The internet gives us a way to challenge biased “mainstream” reporting
BY SAM WHITE
I have grave doubts about social media, and Twitter in particular. The idea that it can trap people in bubbles, leading to feedback loops, extremism, and the othering of those with whom one disagrees, seems to be playing out. It might be rewiring people I previously thought were balanced and worth paying attention to. Entertainers, authors, musicians, all seem to be particularly susceptible. Some of them appear to have been driven mad. Some give the impression that they aggressively hate the majority of the people in their own country.
And it’s addictive. Twitter is bad news, I thought, as I sat staring at Twitter.
However, a couple of conversations I had recently (in real life, not online) with people who are not obsessive about politics, led me to partially reconsider. This is purely anecdotal, but to summarize:
The first person I spoke to follows the news by relying on what is still referred to as the liberal media. That is, outlets such as the Guardian, the BBC, and CNN. Organisations that are mainstream and on the left. He doesn’t use social media to follow news or politics, and in his eyes, