Facebook and the blue pill of news

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe” *

I read a Roy Greenslade blog post today about Facebook, and it made me thoughtful about our attitudes towards the ownership of news and information in the way the phrase “Google’s tanks are on our lawns” used to in 2008.

His take (which was expanding on this article) is that “Facebook’s increasing dominance…[will cause] not only the destruction of old media… but the end of journalism as we know it” and adds “The Facebookisation of news has the potential to destabilise democracy by, first, controlling what we read and second, by destroying the outlets that provide that material”.

Big themes, and yet, if platforms skew information then for over two hundred years we’ve had the newspaperisation of news.
There hasn’t been, and never will be for as long as humans are involved, a time when information isn’t fitted to a structured narrative – often one which is created in response to a need. Whether breaking news or investigation, journalists are taught to look for a Who, What, Where, When, Why, How framework, and that doesn’t make the resulting story incomplete, or wrong or bad journalism.

Digital journalism and social media hasn’t changed this particularly, but it has made it easier for scrutiny, questioning and rebuttal. Algorithms aren’t the solution, and I know someone far more clever than I will have an idea of what degree of separation you need from human intervention before code can create a pure filter, but even then it might not be a filter you enjoy or want, because – ultimately – we chose our versions of truth and have Views about those who hold different truths to us.

The changes in platform are never going away, just as newspapers have opened and closed, websites come and gone, apps failed, or been bought up and integrated in others, only for their unique gifts to be lost.
The big difference brought by the internet is that while 1980s Britain might have overwhelmingly learned of its news from print tabloids and TV, the weltanschauung is literally now a world (wide web) view.
The gobbling up of revenue and audience that comes with Facebook’s dominance is a challenge but only the latest in a long line of them. The mainstream media may not meet that in its current iteration but we have no monopoly on the future of journalism. New media businesses emerge, and even msm is constantly changing, no matter how much it may not appear that way. I work in a different world to that of a 1990s newsroom.

Every readers will have a view of what is and isn’t journalism and you can see their often scathing opinions in any search on Twitter. Exhibit A:

Panic about deadly kittens, by all means, but don’t panic about them being the most read story on yesterday’s Telegraph website – why shouldn’t they be? The story is interesting, sharable and meets at least one dictionary definition of the term Journalism- gathering, assessing, presenting information.
Having said that, so does the act of retweeting a police appeal for a missing child. Is a report of local mini Olympics, complete photo of kids wearing flower medals, journalism? Or is relaying a couple’s airplane bust up via live tweets?
What I think of as journalism may differ even from another journalist’s view of journalism, let alone a broad sweep of opinion. Our narratives are distinct and based on how we see our own realities.

One person’s diverting read is another’s click bait; the  star ratings your local news outlet curated for local restaurants and that you read (probably via Facebook) may be useful and inform your decisions of where to eat, but there will be 20 other people posting in the comments “It’s nothing to do with hygiene; they get one star for not filling out the paperwork correctly”.
A handful voices expressing outrage at the lack of local grassroots sports coverage are drowned out by the deafening silence of (perhaps tens of) thousands of people  not caring about it at all.

What I ultimately believe is we can’t insist journalism has a right to survive just because it always has been a thing and we think people are more shady now than ever.
If the industry wants journalism to survive then we’ve got to be smarter about delivering quality and reaching and engaging audiences with content that matters to them. And I think when it comes to audiences, invested, niche ones – geographic or interest – are the future.
Social media platforms like Facebook are only going to become more sophisticated; we’ve got to be equally committed to bettering what we do, to be able to use their systems to deliver our content, and talk, and listen, to the audience more than ever.
Maybe we need to be more concerned and focused on what is happening, quietly, on messenger apps – away from analytics and data that tell us what our audience values and wants.

*The Matrix, 1999  

 

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
This entry was posted in future of newspapers, Journalism, social media, the future and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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