not be as dangerous or influential as is commonly believed. Secondary, and some primary, news platforms already use outsourced or promoted news sources that are vulnerable to clickbait, that is stories that are placed for the purpose of generating Internet traffic and, thus advertising revenue, for their originators. Fake news stories may simply be regarded by consumers as an (even more) debased variant of clickbait. Only this time the object is to spread false information. Social media companies already work to remove clickbait and fake news. But a sense of proportion is needed. Fake news is not new. The fake news story that linked Hillary Clinton to a fictitious paedophile ring at a Washington Pizzeria is in a long dishonourable tradition of scurrilous rumour-mongering designed to attack the reputations of the powerful. Whether it made a difference to the U.S. November 2016 general election is unclear. It seems the best response is to flag stories as ‘unverified’ or, better still simply allow millions of other Internet users to respond with the facts.
However social media companies should resist calls to be too heavy handed. Demanding that they do not host child pornography or acts of violence that are posted as propaganda for terrorist organisations is one thing. Requiring them to remove all false stories is quite another. Removing all stories flagged as ‘false’ could easily evolve into a form of censorship. An essential, if counterintuitive, aspect of political freedom is that people have the right to believe in falsehoods. Further it is this right that allows us to understand the difference between what is true and what is false. Banning speech that is ‘false’ could do to our political system what banning the work of scientists whose experiments weren’t successful on every occasion would do to the advancement of knowledge.
What the Internet has provided are many more channels of news and much easier ways to consume, and curate its political slant. There is no evidence that this will result in more ignorance. The Internet’s power to spread falsehood is easily matched by its ability to empower people to propose new insights and fact-check the work of others. Seneca’s observation in the first century, Errare humanum est—to err is human—wasn’t, even at the time, an original thought.
The Internet and its social media platforms are a huge marketplace of discovery. Social, just like natural science needs ideas that can be falsified. Attempts to remove online content that go beyond dealing with blatantly criminal behaviour are a threat to democracy. Those who would ‘clamp down’ on the Internet seem to be as selective about what they see on it as anyone else.