Why Is Social News Bad for Democracy

Consumption of news has become a social performance for the first time in history—and it only helps spread of disinformation

By Hossein Derakhshan and Claire Wardle

The Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2017 is, disappointingly, “fake news”. We say disappointingly, because the ubiquity of that phrase among journalists, academics and policymakers is partly why the debate around this issue is so simplistic. The phrase is grossly inadequate to explain the nature and scale of the problem. (Were those Russian ads displayed at the congressional hearings last week news, for example?) But what’s more troubling, and the reason that we simply cannot use the phrase any more, is that it is being used by politicians around the world as a weapon against the fourth estate and an excuse to censor free speech.

Definitions matter. Take, for example, the question of why this type of content is created in the first place. There are four distinct motivations for why people do this: political, financial, psychological (for personal satisfaction) and social (to reinforce our belonging to communities or “tribes”). If we’re serious about tackling mis- and disinformation, we need to address these motivations separately. And we think it’s time to give much more serious consideration to the social element.

Social media force us to live our lives in public, positioned centre-stage in our very own daily performances. Erving Goffman, the American sociologist, articulated the idea of “life as theatre” in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and while the book was published more than half a century ago, the concept is even more relevant today. It is increasingly difficult to live a private life, in terms not just of keeping our personal data away from governments or corporations, but also of keeping our movements, interests and, most worryingly, information consumption habits from the wider world.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth.
The social networks are engineered so that we are constantly assessing others — and being assessed ourselves. In fact our “selves” are scattered across different platforms, and our decisions, which are public or semi-public performances, are driven by our desire to make a good impression on our audiences, imagined and actual.

We grudgingly accept these public performances when it comes to our travels, shopping, dating, and dining. We know the deal. The online tools that we use are free in return for us giving up our data, and we understand that they need us to publicly share our lifestyle decisions to encourage people in our network to join, connect and purchase.

But, critically, the same forces have impacted the way we consume news and information. Before our media became “social”, only our closest family or friends knew what we read or watched, and if we wanted to keep our guilty pleasures secret, we could. Now, for those of us who consume news via the social networks, what we “like” and what we follow is visible to many — or, in Twitter’s case, to all, unless we are in that small minority of users who protect their tweets. Consumption of the news has become a performance that can’t be solely about seeking information or even entertainment. What we choose to “like” or follow is part of our identity, an indication of our social class and status, and most frequently our political persuasion.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth. The act of sharing is often about signalling to others that we agree with the sentiment of the message, or that even if we don’t agree, we recognise it as important and worth paying attention to. We want to feel connected to others, and these mini-performances allow us to do that.

“News is not information, it is drama…reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass where particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.
Understanding this is easier if we read the work of media scholar James Carey. He argued that the dominant lens through which we understand communication is a “transmission model”, with a focus simply on the mechanics through which a message is transmitted from Sender A to Receiver B. However, he said, we should actually view communication through the lens of ritual if we want to understand why people seek out, consume and make sense of information. From this vantage point, Carey argued: “News is not information, it is drama.” A ritual view of communication views “reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass”, where “a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.

When we consider many of the solutions being proposed to tackle the spread of disinformation, it certainly seems that the focus is on this transmission model. Ideas such as flagging disputed content are founded on the idea that information consumption is rational. If we are serious about slowing down the dissemination of mis- and disinformation, we need to start recognising the emotional and social drivers that shape people’s relationship with information.

There has been much discussion over the past year about the need for us to pop our filter bubbles, to follow a much more diverse set of people and accounts. But how do we do this when those actions are public? Do we need to explain to our network why we are following that hyper-partisan Facebook page that sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from our own views? And how to “heart” a tweet to go back to later for research when that action is public? Seeing Twitter tell you that your most ardent Trump-hating friend just “liked” one of his tweets can be jarring.

While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated.
As a French thinker of the 1960s, Guy Debord, would second, we’ve historically evolved from being informed to having information, and then to appearing informed. While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated. And when the algorithms that power these networks are designed to capitalise on our emotional responses, but proposed solutions require rational responses. Unfortunately, no significant change is likely.

Claire Wardle is a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and leads the non-profit First Draft. Hossein Derakhshan is a writer and researcher. They recently co-authored Information Disorder, a report commissioned by the Council of Europe

Text vs. World Trumps

Decline of text in favour of videos means more Trumps and Berlusconis around the world. How can we save our democracies?

