Are we being dumbed down by ‘news’ from social media?

Inside Westminster: As we approach election, consider whether past faults are being exaggerated by mass communication of the present

A political journalist was once asked how he made stories on dry subjects exciting. Simple, he replied: “First we simplify and then we exaggerate.”

There has always been a tendency in journalism to amplify stories, simplify complex issues and occasionally blur the line between fact and comment to garner a reaction and sell papers. No journalist – including me – can say they are entirely innocent.

Such problems have always been tempered by the plurality of the media and of individual newspapers, which represent a wide range of views and issues on their pages. There is also the enforced impartiality of TV and radio news, and the checking and filtering process through which every story goes before it is published or broadcast.

But as we approach the election, it is worth considering whether the faults of the past are being exaggerated by the mass, instant and social communication of the present. Take Facebook, which is increasingly the primary source of news for millions of people. Most of us probably don’t give too much thought to the stories and posts that turn up in our timeline. But Facebook uses algorithms based on our past behaviour to promote or downgrade the content it delivers to us. So if we’ve liked, commented or shared one piece of content, Facebook will, it seems, ensure it gives us more of the same.

If we’ve liked a story on the evils of the bedroom tax or the scourge of Romanian immigrants, Facebook will deliver more stories on immigration and benefit cuts. And in this world facts matter little.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman recently debunked a Facebook meme which juxtaposed two images from Parliament – one showing an almost empty House of Commons taken during a debate on welfare payments for the disabled and the other showing it full during a debate on MPs’ pay. The problem was that the packed Commons photo was not taken during a debate on MPs’ pay – but during Prime Minister’s Question Time. How many people who shared that content knew that?

Twitter has similar problems. We choose who we follow and we’re more likely to follow those whom we agree with or who expound a view that we already hold.

Some time back I wrote a dry, niche column on the problems facing the implementation of universal credit. I ended by saying the failures showed Iain Duncan Smith had been “inept” and should be moved on. When the quote was put in the headline, the story was retweeted hundreds of times and got more than 1,000 Facebook shares.   

But just to blame the ideologically neutral tools of social media is unfair.

In the worst cases, some news organisations are tailoring their online content on social media to get maximum click-throughs by playing to readers’ prejudices and promoting emotive reporting. Viewing numbers drive revenues across the media, and this true of the internet too. It is a good commercial strategy.

But in some places it does not promote nuanced reporting and risks polarising and simplifying political debate in a way that has not been the case before. It can also make it harder for politicians to make, and be heard making, complicated and nuanced arguments – like how to tackle the deficit.

You might put it like this on Twitter: is social media turning us into an ill-informed lynch mob? Discuss.

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