The rise of the Internet and social media is great for a lot of things. But is it hurting our democracy?
That’s the central question some Georgetown University students are grappling with in a class called “Social Media and Democracy”, which looks at issues like the rise of fake news, the ability of Internet “echo chambers” to shape public opinion and the real meaning of concepts like truth. I was honored to speak to this class last week, mostly sharing experiences as a former journalist in Silicon Valley who has seen the decline of the “real” news industry firsthand.
Marketers at all technology companies and, in my opinion, all citizens should be engaging in this debate, mulling the broader ramifications of how news and information is shared and consumed today. What does it mean, for instance, that as of last year, only two in 10 Americans (22%) said they trust the information they get from local news organizations “a lot”—but that 62% of citizens report getting their news from social-media sites, which may not be fact-checked or vetted in the traditional journalistic sense?
I talked to the students last week about the critical but dying art of real journalism, and how sites like Facebook and Twitter can easily—sometimes virally–spread fringe viewpoints or outright falsehoods. They all knew this already, of course, both from the readings they’re doing for the course as well as the news from across town on Capitol Hill: The morning I spoke with them, Twitter executives were getting grilled by members of Congress about 200 or so accounts that may have been used by Russians to manipulate the last Presidential election. Last month, Facebook agreed to turn over 3,000 Russia-linked ads associated with hundreds of accounts that appear to have been created with fake names, with the intent of sowing discord in the electorate.
The rise of social media and the upending of the traditional news business means there’s simply less agreement about what constitutes actual news—and if it’s possible to have objective reporting at all. The financial decimation of the print-newspaper business, fueled partly by the rise of the Internet and the decline of revenue sources like classified ads (and publicly held newspaper companies pushing for profits), means there are fewer and fewer reporters out there even trying to be objective. The American Society of News Editors reported there were just under 33,000 full-time journalists plying their trade in the U.S. in 2015, down significantly from a high of 56,900 in 1990. Last year, the group stopped counting, saying it was too difficult to classify who was really a full-time journalist anymore.
I saw this contraction play out first-hand over the course of my 18-year career in journalism. The Indianapolis Star, a once-venerable big-city newspaper where I worked from 1992 to 1996, after I graduated from college, struggled financially soon after and was sold to Gannett in 2000. The paper quickly assumed the brightly colored, short-story format of other newspapers owned by its parent company, and newsroom staff shrank. Similarly, at the Wall Street Journal, the Bancroft family offloaded Dow Jones & Co. to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2005. There was a slow exodus of top investigative reporters from the paper, whose new editors also extolled the virtues of shorter, less-detailed stories, which are of course cheaper and easier to produce. Then-managing editor (now News Corp. executive) Robert Thomson alienated large corners of the staff when he told reporters that there were too many stories that had “the gestation of a llama”–11 months, to be exact.
Why should we care? Well, maybe this sounds anachronistic, but hard-core, beat and investigative reporting has traditionally served as a crucial check on corporate, political and other types of U.S. institutions. And today there’s simply a lot less of it in print and on the Internet. (For a refresher on the importance of this type of reporting, please watch the recent Ken Burns Vietnam documentary on PBS.)
For marketers and communications pros, there’s the more-immediate issue of a confused and scattershot press landscape, where there are fewer reporters covering serious political and business topics, and they’re generally less experienced. Most cub reporters today don’t go through the type of training and rigorous editing my colleagues and I got at places like the Star, and later the Journal, which I joined when I was 27. Many of the blogs—often very well-known ones—that I deal with now as a communications professional often appear to have scant editing, or none at all. I can count the number of fact-checking calls I’ve gotten in the last four years on one hand. Other print and online publications are slowly erasing the once-sacrosanct line between business and editorial, running paid-for, contributed columns and features that are in many cases advertisements, but not always easily distinguishable as such.
The students in the Georgetown class, part of an innovative ethics and design program launched recently by the school’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, seemed, refreshingly, interested in these broad issues surrounding truth and democracy—even though none of them (not surprisingly) said they read a print newspaper. They asked questions about how journalists combat bias in their use of certain words, and noted that social media has had many positive effects on democracy as well. And it has, in cases like the Arab Spring and others.
We even talked about whether the Internet and social media had created a sort of “journalistic equivalence”: A situation in which the fact that any viewpoint, however crazy or un-checked, can look legitimate on a nicely designed website, or in a trusted friend’s Facebook feed, is making actual news and reporting less believable and less distinguishable to most Americans. The students had discussed the “moral equivalence” argument about President Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville protestors, in which he said both sides were equally to blame for the violence.
So I left the class somewhat upbeat, though still worried about how real journalism will survive in the current political and economic climate. I personally hope that innovators can still find new ways to disrupt the old journalism business model—along the lines of what ProPublica is doing as a nonprofit, or the way in which Report for America is leveraging philanthropy to fund young journalists in “underserved” newsrooms across the U.S., almost like the Peace Corps. (The effort is partly funded by Google News Lab.) I also hope more civic-minded rich guys like Jeff Bezos, now the owner of the Washington Post, will use their billions to prop up old-school journalism in some form. So c’mon, Silicon Valley, start devoting more resources to this problem—our democracy may be at stake.