Deconstructing the echo chamber one piece at a time

All this talk of ‘echo chambers‘, fake news and confirmation bias is making the world of journalism a very noisy space to inhabit right now. There’s a lot of blame being bandied about, but like any complex issue, the solution cannot be distilled into the problem-solving equivalent of 140 characters. So let’s start at the beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start.

trump-echo-chamberBreaking out of the echo chamber – it starts in the newsrooms

The echo chamber is, when you think about it, a bit like a brick wall where a garden fence used to be – but a wall that just keeps getting higher and higher. Having sight of and occasional conversation with people on the other side of that delineation is incredibly important: no one’s saying you’re going to agree, but those small daily interactions contribute greatly to understanding your community a little more holistically.

If that wall gets bigger the opportunities for conversation diminish. Communication switches to a more closed circle of acquaintances. We are more likely converse with existing friends in closed chat settings – the phone, coffee at their house – and we forget there’s even anyone there over the wall.

One you realize that the wall has caused you problems, you might choose one of a number of actions. You might blame the people who sold you on the idea that a brick wall was better, you might blame the bricks or you might blame yourself.

It’s easy to sling mud at Facebook, at Google, at newspapers or journalists when we start talking about the echo chamber, but actually it’s the combination of the three separate filters that a story has to go through before it can emerge into the world as a news item, that determine the size of the echo chamber it sits in: how it’s reported, how it’s read and how it’s distributed. Until we properly acknowledge this we’re going to be going around and around in circles, trying to shift the blame from person to platform to publisher and back again.

1. Journalistic filters*

*The editorial choices made at source, by deciding which stories get told, and which don’t. Whether these choices are made with old-fashioned editorial gut-instinct, as a result of analytic-based analysis or in line with messaging of the publication in question, the point remains the same: editors and journalists put news stories out into the world. When and how they’re distributed, and when and how they’re read are separate issues.

“The most important thing in a functional society, is a well-informed public,” said Matt Masur. “What we have now is not only uninformed, but misinformed masses.” Part of the reason for this under-informed populous may have something to do with a certain mega-platform’s algorithms, but, let’s face it, they aren’t the ones writing the copy. Just as we have kids in Macedonia cashing in on the monetary opportunities Facebook offers, so too are there people in the States peddling fake news stories for cold, hard cash, politics be damned.

“In the end, journalism lost sight of its simple, vital reason to exist: to inform the public,” said Jeff Jarvis in his Post-Mortem to Journalism. “Think back on story after story and round table after round table and ask whether it was conceived and executed to help inform the electorate or instead to entertain them and grab their attention or make the journalist look like the smart one. Our job is to make the public smart.”

“If the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate the public, the people trained to understand how to do that best are not marketers and advertisers”

If the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate the public, the people trained to understand how to do that best are not marketers and advertisers (the people many analytics packages were originally designed to serve). Nor are they sitting in a boardroom, contemplating the bottom line. These two groups of people are of course vital to the publishing world, but not to the process of researching and writing articles. It’s the journalists and editors who, by virtue of their profession and training, are best placed to answer those questions and educate on the issues that they feel require further illumination. But – and this is the absolutely fundamental point – they must ensure that those issues and those questions connect with the public they’re writing for.

“Journalists,” implored Gayle Lemmon in the Chicago Tribune, “listen to people instead of to one another and respect the people you meet, even if they see the world differently. Sometimes especially if they see the world differently.”

local-community-attachment

In smaller communities, where local newspapers serve the community they reside in directly, the relationship between the newspaper and the populous is a more familiar one. The local editor may sit behind your kids at the weekly football match. You might run into one of the journalists when you run errands at the grocery store, or when you’re at the doctor’s, waiting for your turn to be seen. In short, when this kind of reader sees this kind of journalist, because they’re part of the community they work in, they’re not always viewed as “the media”, a point that CJR’s Jackie Spinner makes in an article on the subject. They’re viewed differently to what are commonly termed ‘the East Coast Elite’ (think New York Times, Washingston Post et al), who were for many – as this election result demonstrated – too far removed from the issues that were of importance to the Midwest in particular. So, when Trump called out a pernicious culture of journalism, heads started nodding in agreement.

Let me be clear: non-bias is not something to strive for. False equivalence – “the mandate to paint both sides as equally valid, regardless of evidence” as defined by Carrie Brown of CUNY’s social journalism program – is problematic on many levels. The idea of reporting from a place free from bias is both impossible and undesirable, but the notion of pursuing a broad range of issues as a kind of mirror to society surely has some merit.

