Social Media: Revolution or the End of Objective Reason?

Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.


The above video, called Social Media Revolution is spreading like wildfire through social media circles and is being used by social media advocates as futher proof that social media is be all and end all of news, marketing and the internet in general. And there is truth, at least statistically, in the message the video brings: Social media technologies, be it blogs, forums, social networks like Facebook or micro-blogging systems like Twitter are changing the way we find, ingest and understand information and the world. It’s not exactly ground breaking news to people who spend their living and working days tethered to the world wide web but it provides a sobering picture of a new and emerging reality in which people turn away from established news and media outlets as their primary source for information and understanding of current events.

I find this profoundly disturbing.

When we were kids my parents spent a lot of time teaching my brothers and I that critical thinking should always lie at the core of any decision. They hammered home the sentiment that just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And it’s stuck with me through the years. I guess that’s why I’m so alarmed by what I’m seeing in the societal discourse in general and social media in particular. Anyone looking in from the outside will agree that the so-called open discussion and flow of information that permiates through the internet these days has little to do with critical thinking and more to do with opinionated rethoric, deliberate disinformation and outright lies. And this is the new and glourious foundation we are supposed to build our future society on? If so, it’s not one I want to be a part of!

Trading news for opinion

Earlier this year someone told me “In a couple of years mainstream media will be dead and people will get all their news from social media”. I have to say I agree, at least in part. No matter what happens I’m hard pressed to agree that all mainstream media outlets will buckle and disappear any time in the forseable future. But we are already seeing a shift in societal behavior away from established media outlets and toward social media as the chosen go-to news source. What people fail to realize (or choose to ignore) is that this shift means a shift from objective accountable news reports toward subjective and often heavily biassed opinion pieces. The trouble is that unless people are aware whether their source presents agenda-driven subjective opioions or fair and balanced reporting, the former can easily be mistaken for the latter. And when that happens, truth, reality and objective reason goes out the window.

Just because you say it does(n’t) make it so

The current health care debate in the USA is a perfect example of just how dangerous this trend has become: As of right now the majority of information floating around social media networks and blogs regarding the health care reform is what journalists and rethoric experts alike would describe as conjecture, hyperbole, spin and good old fashioned rubbish. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find any truly balanced and unbiassed reporting on the topic even in the mainstream media. But this is because just like everyone else, the media organizations have jumed on the social media bandwaggon without really taking the time to look at what that means for objective reporting. And because in the USA there is no fairness doctrine so the news outlets are free to present biassed and unbalanced reporting as fact without danger of reprisals.

Ironically it is this very tendency of the mainstream media in the US to be biassed that started the Social Media Revolution for real: People were fed up with being served what was more often than not biassed reporting and decided that they would be better proponents of the truth than the media outlets were. And this, combined with the relative anonymity of the internet, meant that anyone and everyone could become a reporter, an opinion maker, a true participant in the social discourse without fear of reprisals. The problem with this theory is two fold: Unlike journalists, bloggers and other social media contributors have no vested interest in staying on the straight and narrow so to speak. Whereas a journalist who publishes an opinion as fact or distorts the truth to the point where it borders on a lie runs the risk of losing her job, a blogger that does the same runs little to no risk. At the same time because of the very nature of social media – an information exchange where everyone participates on an equal footing – there is nothing that prevents social, political or corporate entities from presenting their own distorted versions of reality as truth to the masses as fact, often under false alisases or through independent agents, thus changing the public discourse on false premises.

I follow a lot of random people on Twitter and I keep seeing postings saying things like “Socialized health care kills people” and “The Canadian health care system is a failure”. These postings often link to blog posts where in the extreme socialized health care is compared to Nazi death camps and Stalinistic gulags. Any reasonable person should agree that these statements are little more than paranoid outbursts or outrageous lies. After all, there are no death camps for the elderly in Canada or Norway. In fact most countries with socialized helath care have a higher life expectancy than the USA. But looking at the apparent number of “concerned citizens” putting their worries in hypertext one can start to wonder if there isn’t some truth behind the claims. The problem is that unlike a normal debate, on the web you don’t know who is actually talking, and you don’t know if the 1000 latest comments actually came from one person or organization rather than 1000 independent minds. But this lack of transparency is invisible and in the end people are likely to listen to what they percieve as a vocal majority. It all boils down to a simple fact: In public forums, the person that shouts the loudest usually gets her message across. And since social media by definition is completely unregulated it is easy for organized groups, political parties and corporations to flood the social media airwaves with biassed and inaccurate information drowning out the objective reality in the process.

