American political discourse in 2016 seems to have run on two self-contained, never-overlapping sets of information.
One way to think of the job journalism does is telling a community about itself and on those terms, the American media failed spectacularly this election cycle. That Donald Trump’s victory came as such a surprise – a systemic shock, really – to both journalists and so many who read or watch them is a marker of just how bad a job we did. American political discourse in 2016 seemed to be running on two self-contained, never-overlapping sets of information. It took the Venn diagram finally meeting at the ballot box to make it clear how separate the two solitudes really are.
The troubling morning-after realisation is that the structures of today’s media ecosystem encourage that separation and do so a little bit more each day. The decline of the mass media’s business models; the continued rise of personalised social feeds and the content that spreads easily within them; the hollowing-out of reporting jobs away from the coasts: These are, like the expansion of the universe, pushing us farther apart in all directions.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the list of actors has to start with Facebook. And for all its wonders – reaching nearly two billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else on Earth – it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information. Our democracy has a lot of problems, but there are few things that could impact it for the better more than Facebook starting to care – really care – about the truthfulness of the news that its users share and take in.
As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman has documented repeatedly – and as anyone who has spent much time on their relatives’ profile pages can probably attest – Facebook has become a sewer of misinformation. Some of it is driven by ideology, but a lot is driven purely by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created: The fake stuff, when it connects with a Facebook user’s preconceived notions or sense of identity, spreads like wildfire. (And it’s a lot cheaper to make than real news.)
One example: I’m from a small town in south Louisiana. The day before the election, I looked at the Facebook page of the current mayor. Among the items he posted there in the final 48 hours of the campaign: ‘Hillary Clinton Calling for Civil War If Trump Is Elected.”Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’. ‘Barack Obama Admits He Was Born in Kenya’. ‘FBI Agent Who Was Suspected Of Leaking Hillary’s Corruption Is Dead’.
These are not legit anti-Hillary stories. (There were plenty of those, to be sure, both on his page and in this election cycle.) These are imaginary, made up, frauds. And yet Facebook has built a platform for the active dispersal of these lies – in part because these lies travel really, really well. (The pope’s “endorsement” has over 868,000 Facebook shares. The Snopes piece noting that the story is fake has but 33,000.)
In a column just before the election, The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg argued that “the cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” I wish that were true, but I think the evidence shows that it’s not. There was an enormous amount of good journalism done on Trump and this entire election cycle, from both old-line giants like the [New York] Times and the Washington Post and digital natives like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast. (There were plenty of good broadcast reporters on the beat as well, though what appeared on air left a lot to be desired.) For anyone who wanted to take it in, the pickings were rich.
The problem is that not enough people sought it out. And of those who did, not enough of them trusted it to inform their political decisions. And even for many of those, the good journalism was crowded out by the fragmentary glimpses of nonsense.
I used to be something of a sceptic when it came to claims of “filter bubbles” – the sort of epistemic closure that comes from only seeing material you agree with on social platforms. People tend to click links that align with their existing opinions, sure – but isn’t that just an online analog to the fact that our friends and family tend to share our opinions in the real world too? I ate up studies (from Facebook and others) that argued the site actually encouraged a certain kind of information diversity, because your Facebook friends are likely drawn from a wider group of people (the guy you went to middle school with, your mom’s neighbour, that rando you met that weekend at the beach) than the people you discuss news with in real life.
But I’ve come to think that the rise of fake news – and of the cheap-to-run, ideologically driven aggregator sites that are only a few steps up from fake – has weaponised those filter bubbles. There were just too many people voting in this election because they were infuriated by made-up things they read online.
(Speaking of filter bubbles: Even now, right after the election, my Facebook news feed is filled with sad posts from my liberal friends from college or media. There are also happy posts from my relatives and friends in the South – but I have to hunt those out because Facebook’s algorithm isn’t putting them in my feed.)
What can Facebook do to fix this problem? There are ideas out there, many of them problematic in their own ways. One simple one would be to hire editors to manage what shows up in its Trending section – one major way misinformation gets spread. Facebook canned its Trending editors after it got pushback from conservatives; that was an act of cowardice and since then, fake news stories have been algorithmically pushed out to millions with alarming frequency.