If we approach the research and writing of articles with a critical eye and a questioning outlook, the conclusion we draw will probably fall on one side of the argument or another. To try to remain impartial in the face of thorough investigation, does no one any favors. Opinion is fine, as long as it’s substantiated.

We might be living in a post-truth society, but facts still matter. Let’s not confuse ‘fake news’ with ‘real news’: they are, as Emily Bell points out, “not different types of news; they are completely different categories of activity”. To acknowledge this distinction is to unburden oneself of the notion that we have to be competing against fake news: we don’t. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it raises all manner of issues. Perhaps it is more useful to think of fake news’s relationship to actual journalism in terms of comparing success (based on page views) of a story about Chewbacca Mom with one about the current drought in Somalia: they’re just not the same thing.

“Fact checking strengthens a culture of diligence and thoroughness, both of which are so fundamental to journalism”

A new report from Reuters argues that better fact checking can help “combat misinformation in public life”, perhaps an obvious point, but one clearly shared by Howard University’s school of journalism where they see fact checking as so important that it features as part of the course of study for its students.

The resultant service, truthbetold.news, is one of the nation’s only fact checking sites exclusively authored by student journalists. Why is this significant? Simple. “The kind of investigative rigor involved in fact checking increased the students’ appreciation for getting the facts right before going to press”, say Fredric Kendrick, one of the school’s professors. If students are taught rigor as part of their journalistic training, surely they’re being prepared better when they swap classroom for newsroom?

Fact checking strengthens a culture of diligence and thoroughness, both of which are so fundamental to journalism. The aim should not be to produce work that is unbiased, but work that is ironclad. Informed opinion at the end of an investigation is different to op-eds: easily produced, yes, but vulnerable to a kind of factual flimsiness. To build trust, it’s the former example that’s going to demonstrate both a staunch adherence to the journalistic code of conduct, but also reinforce to readers that you take your job damn seriously.

2. Self-constructed filters*

*Those boundaries that are constructed – knowingly or unknowingly – through everything from Facebook, to social media, to choice of online publication, friendship groups and in the world of personalized content in general

“Hiding the voices of those you don’t agree with does not silence them, it only deafens you” – Rosa Li

So how about Facebook and the phenomenon of the personalized news feed? On Slate a couple of days ago, writer Rosa Li offered a side note to the media vs tech debate we’ve been reading about so often. “Technology,” she said, “is only evil in that it facilitates our worst impulses. Some of the Facebook blame lies with us for how we used the medium to ideologically self-segregate”. She does, of course, have a point: in forming artificial communities around ourselves, we are in effect muting other points of view and, as Li puts it, “hiding the voices of those you don’t agree with does not silence them, it only deafens you”.

There’s a simple reason for doing this. It’s human nature to seek out people who support your worldview, your opinions, your welfare – something evidenced by the proliferation of the ‘like’ concept on every social platform. Right from the off, Facebook recognized that the idea of ‘liking’ something as opposed to ‘agreeing’ with it was more likely to resonate with our innate need for validation and consensus. Receiving multiple ‘likes’ on a social media post is gratifying. It’s addictive.

To put it very simplistically, to ‘like’ this Trump meme, is to show appreciation and support for the person who created it, and to support some part of their worldview. A 2012 research study by PEW found 18% of social media users had blocked, unfriended or hidden someone from view because of political disagreements, all of which speaks to the fact that we like to surround ourselves with people who’ll – for the most part – nod along when proffer an opinion about something.

So, like it or not, we’ve created a perfect storm, where our predilection for agreement has stopped us from seeing the whole picture. What happens, then, when you expose someone with strongly held beliefs to similarly reasoned and thoughtful insight but from across the ideological divide? Writers for the Guardian asked ten readers with strong liberal or conservative beliefs to read only news on specially created feeds on the other side of the political spectrum during the election campaign. Whilst the sample size of this experiment was limited and the material appearing the feeds ranging from click-bait headlines to more considered pieces, the responses were telling. Some found that exposure to articles from the other feed only strengthened their own political resolve, while it made others take a breath. One participant said that he was “a lot more interested in engaging with people who are open minded and are willing to talk about the whole picture” since undergoing the experiment. Another commented that she’d have to be more discerning in where she got her news from.

