The dangerously selective consumption of news via social media

The romanticiastion of print media is not merely for professional or even aspirational journalists to feed their egos by having their name in print. It is much bigger than this. It is the physical engagement with the pages, the diversity in formatting, the way pictures are aligned; it is an appreciation of the aesthetic. Such a gravitation towards a physical engagement with media is mirrored by vinyl lovers. It is costly to regularly buy physical 12” records, especially when you could just stream your favourite tracks on YouTube or Spotify. But some will value the physical quality of possessing a visual, and physical trace of the music they love. This is exactly why we are still lured by the charm of print media. However, there is also something more important about the presentation of news, opinion and review pieces through print form, that holds a relevancy that extends beyond the aesthetic.

 
When you have a strictly limited number of pages to fill, it involves a degree of selectivity. This goes for most mainstream media in this country. The Guardian will run several opinion pieces a day through print form, but concurrently provide scores more opinion pieces on its website. What is contained in the printed pages thus highlights what their editors feel are the most engaging, and crucially important stories for the public interest. These efforts could however be considered to be made in vain, particularly when this notion of selectivity and responsibility has changed. It is the readers who select and prioritise the pieces that they read.

 
When you read through the pages of any newspaper, articles have been specifically placed in a certain order. Yes, you may choose to skim read, glance past or even totally ignore the text that confronts you in person, but you are still turning the pages. A trivial point it may seem, but think about what you do on your laptop. You may regularly read BBC News Online, but chances are that you inevitably look at the little box in the right hand corner that highlights the stories that are trending, and you will, understandably, ignore particular news stories or opinion pieces which do not capture your interest. More dangerously however, you may disregard pieces that are not agreeable with your own political views.

 
The effects of reader selectivity hit us all straight in the jaw during the May General Election. Users on social media expressed bewilderment at how anyone could vote for the Tories. How could it be, users asked on Facebook and Twitter, that in the light of information about the nature of the Tory government’s austerity measures over a five year period, could the electorate hand them a majority? Our newsfeeds seemed to imply otherwise. We followed debates on comment threads – many of which were comments made by friends, or friends of friends – reflecting political opinions that mirrored our own. Social media lets us submerge ourselves in an insular bubble of opinion that correlates with our own, allowing us to actively ignore contrary views.

 
It is immensely dangerous for otherwise worldly people on social media to put up statuses how they are going to ‘unfriend Tories’. Similarly, by only ‘liking’ particular news sources on Facebook, you are diluting the breadth of opinion and information that you could otherwise be exposed to. There is a difference between two forms of journalism: one that merely confirms and validates readers opinions, and one that seeks to challenge readers’ views. On Facebook, we construct a limited set of parameters that serve to reinforce the former.

 
This is where the demise of print media and rise of engagement with social media creates a fundamental problem: information overload and politically motivated selectivity. Love for print media can arguably come close to an aesthetic fetish, but to focus on this reason misses the wider point. It is certainly positive that readers are given the capacity to adjudicate what content they read, relegating the positions of editors who feel it is in the reader’s ‘best interest’. However if we lose sight of the potential control that we all have over the selection of news stories and political pieces we read online, we become victim to our own biases, and ultimately fail to see the bigger picture.

 

 

Image: Jon S

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