The blurred lines of modern media

Armstrong Williams | 4/5/2018, midnight
Facebook is once again under heavy fire for its seemingly insatiable appetite for slurping up and analyzing endless streams of ...
Armstrong Williams

Facebook is once again under heavy fire for its seemingly insatiable appetite for slurping up and analyzing endless streams of user data. The social-media giant is again playing defense over its powerful role in controlling the news that each of us sees on our Facebook feeds.

Like so many other modern sites, Facebook takes an algorithmic approach to news. It uses code to draw its own conclusions about what stories we want to see, thereby determining how we look at certain issues.

The chorus of criticism is deafening. However, the mainstream media are being incredibly hypocritical by teaming up against Mark Zuckerberg and his company. After all, how is the media process of determining, in editorial meetings, what people to feature and what topics to cover any different from what Facebook is doing?

If anything, the old way of choosing the news is likely more prone to political or situational bias and more susceptible to human error. People are, after all, fallible and we all make mistakes.

I know about this firsthand. As a syndicated columnist my articles run in print in various publications across the world and appear on various websites. My reach is further expanded through my own social-media channels as well as through dedicated readers consistently sharing my content with an ever-widening audience by posting links to the stories in their social-media feeds or by emailing them to their family members and friends.

I will be the first to admit that the topics I explore are often determined by situations arising in my own life. It’s not an inherently good or bad thing, it just is.

If a friend were to be diagnosed with an illness, then without any conscious effort I would probably be more inclined to write pieces related to wellness or nutrition, or I might talk philosophically upon the most important things in our lives.

Although there are many similarities between the “curation” of news in newsrooms and around the table during editorial meetings and the “curation” of news algorithmically by Facebook and other sites, there are also some notable differences.

Social media often forces us to experience a stronger media bias. That is likely in large part because the fact that the goal is often to drive clicks, to extend the time we spend within the confines of any one platform, and to increase the number of stories with which we interact.

There are clear financial incentives for this approach: Facebook benefits by collecting user data about our preferences. It also increases the likelihood of converting visitors into customers because Facebook’s advertisers are able to bombard us with sales pitches. In addition, when we increase the amount of time we spend on any one platform we boost their statistics. That provides the foundation for ever-increasing prices in advertising payments by corporations and brands eager to connect with captive audiences.

Also, let’s not forget that the “social” aspect of social media all but guarantees that we become more firmly ensconced in silos and echo chambers. If one person’s friends are talking about a specific topic, then Facebook is more likely to display content related to it. Although for me it ironically often means that I am presented with a diverse array of viewpoints and topics, for most people the opposite seems to be true. For the average user, Facebook’s machines lead them to like-minded people talking in similar ways about the same topics as dictated by the platform.