Umm… hello? Is anyone there? Just checking how highly I’m ranked today in search engines and social media channels.
Let me explain. A week ago, I participated in a panel discussion, organised by the Finnish Union of Journalists, where representatives of Google, Facebook and traditional media companies debated future responsibilities in the media sector.
In the so-called post-factual era, the setting was naturally very interesting. A lot has changed since my years at university, where journalism students learned about their role and responsibility as gate-keepers of public discussion.
In the digital era, the public sphere is increasingly maintained by enterprises, whose business model is not to offer truthful or balanced information or educate the public, but something else completely. Consequently, they usually do not take any responsibility if the outcome of their business operations is exactly the opposite, i.e. vast circulation of hatred or misinformation.
With no binding regulation for the digital platform providers, more and more power and responsibility once held solely by media companies is being handed over to users-made-publishers. That is, regular folk with no media education and often no knowledge of media ethics whatsoever.
While we professional journalists may turn up our noses at the situation in gatherings with our colleagues, we too must play along. Facebook, Google and the like have increasingly become a bloodline for media companies and other organisations aiming to reach out to the public.
Moreover, the rules of how to do that keep changing, and usually not to the benefit of the traditional news agencies. The Facebook feed algorithm, for example, trends towards showing more content with a lot of previous user interactions, namely shares and comments.
Facebook calls this “making the user experience more meaningful”. I fear that it will simply mean that the feed will be filled with even more cat videos, mindless click-baits and posts from similar-minded friends. Not only did digital innovations make all of us self-made publishers, but now also as readers we will see more of what we like from the people we like.
Who needs to see anxiety-provoking stuff such as news, when there are so many funny memes!
A MOMENTUM FOR such fears is clearly here.
Facebook itself is currently facing hard criticism for cases that vary from selling user data to advertisers to a fake news epidemic on Indian WhatsApp and hosting a campaign inciting Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
How, then, are the regular users managing? One answer is ‘terribly’, or, as our columnist in this issue Alastair Creelman puts it: “By giving everyone a voice on the net, we greatly underestimated our potential for hate and manipulation.”
From fake-news-spreading presidents to climate denialists and anti-vaxxers, we, the adults, don’t seem to have a clue how to behave when given the power. We tend to form like-minded cliques, question everything and believe anything.
By saying this, however, I’m not saying that traditional media, which spends more and more of its time echoing social media virals in competition for clicks, is blameless.
It has become clear that immediate action is needed to foster our media literacy skills across the entire population. However, while schoolchildren are already targeted with all sorts of projects and curriculum changes, adults are often left behind, especially in the developing countries where, due to rapid technology advancement, media literacy skills have had too little time to develop.
IN THE FACE OF THIS SITUATION, the most important question is whom should we reach out for to find a solution? Whose responsibility should it be to make sure that adults, not just children, are media literate and know how to behave on the web?
Ideally, with suitable funding and resources, this sounds like a task for the adult educators. Some examples of that are presented on this issue. But what’s the role of governments, traditional media companies or the internet giants? How about the bloggers or individual commentators?
One piece of good news is that, with help of public pressure, companies like Facebook and Google are slowly waking up to do their share. They have started to delete users or pages that spread harmful information, balance the search engine results and cooperate with the authorities.
Other good news can be found in the civil society sector. In recent years, many groups and organisation have been formed to offer media literacy training and to fight misinformation. Some of these fact-checking groups work in the field of health claims, one of the areas where false news can have life-threatening consequences.
Finally, dear reader, if you reached this point, that’s another piece of good news. It is still possible to encounter professionally produced journalism on the web, something that, in the doomiest visions, is disappearing from the public space altogether.
Luckily, none of what is happening is totally out of our hands. We made the rules, and we can change them. It is also up to us to start behaving.