Social Media: Tunnelvision for the Masses?

An uncomfortable and embarrassing trait of human nature is that no matter how much we claim to be fair and balanced, we hate being wrong. So much so in fact that given the oportunity we will chose to ignore any information provided to us that doesn’t fit with our current belief system. The role of mass media in society has always been to present unbiassed facts and report the objective truth about news and events. And because mass media was the only real source of information, we would get the good with the bad so to speak. And whether we liked it or now we’d be presented with facts and figures that did not match our own understanding of the world and we’d be forced to at least reflect on our own stance and realize we are not always right.

With the introduction of wide spread social media all of this changed. All of a sudden you could chose to ignore what the mainstream media said turning instead to people who were of the same mindset as yourself to give you only news and opinion that you agreed with and nothing else. With that a shift from news as it happens to news you agree with occurred. A subtle shift with serious and dangerous ramafications. When people are given the ability to filter news and opinion to hear only what they want to hear, they lose the ability to think critically. Which is bad enough. But it gets worse:

When people start trusting filtered opinion over objective reality, they become easy targets for manipulators and lose the ability to form their own understanding of the world. This is why the freedom of the press is such an important part of our society, why cross-media ownership is frowned upon and downright banned in many countries and why journalistic ethics commisions exist. But none of this applies to social media and as a result people, organizations and corporations with hidden agendas, evil intentions and broken moral compasses are able to present their distorted world view as fact with noone except other social media contributors standing against them. And as we’ve seen with the health care debate, the global warming debate and many others, in the end it’s the people with the most money that usually win simply because they have the means to keep the pressure up and quash the opposition.

That is why, whenever I hear people talk of social media as a revolution that will save the world and make it a better place, my critical mind cringes. It’s not what the social media evangelists want to hear, but like my parents said: Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.

For further reading on the topic of dissent and social media check out Raul Pacheco’s post on the same topic entitled On the value of dissenting opinions.

9 thoughts on “Social Media: Revolution or the End of Objective Reason?

  1. Great post. I wish Neil Postman was still alive and could revise his classic book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (1985) to include the social media revolution underway right now. Unlike the Orwellian mightmare (as presented in “1984”) that many people feared, Postman suggested we were living in a Huxleyan nightmare (as presented in “Brave New World”) in which television entertainment was our contemporary “soma” which keeps citizens in a state of bliss, surrendering their rights in exchange for entertainment. Postman argued that particular mediums can sustain particular types of thought. Rational argument, an integral component of print culture, cannot be conveyed through the medium of television and thus thoughtful news was transformed into an entertainment commodity and a tool that debased democratic debate. Our enlightenment inspired democracy, which was created in the era of print culture, is being transformed by changes in the media, first radio, then television, and now social media. Is it possible to have a serious debate in this new media ecology?

  2. I understand where you are coming from, but I worked in PR where our jobs were to keep companies out of the news for things they did wrong, coach the CEO’s on what to say to minimise damage, and then put them in the media for the great things they do. These stories were not “true” reflections of their business. We also did this for a major political party in the UK as well.

    Look at any war story shown on the news. One side will say they took out a target, the other side says they blew up a hospital. Who is right? The person watching the news believes whatever is put in front of them, which is normally propoganda. The benefit that social media brings is that they can read 10+ accounts on the same story, spoken through different peoples eyes and then make their judgement of what happened that day.

    The news is not accountable and objective now like you say it is, its already subjective, the opinion and view of one station. All the shift is, is moving it from mainstream to social media. Its giving people a voice! Thats the true power of social media. Sure there will be some people, companies who will fabricate stories to make it better for them, but thats already happening in mainstream media now.

    I think you have a great opinion on social media. My one is different to yours because I worked in the media and saw first hand how bias and opinionated the major media outlets were…. its about having stories to win viewers, not about “real stories”. The major media outlets have to make a profit afterall.

