The new gatekeepers of information

Every morning, as I begin my day with a cup of coffee, I take a quick glance at the three freshly-delivered newspapers on the dining table. Scanning the headlines, I always wonder how editors decide which news items to put on the front page for that day, and which ones to relegate to the inside pages.

Back in the early 1990s, I worked as a presenter of the early evening news in the then newly-opened ABC-5 television station. I remember being awed by the sheer number of available reports from which the newsroom staff had to distill the final lineup of the early evening news. The reports were arranged in the order in which they were to be read, which could change at the last minute.

Sometimes, space was made for some “breaking news” or “live reports,” thus leaving no time for the last items in the original lineup. Some of these were saved for the following day’s lineup, or stored as fillers, or discarded altogether as stale news. Seeing this, I marveled at how newsrooms like ours, in effect, decided for the public what was important to know about the world every day. I was struck by the enormity of this responsibility.

This is the power, or burden, of selectivity. It has less to do with whether something is true or false—for not all truths can realistically be reported — than with what is to be regarded as relevant or important, or worth knowing. This is a matter of judgment, one that goes beyond the simple determination of whether something is factual or not factual.

In the world of mainstream media, the keepers of the faith in sound judgment are the editors, who are responsible not just for fact-checking but, indeed, for enforcing a discipline of rationality and healthy common sense in the selection of the news. They are the guardians against what Nietzsche described as “the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing, and hearing, the enjoyment of the mind’s lack of discipline, the joy in human unreason.”

Because of the binding force of this faith, it is not surprising to see how different newspapers and broadcast networks, irrespective of their ideological leanings or ownership, tend to mirror or echo each other, as though an unseen hand causes them to report more or less the same news every day. There is no conspiracy here. Much of this is ingrained in the training of professional journalists. It is encapsulated in notions of what constitutes good journalism.

In this regard, publishers and media owners exercise only very limited control, if at all, over the news selection process. As the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann put it in his book “The Reality of the Mass Media,” “[their] freedom to make decisions in choosing the news items they run is much less than critics often suppose.”

The internet upended this entire mass communication ecosystem almost overnight. The new technology has made possible the mass dissemination of information virtually by anyone who has access to any of the social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, etc. This capability used to be the monopoly of newspapers and broadcast networks, which offered no room for readers and listeners to react to the news in real-time. It was essentially a one-way relationship, signifying unquestioned power.

In the early days of the new information superhighway, many of us celebrated the advent of social media as the ultimate democratization of mass communication. We welcomed the blogger as the model of the citizen-journalist and rejoiced in the overnight proliferation of independent websites that reported events from a non-mainstream perspective.

This newfound communicative freedom, sometimes enjoyed in full anonymity by its practitioners, had the effect, however, of concealing the more insidious and outsize power behind the online social networking services that disseminate our posted communications. These global conglomerates are the new kings of information. The more traffic they can get flowing into their platforms, the higher their earnings. They know that good news seldom attracts as much attention as negative news, that truth is not as sexy as untruth, and that conflict and intense disagreement generate more interest than consensus. They set their algorithms accordingly.

Unlike the editors and gatekeepers of traditional media who wrestled every day with their consciences as they discharged the burden of selectivity, the owners of social media platforms freed themselves from this burden by letting their algorithms automatically do the work of information selection for them.

Maria Ressa, in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech the other day, aptly referred to these social media giants as the “new gatekeepers.” It is they who have “allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger, hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.”

Maria stressed the need to combat disinformation with facts. “Facebook,” she said, “is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts.” But I would argue that facts too can be “laced with anger and hate.” Therefore, fact-checking can only go so far in fighting the virus of hate, fear, and resentment. We need to question the whole business model that runs through these internet-based media companies. As the new gatekeepers of information, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube must be made accountable for what they allow their users to post on their sites.