Article originally featured at Heft, Nov. 12, 2016.
It all started with a Twitter post. Or, rather a series of posts from a Tennessee man, Josh Raby, who took an April trip to a McDonald’s location to buy a milkshake.
Within hours, his bizarrely absorbing account of what happened garnered the attention of news outlets all over the world; coverage which earned Raby thousands of new online followers. The New York Daily News reported that Raby had been “tortured by two horny employees”. The owners of the Mcdonalds location, Eric and Mabel Larson, were suddenly caught in a media frenzy. Mrs. Larson, who was instantly skeptical of Raby’s encounter with her and her husband, told the Tennessean that she and managers would be reviewing store footage to test the legitimacy of the story. It wasn’t long before Raby returned to Twitter, admitting the story was exaggerated to entertain his followers.
‘If you are wondering what I’m getting at, this is gonna be the part of the viral story where the person tells you they made a lot of it up,’ Raby tweeted.
This is just one example of the thinly-sourced stories coming out of newsrooms which turn out to be somewhat, if not largely, embellished. And these are from major news syndicates; professional journalists who continue to lose resources and are becoming more-and-more refashioned to meet high traffic figures.
A story and its truthfulness do not guarantee it a viral shelf life. And what goes viral does not necessarily pertain to the truth.
Certain stories out there have a better time going viral than others. These stories are ones which tend to strike awe, anger or fear in audience readers. For example, a story on climate change, a more depressing or sad subject, is more likely to receive less clicks than one evoking anxiety or panic. As well, stories which tend to be more factual (because facts have no feelings) may have a harder time winning attention on social media. A story and its truthfulness do not guarantee it a viral shelf life. And what goes viral does not necessarily pertain to the truth. This theory has continued to play out this year with US Republican presidential winner Donald Trump, a man whose seemingly dodgy relationship with the truth has had no effect on his popularity.
The world of Journalism is changing drastically. Old school journalists are being replaced by freelancers; bloggers or vloggers, who can report news at little expense. This gives media organizations the leeway to cut down on pricey news expenditures. Costly content, like international or investigative reporting, is losing traction as more freelancers are sought after and hired with hopes of harking back to the rich profit margins of the early 2000s. When it comes to newspapers, broadcasters have either closed or downsized. In order to maintain budgets, clients are more often told to report on stories involving the weather, traffic or crime.
WTC stories, as Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote in his PBS column “Why click-bait will be the death of journalism”, are cheap to produce. Government sources (such as; the National Weather Service, local Department of Transportations and police forces) all play a part in providing news content. These stories generate a lot of revenue and represent an industry which more often capitalizes on stories inciting unreasonable panic.
Beyond professional journalism is a whole industry of “fake news”; stories which profit greatly when shared online, and often legitimize themselves under the veil of a satirical label or finely state on their website that they are for “entertainment purposes only”.
Though the transition to digital has meant a lot to business in terms of cost-effectiveness, wages for journalists are at an all-time low. Company morale for workers continues to drop as journalists’ unions prove ineffective against poor working conditions, forcing professionals to accept reduced wages in an environment where their choices and impact mean very little.
As a result, profit margins are immensely bigger for industries who have dropped labor-intensive operations. Media organizations such as start-up BuzzFeed are doing tremendously well. In 2014, the business closed a $50 million investment with Andreessen Horowitz, an investment which valued the company at $850 million. The investment was a part of co-founder and chief executive, John Peretti’s cash infusion plan to migrate from their business of posting regular cat videos and listicles to a more ambitious news and film business.
This growing media competition by not only BuzzFeed but Vox and Vice Media has added a lot of pressure on legacy media who are increasingly resorting to “click-bait” content. Click-bait is hardly ever newsworthy but does earn a lot of money in regards to who it can entice and earn clicks through. Though it can cause a broadcaster to lose what makes news reputable, it does provide a loose incentive that audiences will stick around for more serious content once they’ve had their portion of the online junk.
Stories, whether click-bait, serious or neither, share great power. Especially in today’s world, the stories that strike a chord the most with audiences in the US as well as the UK comprise a larger narrative; one which has countries revolting against their own political establishments in a great fight to take back independence through reasserting national borders.
This narrative greatly involves a selective choice of facts and stretching of truths. This distortion of the truth has, furthermore, given rising to a manifestation indicative of a post-factual democracy. A democracy where the truth is changed to suit advantageous political agendas. More often, fake assurances are being made to the public in order manipulate voter turnout.
