The 21st century saw the emergence of the social media era that empowered individuals and civil society to interact and collaborate. Information is now shared globally and instantaneously: Twitter replaced newspapers by becoming the first source of information: an event happens in the world…and we all check Twitter and YouTube for more information, and look on Facebook to verify if our loved ones are safe and sound.
Some believe that each social media user has become a journalist since she/he can gather and report news on multiple platforms globally (2). Without entering in the debate of their legitimacy, suffice to say that citizen journalism coincides with a dramatic diminution of advertisement revenue for newspapers, the majority of which was captured by… the same organisations empowering citizen journalism (GAFA). This leads to questioning the role of journalism in the digital age, and its relationships with their readers, who alternatively are also their news providers.
In this new environment, what is the role of journalists? How to respond to some political leaders who put into question the role of the press and the veracity of the information they produce? How to adapt to the large amount of content that social media users share by simply reading the title (without reading the rest of article and verifying the sources) (3)? What is the role of traditional journalism when the majority of the public now accesses news through social media platforms? How to allow fair retribution to journalists when digital networks capture the majority of advertising revenues?
These questions are complex, and so are the answers. It is not our ambition to offer a quick answer to these vast issues, but rather contribute to the debate around the role of journalism in today’s world. In a “fake news” environment that makes every piece of information seem suspicious, trust has become even more essential. Who do we trust when searching for information? What is the truth today? Where is the truth today? This new war of narratives makes it difficult for many citizens to identify a trust-worthy source of information.
A well-functioning democracy requires citizens to be well-informed. We need reliable sources of information to choose a candidate, to vote on a specific political program, and to make up our mind on major global issues such as climate change. In the past, newspapers were the main sources of information, and citizens relied on them to make their decisions. In the “old” media ecosystem, elite media were the conveyor belt between suppliers (political and business leaders) and consumers (public opinion) of information.
Today, social media has become the new conveyor belt between the suppliers and the consumers. According to the 2018 Pew Internet Research, 2/3 of adult US citizens have a Facebook account and 3/4 of them consult the social network every day. Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat and QQ are the most used social media platforms globally (1). Elite media such as The Guardian are one out of many sources of information. The multiplication of sources of information, often contradictory, leads to a war of narratives. The same facts, differently framed, produce stories based on opinion with alternative facts and scenarios. A recent MIT study showed that fake news spread faster than real news (and by a substantial margin) on Twitter (3).
The example of Cambridge Analytica (CA) is quite enlightening. The organisation succeeded in developing a profiling model that allowed it to micro-target messages. In other words, it could adapt the message individually to influence their final decision. This means that for each issue, CA could precisely choose the image, the message, the tone of voice, and the argumentation that it sent to millions of citizens (and then automatically replicate the effort endlessly). All these actions were done without any public scrutiny. If you can choose the input (the information) a person receives based on a very precise knowledge of his/her psychology, you can almost certainly choose what the person will decide. Could we then conclude that CA had gained the power to dictate the choice of millions of individuals? It is probably an exaggerated claim, but the role of this new generation of PR companies in political campaigns remains for the very least controversial.
On one hand, elite media such as Le Monde or El Pais have benefited from the multiplication of “fake news” and have regained a popularity by positioning themselves as a safe zone with rigorously fact-checked information. Indeed, one of the many elements that differentiate journalism from social media, is their expertise, knowledge and resources to produce trust-worthy information. Biais has always existed in journalism. But there is a gap between having a political opinion and transforming reality. The main issue is probably not here: it is not about the biais of some journalists and media outlets. It is about differentiating journalism from social media, making sure that citizens (and especially younger generations born with social media) choose information produced through “official journalism”. We must learn how to distinguish between “fake news”, political opinions, investigation, facts…The main issue here is about education: how do we teach present and future generations to become responsible web users and consult fact-checked information through “official journalism.”
As Eli Pariser mentioned when describing the well-known phenomenon of “Filter Bubble”, we have the responsibility to consult different media outlets, compare sources, and keep a critical perspective on what we watch, read and hear. “Official journalism” is essential today more than ever. We must combat by all means disinformation campaigns and all attempts to delegitimise their work. But at the end of the day, it is our responsibility to make sure we make a well-informed decision. And it is certainly us, as citizens, who will bear the consequences of our decisions.
(2) Bowman, S. and Willis, C. “We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information.” 2003, The Media Center at the American Press Institute.