It’s about a quarter past four on a Monday afternoon. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop as the light fades outside. Normally I’d be working in my room, at a desk, but I’ve been tasked with babysitting my 92-year-old grandma. I say “babysitting” because she’s entering the late stages of dementia, and often can’t remember family members, places, or simple words. Her simple questions frequently disrupt my thought process, and I’m struggling to think of a topic for my next feature.
Now she asks me, timidly, what I’m doing. I try to explain to her that I work on the student newspaper, but the word “news” seems to be one temporarily escaped from memory’s reach. Instead I take the long way round, and I ask her how she would find out about what’s going on in the world. A long pause follows, before she tells me, matter-of-factly, that she would simply “take a long walk, I suppose.”
Her reply had made me laugh for its endearing ridiculousness, but on contemplation reminded me of a separate incident that had lain dormant in my mind until now. On holiday, I had glanced at Instagram in a moment of boredom. There, I was faced with a meme suggesting that World War 3 had just broken out, and that we were all soon to be sent to the Middle East to perish in the desert. I had just found out about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, not through the words of an esteemed professional journalist, but instead through the creative work of, in all likeliness, a pubescent, self-hating, keyboard warrior.
Perhaps “incident” is a little melodramatic. My generation already knows that they receive most of their news through social media, and undertaking a little research only confirms this. A 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, for example, found that 69% of under-35s use phones as the primary means of obtaining news, and that Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2010) are more likely to get news through social media than any other source or age group.
I was relieved to find that my peers were also informing themselves through platforms designed for social interaction. I read more articles which conveyed further information I considered unsurprising – younger cohorts abandoning traditional news outlets (halving of national print sales in the past decade, rejection of TV news altogether, 57% increase in traffic to online news sites referred from social media) was the general idea. Following the Zeitgeist of the “get woke or go broke” generation felt to me unashamedly correct. I sat back in my chair, mind at rest.
Soon I was thrown into disquiet, however, prompted by the recollection of the revelation that of all news agencies, only the BBC reaches a greater audience than Facebook. This was almost certainly problematic. Numerous scandals that have enveloped Facebook (such as the 2018 personal data usage scandal) have caused users and commentators to question its motives, and in any case I knew that there was something nefarious simply in the way Facebook operated.
Facebook is a business that works off selling users to its customers. It pools the data of 2.5 billion monthly users and parcels them out to different companies. Those companies advertise to users whom the data says are most in need of the companies’ services, whatever they maybe. Hence why Facebook is free for users – they are the product. The existence of a space taken up by billions of users, millions of companies, and thousands upon thousands of posts and advertisements, has resulted in one of the most crowded marketplaces in history. Yet is has proven to be extremely effective, and highly profitable. Lots of companies use it for that very reason.
News agencies compete in that space too, vying for the attention of users, and this reality poses numerous problems. The first, and largely unconsidered, fact, is that constant engagement with the news, whether through phone notifications or timeline posts, makes us unhappy. In May 2019 Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian that marinating in the news was making events completely unrelated to ourselves more important to our sense of reality than even our families or neighbourhoods. Whilst engaging with the news through social media can be exciting (watch The Guardian’s Cannes Lion Award-Winning advert The Three Little Pigs for a taste of what I mean), it also gives us a false sense of agency.
Constant interaction with news stories has forced upon society the illusion of a moral imperative to comment, interact and identify with news stories – whatever the subject – through social media. But this illusion is just that, a mirage which when approached and found to be thus, fades and leaves a horrific feeling of low-grade panic and loss of control. One must also remember that user interaction only serves the social media moguls providing the platforms. The addiction keeps you hooked to their profit-making forums, which only serves to further entrench the “click culture” our society has slipped into.
“Click culture” doesn’t just serve the billionaires, but more importantly poses significant risks to our news and even the very functioning of effective democracy. Success is measured in clicks, and the more successful articles are those most able to grab your attention. This leads to a phenomenon I call “outrageousness”, characterised by at best eye-grabbing headlines unrelated to the stories they represent, and at worst, damaging fake news, which Burkeman wrote was “the logical conclusion to a media economy optimised for engagement.”
