The way we consume and interact with media is changing at a faster rate than ever before and advancements in technology and media distribution allows easier access to news and reduces accountability. While the industrial revolution made true mass media a reality by streamlining the printing press, the technological revolution of the last century added a network of ways to consume media, each more accessible to a younger audience than the last.
Research shows that millennials consume media differently than older generations, primarily getting news from their personal devices. Major news developments are posted to social media sites in minutes, and movies and television can be watched through apps, all through mobile phones or tablets. Studies into social media content and engagement suggest that younger generations are becoming passive receivers of information, witnessing popular news stories simply because they are discussed over social media. Trending news is shared by friends over social media, creating an echo chamber for those of similar ideals. Due to the propensity for people to follow like-minded individuals, media that tends to reinforce pre-existing assumptions and ideals forms a loop of reading, agreeing, and sharing content.
Consider the behaviour of targeted advertising- unidentified data is collected from things a user reads and writes on social media. Over a long enough timeline, this information can be used to suggest with precision consumer goods that a user either deliberately or subconsciously desires. This is similar to the feedback loop that social media creates, which ultimately have the effect of reinforcing stereotypes and erasing idiosyncrasies.
Before social media created individual news feeds, accountability was directed towards authors, producers, and distributors of mass media content- a small number of outlets. With the rise of fake news and technological access, accountability is scarcely seen in mainstream media. Clickbait headlines and inflammatory accusations need only dubious evidence to appear in social media or the news. Misinformation like this can spread before it can be confirmed, damaging reputations with loaded language that suggests and assumes, but almost never tells the truth.
A breaking news story in early May reported that the US FBI Director, James Comey, had been fired by Donald Trump. This would be a remarkable story on its own, however, James Comey only learnt about losing his position from the primetime news, mid-way through delivering an unrelated speech to the press. This highlights just how quickly information can travel, and without any filter to the content, it can cause almost unbelievable situations. There is an unprecedented level of immediacy to the flow of information, one that is accentuated by the accessibility of mobile phones, laptops, and the internet.
The lack of accountability and credibility in the media was put in the spotlight during the 2016 US election. The phrase “fake news” was brought to households, as smear-campaigns seemed to come from every eligible candidate. The FBI director was said to have taken funds from Hillary Clinton, in return for support and tax breaks. Donald Trump was said to have ties to Russia that are being exploited by the media. Regardless of the subject matter, if a sensational and possibly damaging headline can be made about it, it was broadcast throughout the election.
Media is now being consumed on a large scale, immediately, from sources with no credentials. In essence, a global, immediate network of information is now available to increasingly younger audiences that create echo chambers with little accountability. Critical thinking has become one of, if not, the most important skill to understanding current affairs. When false information can be spread through channels like social media, it reaches an audience that is not geared towards critical thinking. While most mainstream news sources such as television, radio, and newspapers still have the credibility once held, it takes a deliberately cynical outlook to finding the truth.
By Sam Wood