By Hossein Derakhshan

TEHRAN — Demagogues of the world, right or left, have got to love television. The linear, emotion-driven, passive, and image-centred medium has reduced politics to a reality-show. As Neil Postman showed in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” television has vastly downgraded the level of public discourse in most democracies. From US to Iran, from Venezuela to France, from Egypt to Russia, from Italy to Turkey, there is as much competition over viewers’ gaze as it is over their ballots. In many countries, gaze is automatically translated into votes.

Most alarmingly, the internet which was the last word-centred public space after the decline of print journalism, is capitulating to the television format. Social networks’ notion of the Stream, in Facebook, Twitter etc., is killing the web and thereby the word-based journalism. Facebook now is more like the future of television than how the web looked like for over two decades.

A recent research by Oxford University shows that watching online videos is on the rise in US and most parts of the world, except in northern Europe. Perhaps because they have a healthier work and life balance and also because their public education system still promotes reading and critical thinking.

Donald Trump’s mastery of television medium means he can turn every threat into opportunity, every waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant. He seems invincible in the age of television and video-dominated internet.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that soon videos will dominate its news feeds, for it “commands so much information in a much quicker period so actually the trend helps us digest more of the information in a quicker way,’ in the words of Nicola Mendelsohn. a vice president at Facebook.

This confirms my own speculation when I came out in of an Iranian prison in 2014 only to discover a whole different internet, where text is in decline and images, still or moving, on the rise. As a pioneer of blogging in Iran, what I realized after six years of isolation was that blogs, the best example of a decentralized public sphere, were dead. Facebook and Instagram had killed hyperlinks to maximize profits by keeping users inside and exposing them to more and more advertising. Thus they were killing the open web, which was founded on links. The internet had become more of an entertaining tool than an alternative space for public discussion. Worse than that, I noticed a strange unease among the youth to read anything over 140 characters.

Of course text will never die, but the ability to communicate through alphabet is now slowly becoming a privilege dedicated to a small elite in many societies. Quite like middle ages where only politicians and monks enjoyed the ability to communicate through alphabet. The rest are going to be the 21st century illiterates who can mainly communicate through images, videos – and of course, emojis.

The emerging illiterate class, hooked onto their old television sets or to their Facebook-centred mobile personal televisions (i.e. smart phones), is good news for demagogues. Look at how Donald Trump has mastered the formula of television to turn it into his free-of-charge public relations machine. His capture of the spirit of television has helped him transform all threats into opportunities, garbage into gold, and waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant.

Neil Postman perfectly explained why in his 1985 book. To him, the difference between 16th to 19th century public discourse in the US and now is that public opinion in the age of television is more a set of “emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.” He sees the entertaining nature of television as only producing disinformation, which “does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”

The recent EU referendum coverage on UK televisions has been a good example. While sticking to the UK media regulations on impartiality, some still believe that the numerous debates where both sides had equal time to argue for their cases, had not done justice to a complex and sensitive topic such as Brexit. Particularly now that some initial claims by the pro-Leave camp, such as the diversion of a £350m “sent to the EU every week” on the UK’s public health-care system, are denied by the very people who pledged it. There were already much debunking of such distortions and disinformation available on the web and in print. But talking about numbers and maths is always boring and useless on television. (A persian saying goes as “a stupid throws a stone down a well, but a hundred wise people cannot take it out.”)

Justin Webb, a former North America editor at the BBC, went as far to blame the existing impartiality rules. Last week he wrote in Radio Times: “One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counter-claim so that they could work out what was true.” He suggested that “media needs to look again at how it covers politics and the way it holds people to account in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union”, according to The Guardian.

The twilight of word-centred journalism, either in print or on the web, means oversimplified, emotional political discourse, uninformed political participation, and of course, more demagogy around the world.

It’s hard to say whether it was first the public who demanded more videos, or was it the media that, scared by the prospect of ad-blocking technologies, rushed toward videos, which drew more audiences, generated more advertising cash, and proven harder to block. Nonetheless, we face the grave consequences of such shift for the future of our democracies.

It is clear that for a healthy, representative democracy we need more text than videos, at least to resist self-serving demagogues. This is not an American or a British problem, this is a threat to our civilization.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save (Matter)” and the creator of “Link-age”, a collaborative art project to promote hyperlinks and open web.