At a base level, a functioning public sphere depends on a shared body of facts. That body is being eroded by fake news, and socail media platforms don’t care enough about the truth to clamp down on it. Alongside the rise of fake news has been the further polarisation of politics – a by-product of obtaining news through social media.
Algorithms tailor newsfeeds to promote content similar to that previously engaged with. When one considers the fact that Oxford University claimed 37% of people take little to no interest in daily news, and that the remaining 63% see only the material best suited to their tastes, it is no surprise that we increasingly see the polarisation of news habits and consequently political views. Closed online groups and forums only exacerbate this problem.
The complete destruction of democratic discourse is aided by programmes such as Twitter, giving users the ability to interact like never before with those in power. This breaks down the boundary between public and private spheres (think a certain American president’s Twitter activity), effectively doing away with measured, polite, and dignified discussion, and resulting in language unbefitting public debate. Ultimately, news provision through social media platforms has contributed to the normalisation of vulgar slogans like Bollocks to Brexit and even more tragically to the rise of populist and far-right parties around Europe.
These changes have also left those most able to fight back short of funding and close to destruction. Legitimate news sources have seen their profits fall sharply, putting the truth at risk of becoming obsolete. A glance at The Telegraph’s (as a random example of a well-established British newspaper) most recent accounts makes for grim reading – a 12 million pound drop in profits from 12.7m in 2017 to 0.7m in 2018 for the same period.
News agencies have therefore been forced to adapt. Whether that be in the way that they provide news, or the way they raise funds, one thing is clear: without the necessary revenue, the coming years will see, as Reuters put it in their 2019 Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions, “the biggest wave of journalistic lay-offs in years, weakening the ability of publishers to hold populists to account”.
The report highlighted a move by news agencies towards new techniques of news provision. Editors promoted podcasts as an engaging way of delivering stories in an age of audiences who, on average, read an article for just 15 seconds. Indeed, 75% of the 200 editors spoken to for the report suggested audio would become important to their content strategies in the following year.
In terms of revenue, news providers will look increasingly to paid subscription and memberships to make up for the decline of paper sales. Telegraph Media Group, for example, aims to hit one million subscribers by 2023 (they currently sit at around 400,000), and paywalls on online articles have become commonplace on sites such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Many still believe that these paywalls deter readers from reading altogether, especially in societies not used to a culture of payment for digital content. Furthermore, such actions will only further social divides, with the wealthy gaining a monopoly on information.
There seem to me, then, four ways to proceed in this climate of falsehood and polarisation. The first is to completely boycott social media. I do not for one second believe this is likely to happen. The addictive nature of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are well-documented, and their integration into our lives too complete to give up entirely.
The second option is to boycott the news entirely. Indeed, this has become a contentious subject. John Zeratsky, New York Times best-selling author of Make Time, recommends we ignore the news entirely (despite it potentially feeling wrong) for the sake of our own happiness and well-being. Addicts to the deluge of news that we swim in have given us the phrase “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” But who, Zeratsky argues, wants to live in a state of perpetual outrage?
Knowledge is power, though, and despite the obvious attraction of a life without interruptions, it is still important to understand the goings-on of the outside world.
The third option is the least desirable; that is, carry on the way we are. Ignorance is bliss. We shall continue to undermine the principles of a working democracy, encourage the spread of lies, revel in rude and inappropriate discourse, and enjoy the slow death of truth itself. We can all agree that this outlook is intolerable, so may I direct you to the fourth option.
Consume news intelligently and in moderation. Restrict time on social media. Use slow-news sites like Tortoise that care about good journalism. Do not feel the need to comment online. Subscribe to magazines such as The Week that provide unbiased collections of weekly news. Buy newspapers and support legitimate news reporting. Most importantly, do not wallow in the news. As Grandma incisively suggested, get out and take a walk – it will do you good.