Alongside the algorithmic doom and gloom appearing in our news feeds, we’ve started to see more reassuring headlines as well. In the days following the election, paid subscriptions to places like the Washington Post and the New York Times saw a marked spike. John Oliver, in the season finale to Last Week, Tonight (see above), took the unusual step of urging people to subscribe to news platforms. It worked.

Propublica, the non-profit organisation that champions investigative journalism, reported a “surge” of donations following the segment, with its President, Richard Tofel, noting that “12 hours after the broadcast,” they were, “still running at multiple donations per minute”. Projections indicate that this will mean they greatly exceed last year’s donations, which amounted to around $500,000.

Fortune Magazine reported that the increase in digital subscriptions to the New York Times following the election amounted to 41,000 – something which also renders Trump’s own adamant assertions on Twitter that the Times is a ‘failing newspaper’ and ‘losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena’” unsurprisingly inaccurate (who needs facts – right, Donald?)

While it might be true that segments of society are indeed fact-fatigued, distrustful of ‘the media’ and more likely to seek solace and hope in populist figures like Trump, other segments aren’t, and don’t. No single solution is going to ‘save’ journalism right now – and we should be wary of any solution that promises to do so. What the spike in donations has proved is that amongst a certain sector there is still an appetite for information which is fact-checked and comprehensive. The fact that people are moved to purchase subscriptions or make donations surely demonstrates that this demographic do recognize the value of traditional journalism – whatever its platform – and that the natural readerships of publications like these are likely to probe for truths and not, as Stephen Colbert so famously noted, ‘truthiness’. No, not everyone is going to buy into this model, but then not everyone gets their news from newspapers, do they?

3. Algorithmic filters*

*Those used by Facebook, Google etc to channel stories to those most likely to engage with them. A consequence of this for Facebook has been greater access to revenue streams from advertisers, who are cashing in on the potential for targeting marketing campaigns.

Zuckerberg is always quick to deny the accusations levied against Facebook that they are a media company (and not a technology company as he asserts) but given that upwards of 44% of Americans say they receive their news via the platform, this surely only strengthens the argument that the world of journalism has changed faster than definitions of it have.

We’re social creatures, so it’s probably not altogether surprising that “users started prioritizing time on Facebook over time spent reading, say, the newspaper (or any of the effectively infinite set of alternatives for attention)” – it allowed us a new way of reading the news and talking about it, all in one place. Attention, as we know is the most precious commodity of them all, so the longer we spend on a social media site, like Facebook, the better the returns for Zuckerberg and co. This brings us back neatly to the point that Facebook’s remit is not the same as that of the Times. Rather, New Media, is as Timothy Garten Ash puts it, “in constant tension between the public service they offer and the private profit they pursue.”

Sure, Facebook didn’t start out to be such a monolithic news platform, but that’s what it has become, and this being the case it’s not surprising that people are calling upon Facebook to recognize the editorial role it plays and start hiring people able to execute that function appropriately.

In a statement on Facebook to address the concern over fake news (not the same as the echo chamber issue, certainly, but in the same area), Mark Zuckerberg said, “historically, we have relied on our community to help us understand what is fake and what is not”. This closed loop of denial is surely what needs addressing: there has to be a tipping point where expecting readers to assess both the argument and veracity of content is a stretch too far. Sure, Facebook may have started out as a way to allow friends and family to stay in touch, but the newspaper was the primary means of news dissemination until relatively recently also.

“As more brands live in a purely distributed environment, the social networks have a responsibility to find a way for corrections to travel with content,” said Claire Wardle. So where once Facebook looked to its users to participate in what is essentially a massive fact checking enterprise, we are now looking to Facebook to regulate the same content. Times change. Responses and responsibilities must follow suit.

“We could all do worse than taking note of John Le Carre’s observation that, ‘a desk is dangerous place from which to view the world'”

It’s no good to wait for whichever category you don’t fall into to make a change: acknowledge what you can do here and now. We could all do worse than taking note of John Le Carre’s observation that, “a desk is dangerous place from which to view the world”. All three of these things need addressing and need to be monitored if the noise of the echo chamber is going to subside. Journalists need to start talking with and listening to their readers. Users need to start applying more diligence to what appears in their news feeds. Facebook needs to sort itself out with regards to the algorithm that is currently dictating which news gets sent to which news feed, and more attention needs to given to similarly mechanized processes elsewhere.

In short, everything needs monitoring. We’d better get cracking.

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