    That is why social media is great. It allows us to follow what we feel is right. We all have different stories and backgrounds to how we come up with our own opinions… Our views on this topic are an example of this. Glass half full or half empty. Social media now allows us to be on the side of the glass that we (as an individual) feels most comfortable with.

    Who is right or wrong? No one is wrong, because the individual is doing what they see as right.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking opinion!

  3. Really enjoyed your fresh and considered perspective Stefan. Critical thought on the lack of critical thought. An important and timely contribution in the face of much gushing social media rhetoric.

    Interesting. Thought provoking – but hey, that’s just my opinion 🙂

    Thanks

    Martin

  4. I respect your opinion, but honestly don’t understand where you think the problem is. With Social Media for giving an arena to everyone’s and anyone’s opinion? With consumers who believe what the read — and look for info that suits their beliefs?

    Sure, the information found in social media can be suspect. And certainly the power of the web to spread this information can wreak havoc to individuals and businesses almost instantly. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t worthwhile information being contributed by these amateurs. Furthermore, the old “authorities” don’t exactly have a great track record for fair, accurate information, do they? Just look at how differently Fox News “reports” on the Presidential campaign when compared to CNN. Which one of these “expert organizations” is right, or, in other words, which one is most trusted? It depends on the viewer’s own opinion, just as you wrote.

    So the real point is that we, as intelligent adults, should be able to gather as many opinions/views/etc. as we want and decide for ourselves what we want to believe. Limiting the available information we can find to only those contributors who are deemed to be “experts” by select people actually insults our intelligence. Who says those “experts” are really experts? And who decides that someone’s opinion isn’t valuable enough for others to hear it? Rush Limbaugh has millions of fans, and probably just as many detractors. Both sides claim the other side is nuts.

    Social Media didn’t create the situation. It simply spreads it. So to fix it, you need to get at the real “problem” that has existed forever — and that’s human nature. Think about it: we seek harmony, including harmony with our beliefs — so we look for information that supports our beliefs and avoid information that degrades our beliefs. For proof, look at religion. Nobody is right from where I stand, but I dare not say that to a devout follower of any religion. They believe what they want — and who am I to stop them.

    I don’t think you can fix human nature. Instead, I think you have to work with it. When working in social media for our clients, my company chooses to play the game the way it is and try our best to make it work for us. Through our web marketing service, my company represents a variety of clients in the online world. We track every and any online story/post/blog related to what they do and add our own posts, comments and links whenever possible in order to make sure that at least our clients’ sides of the story are being presented.

    In many cases, the posts and blogs from others are fair and reliable. In those cases, we simply add the missing info. But occasionally we’ll come across articles and posts that are not nice — or accurate. When responding, we do not criticize any information submitted by others that may hurt our client — even if the person’s info is woefully out of date. Instead, we just give our client’s side and let the readers decide for themselves.

    So my point is that while it is wise to make people aware that the information on the net is not always accurate or fair from another’s perspective (which I think many people are already well on their way to understanding), we should not try to stop it. Instead, work with it.

  5. Pretty much echoes my own thoughts on this. Social Media creates Echo Chambers that will be hard to pierce.

    The great advantage of social media is that I can pick and chose what I want to hear, but that’s also it’s great disadvantage.

    A Newsshow on TV or a Newspaper usually cover broader subjects than personally interest me, partially out of necessity as the broadcaster / publisher does not know what *I* care about. The “bonus” side effect of this was / is that I end up getting exposed to things I normally may not have known / seen.

    As much as I think the Social Media “Revolution” will eat it’s own children, I think you overestimate the amount of change it will bring to North America (specifically the US). The media here already has created it’s own Echo Chambers, the most obvious is Fox News but even local tv news and smalltown newspapers never really looked beyond their own area much.

    Hard to belief? A friend of mine lived in Iowa when Germany was flooded. We talked online and I asked her how her parents were because they lived in the flooded area. Her response? “What flood?”.

    Ir social media wins out we will have a lot of these kinds of moments. If traditional media wants to play a role in the future they have to get away from the idea that they have to beat the internet in breaking stories and concentrate on good journalism and provide a bigger canvas that people can dive into.

    If they fail doing this, and there is a good chance with all these self professed social media experts out there, then we will have an interesting future ahead, though not in the good way.

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