News publics in the age of social media

Eugenia Siapera, Institute for Future Media and Journalism, School of Communications, Dublin City University

The rise of the internet and social media introduced massive and unprecedented changes in the ways we communicate and connect to one another. Theorists such as Manuel Castells (2011) have spoken about the age of the network, an alternative form of social organization revolving around shared activities and beliefs. Yochai Benkler (2006) has documented the potential possibilities for creativity and innovation based on sharedness and collaboration. The democratic potential of social media has been highlighted in a series of studies focusing on protests and activism (e.g. Shirky, 2011). Taken together, these studies suggest a qualitative shift prioritizing the role of individuals rather than states, organized in terms of loose networks. Equally, publics are no longer located in specific geographical locations, organized as networks.  But these networked publics still have to have access to information and the means by which to decipher, interpret and understand this information. But do they?

Large studies such as the Reuters Digital News Report have offered important insights in the ways in which networked publics consume the news. The main trends include firstly the rising role of social media for the discovery of news, the increased use of smartphones for news access and the continued importance of trust. The role of social media in news dissemination is becoming increasingly important as more and more people rely on their Facebook and Twitter feeds for news. Social media enable networked publics to be always informed about the news without necessarily having to visit news media websites. However, although more than 51% of the readers in the 26-country sample of the Reuters Report get their news from social media they are not always aware of the ways in which their timelines are structured. This is especially the case when it comes to Facebook, which is using an algorithm which selects and prioritizes specific posts to appear in a timeline. This algorithm relies on aspects such as what other members of a person’s network have shared, on the kind of previous posts read, commented and shared by the person, and on elements such as the time or recency of the news. In these terms, it is clear that Facebook imposes a kind of editorial decision on how to structure what people see their timelines, but without being very transparent about the rules it applies. Though Facebook has argued that it is users’ previous behavior and preferences that feed into the algorithm, the fact remains that this kind of algorithm ordering may prevent publics from coming across new and different kinds of information that could not have been predicted by Facebook’s algorithm. In other words, publics are not exposed to the full diversity of news and information that is out there, but to a selection based on their previous likes and dislikes, and on the kinds of networks they are part of. We further know that people tend to form networks with similar others (the so- called homophily effect, see McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cooke, 2001), so this in essence means that they may be existing in a kind of filter bubble (Pariser, 2011) that excludes news and information coming from different and unexpected sources. This has clear implications for the power afforded to private corporations such as Facebook, for the right of publics to access a diverse diet of news and information, and ultimately for the kind of diverse but cohesive common world we need to be part of in order for society to function.

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Secondly, the rise of smartphones as one of the main devices for news consumption means that news can be accessed anywhere but it also means that accessing news can be a function of the speed of one’s internet connection, or of the kind of subscription model one has. Moreover, news that takes too long to download will not be clicked upon or shared. For news publishers that rely on clicks and engagement, this is tantamount to a death penalty. Proposed solutions such as Facebook’s Instant Articles, which require that publishers publish directly on Facebook’s platform, rather than posting links to their website, mean that readers stay on Facebook and potential revenue from advertising is lost. Additionally, because there is an increased reliance on sharing, commenting and liking articles in order to generate income, journalism finds itself employing more and more marketing and promotional techniques, which may compromise independent and critical journalism. Overall, for publishers these developments mean that news is becoming less and less a sustainable business, and for publics that ultimately they will be getting less and less diverse news even if they manage to deal with the filters imposed by algorithms.

Thirdly, the question of trust is emerging as key: people tend to trust more their friends, and hence are more likely to read and share news that comes through them. This kind of trust is now taking over from trusting a news brand, though this depends on the national contexts: for example, trust in news brands is the lowest in Greece at 20% and highest in Finland at 65%. But for the most part, publics don’t even notice the news brand when they read or share something, implying that they trust implicitly the person who shared the news, and undertake few if any other checks on the accuracy of the news. The quality of the news read and shared depends on the kind of friends one has in their network. This can help explain the notion of affective publics (Papacharissi, 2015), understood as publics linked by affective ties and by affective investment on stories.

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Taken together these trends reveal a very problematic picture for news publics, revolving around personalised news feeds, over reliance on social media platforms, which in turn undermine the ability of news publishers to produce news, and over reliance on friends in one’s network. In fact, such is the difference between these networked affective publics and the rational critical public at the heart of the Enlightenment and at the centre of classic journalism, that we need to ask in what sense do these relatively closed networks connected by affect can be understood as publics. Of course none of these networks is really cut off from other networks, and information still finds ways to enter and circulate, but the questions of quality, diversity and critical ability remain. It may well be that we, as part of these publics, need to rethink our relationship to the news and to social media platforms. On their part social media platforms may be required to treat journalism in a way that is different to that of other bands in social media platforms, given the centrality and importance of journalism for society and politics. Finally, journalism itself may need to restructure its relationship to its various publics, taking into account their needs, habits and preferences.

References

Benkler Y., 2006, The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom, Yale University Press.

Castells M., 2011, The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1), John Wiley & Sons.

McPherson M., Smith-Lovin L. and Cook J.M., 2001, “Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks”, Annual review of sociology, pp. 415-444.

Papacharissi Z., 2015, Affective publics: Sentiment, technology, and politics, Oxford University Press.

Pariser E., 2011, The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you, Penguin UK.

Shirky C., 2011, “The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change”, Foreign affairs, pp. 28-41.

Dr Eugenia Siapera is Deputy Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism, Dublin City University. Eugenia is a School of Communications lecturer and researcher in the areas of social media, journalism, political theory, multiculturalism and cultural diversity and media. Her current research looks at the future of journalism from the perspective of journalists and their evolving professional practices, job descriptions, roles and their perception of their roles in a rapidly changing media landscape.


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