Another idea would be to hire a team of journalists and charge them with separating at least the worst of the fake news from the stream. Not the polemics (from either side) that sometimes twist facts like balloon animals – I’m talking about the outright fakery. Stories known to be false could be down-weighted in Facebook’s algorithm and users trying to share them could get a notice telling them that the story is fake. Sites that publish too much fraudulent material could be down-weighted further or kicked out entirely.
Would this or other ideas raise freedom of speech or other thorny issues? Sure. This would be easy to screw up – which is I’m sure why Facebook threw up its hands at the pushback to a human-edited Trending section and why it positions itself a neutral connector of its users to content it thinks they will find pleasing. I don’t know what the right solution would be – but I know that getting Mark Zuckerberg to care about the problem is absolutely key to the health of our information ecosystem.
Here are a few other questions about the American media’s future that this election cycle raised for me.
A community backbone in need of repair
One thread running through the countless profiles of Trump voters this cycle was the loss of community institutions. The factories shut down; the church pews were emptier than they used to be; the braided fabric of their towns had unravelled. Don’t forget that, particularly in smaller communities, the local newspaper was one of those key institutions – the daily or weekly package of stories that connected you to your neighbours.
Everyone knows that the business struggles of newspapers have stripped those institutions bare. But those struggles have not been evenly dispersed. As I’ve written about before, the shift from print to digital has concentrated the news business more than ever in New York, Washington and a few other cities with oceanfront views. Of all the messages embedded in Trump’s rise, few are clearer than his voters’ belief that coastal elites are not serving their interests.
Will a Trump presidency push some top news organisations in the direction of a more Guardian-style openness about a liberal perspective? Just as 20th-century norms around newspaper objectivity were in part a response to business conditions – the desire to create mass local audiences – will the increased clarity about the divides in this country encourage a more targeted product for affluent, coastal, progressive audiences? And will reporters and editors at these outlets – who, it is fair to assume, did not vote for Trump in large numbers – begin to see themselves are more explicitly oppositional?
[New York] Times executive editor Dean Baquet said last month that a Trump candidacy had given the paper “courage, if you will. I think he made us – forced us, because he does it so often, to get comfortable with saying something is false.” Will a Trump presidency push that further?
A related question: What happens to the millennial-driven sites (BuzzFeed, Mic, Fusion, et al.) who have built their content strategies, to varying degrees, around embracing what they see as the progressive views of their target audience? Do they double-down on identity-driven stories embracing the values of diversity and multiculturalism? Or – at a time when many are under their own revenue strains and chasing scale – do any of them see a market opportunity in the Trump voter?
“How we got this completely wrong, in 17 charts”
How does the market for explanatory and data journalism respond to the fact that a year and a half of explanations have been shown to be wrong? On election morning, The Huffington Post told its readers Clinton had a 98% chance of being elected; the Times put it at 85%. And let’s not forget all the Here’s-why-Trump-can’t-possibly-win explainers.
Before poll-aggregation models, social media and podcasts, a reporter’s confidence about an election outcome was probably known mostly to the people he had a beer with after work. This time, though, the confidence (or arrogance) was visible for all to see. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out, media Twitter seemed to reflexively view every Trump move as dumb on its face: “There was almost a social pressure to go with the ‘Oh my god, this makes no sense!’ interpretation instead of trying to understand what the logic might be… overwhelmingly, the media reaction was: snark.”
Any journalist critical of the Facebook filter bubble they saw Trump voters caught in needs to look closely at the Twitter filter bubble where they spend a lot of their work day.
It’s been said that we get the media we deserve: that the journalism we see is a reflection of business structures and audience decisions, not the result of an elite’s decisions to shape public opinion. There’s a lot of truth to that. But the information we produce and consume is generated by human beings, not systems and those human beings have just gotten the shock of their professional lives. If we’re going to build a better environment for news, we need to think about these issues in a much bigger context than one election night. And it’ll take everyone – journalists, readers, tech companies and more – to make it happen.
Joshua Benton is the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.
This article was originally published on Nieman Lab (www.niemanlab.org)