How social media can learn from the struggles of the mainstream press

How social media can learn from the struggles of the mainstream press

Hillary Clinton was only the latest public figure to address the global epidemic of disinformation and demand a reckoning with it. And she made clear in an interview with The Guardian that neither the so-called mainstream press nor the big social media platforms were blameless. Among the allegations she levelled at them were that they promoted untruths and that they had failed to address untruths. It reminds us that though it is social media whose flaws are so often remarked upon, the mainstream press— now, as in the past — has struggles of its own. Those of us who work in the social media space should learn from these, and appreciate what both these areas have in common.

A non-existent rivalry

Social media and the press have often been viewed as being in competition with each other. The news that Facebook ‘unfriended’ Australia, removing all local and global news sites for Australian users, did little to dispel that idea. There are some who still believe that the most powerful social media platforms have made experienced journalists slaves to algorithms, forcing them to give readers more of what they already know they like and thus narrowing down what they think, rather than broadening their perspectives.

On the other hand, there are many people who say that the press believes too strongly in its own virtue and that it is social media that gives individuals power and access to a plurality of opinions, making it innately democratic. Both portrayals are two-dimensional, and in fact highlight what the press and social media have in common.

Bias is not unique to social

What those of us in the social agency space know for sure is that the press has a lot to tell us about the characteristics of the social world, and where there might be room for improvement.

Both the press and social media influence the public, have bias, at the individual or organisational level, and often operate in echo chambers. Both can and have been used for cynical reasons at times.

Both are also enormous forces for good, informing and entertaining the public, sometimes at the same time.

The ‘quality of information’ problem exists everywhere

They differ in a number of ways that are immediately obvious. But most saliently, social media gives theindividual a means to communicate with others, while the press comprises a relatively small number of organisations, some of which are owned by the same umbrella groups.

This empowerment of the individual user by social media comes at a price: users are not bound by industry standards or as many laws as their counterparts in the mainstream media, and can make claims to expertise that they do not have. Fact-checking is not built into the platform and users may not be who they say they are. This raises the question of how information on social media should be graded. But this is a question that has been and still is asked of the press as well.

Social media has no monopoly on unethical use, either. Inquiries like Leveson sought to address the unethical behaviour of a minority of journalists. But how would that play out on social media?

Social is evolving

As global platforms, social media does not have the luxury of running an inquiry to counteract the problems presented by the race to extremes that the predominant algorithms promote.

But take a step back, and you can see that something similar is happening within social media platforms, social media agencies, and among users. And solutions are appearing. Fact-checking add-ons and browser extensions are increasingly being developed and growing in sophistication, and within the surrounding culture, there is a greater understanding of the potential of social for misuse. Maybe there is even a rising appreciation for the value of scepticism and critical thinking when operating in any unregulated space. This, combined with the active efforts of social agencies, standing at the intersection of people and platform, to help to define the ethical common ground through responsible use and mindfulness of the real-world outcomes of social media, is paying dividends.

The days when social media was a Wild West are over, and we are moving steadily towards a place where social media can be its best self, all the time.

There is an ethical common ground to define

How might that defining of common ground work in practice?

One way might be through the appearance of consultancies or think-tanks, made up of people working within agencies, lawmakers and other interested parties.

These voices from within the sector could use their expertise to advise platforms on how people are affected by their social media consumption, and what new features the platforms might use to mitigate the risk of harm.

Social media and the press can be allies against lies

Writing as someone working in the social agency space, it’s obvious to me that the purported tension between social media and the press is a distraction, and that the objective of both is to empower people. We can learn from each other, and realise that our responsibility is to people who want to express themselves, inform themselves – and enjoy themselves. We don’t want to find ourselves in the situation in which the press has often found itself, constantly on the defensive in the face of claims of overreach or amorality.

But we in the social media space can also work together with the press and lead a fightback against those who would engage in disinformation. That work starts now.