We’ve seen this scenario play out in the form of the Brexit campaign and here in the US with Donald Trump. In today’s world, politicians are becoming experts at playing on the fears of certain demographics, especially when it comes to the economic woes they’ve experienced. Social validation online has taken center stage as this narrative that argues stronger borders appeals to so many who have become lost in the transition to globalization.
In 1922, American journalist Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion. Considered to be a “founding book in American media studies” by communication theorist and media critic Fames W. Carey, the book is the first to take on a critical analysis of mass media and its role in informing the public. At the time, Lippman argued for a “sweeping rejection of traditional theories of democracy and the role of the press.”, opening with an important epistemological point that the world around is not directly known to us, but shaped. This “pseudo-environment” dictates our actions, and within this environment is a “great opportunity for distortion and error.”
Lippmann’s greatest point was that the press and modern democracy ultimately “rest on the foundation of the informed citizen who makes decisions based on rational, objective criteria and that the news media are perhaps the most crucial source of this information.”
A growing number of people (especially millennials) are turning to Facebook for news consumption. The company arguably has a social responsibility to host news that is accurate.
Fast forward to today, and we continue to see dramatic changes in what we’re able to orchestrate online. Not only are we experiencing a sort of heightened virtual reality, we’ve accompanied with it; live videos, precise news algorithms, and chat apps (the powerful Facebook Messenger). We’re also seeing immense changes in financial control, where journalism and its power is being transferred to fewer people, who now control the viewership of many, to paraphrase Emily Bell.
The increased power of social media companies has reshaped the way the news is filtered. Facebook and its algorithm continue to trend fake stories after firing its human editors. The Washington Post found that during Aug. 31 and Sep. 22, they had “uncovered five trending stories that were indisputably fake and three that were profoundly inaccurate”.
On Aug. 29, vice president of global operations for Facebook, Justin Osofsky, issued an apology to CBS News for trending a fake story over Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly. The story, which came from the right-wing website End The Fed, claimed that Kelly was fired from the network for being “a closet liberal” in favor of supporting Hillary Clinton. The social network then trended a story from a 911/hoax site claiming the collapse of the World Trade Center was an inside job, citing “controlled explosions” as the culprit.
A growing number of people (especially millennials) are turning to Facebook for news consumption. The company arguably has a social responsibility to host and provide users with news that is accurate. Facebook likes to argue that it is not a media outlet. Despite what the company denies, that doesn’t stop it from being the oversized influence that it is. The social network’s aim to dismiss itself as a media entity came months after high-profile claims over editorial political bias had surfaced. Tech news site Gizmodo reported the company had been preventing conservative news topics from reaching readers’ feeds, and inserting selected stories into its trending program.
After laying off its team of news curators in August, Facebook continues to trend fake news. And although the company routinely objects to seeing itself as a media voice, the choices made with their algorithm and what it presents to us have great effects on how we view and think about the world, serving as a vital force in showcasing political views during this election, especially in shaping how people voted.
The algorithm that powers Facebook’s news feed curates posts based on what we want to see more of. This has created a dramatic “filter bubble” effect where posts are filtered and selected to suit our established beliefs. Within these beliefs is the blurring of lines between what is fact and what isn’t. This can leave the most well-read individual with conjectural information. Every day, we continue to log in to find the latest in modern propaganda that drives many into fears of unknowns and hypotheticals.
More and more, the world that is presented to us online appears to be one that is out of control. From Donald Trump and his electoral college win to Brexit to the disastrous civil war in Syria, mass immigration, continued wealth disparity, and growing terrorist attacks in the West — many of us are uncertain as to why these events are happening, and as a result, continue to retreat to an artificial world of digital simplification. And as ubiquitous as it all seems, what is the solution to this sea of misinformation and constructed virtual reality? More information…
Highly sensitive issues such as police brutality, gun control, and immigration are constantly oversimplified. Complex subjects such as the Brexit leave and Trump have been given the platform of reduced meme sharing and shaken status updates; taking serious matters and summing them up with a dozen or so words — often this makes the issue unmistakably obvious, inadvertently putting the other side down and isolating them. Though these forms of social media have surfaced for the purpose of entertainment, they condense matters to a point of factual error that has serious consequences.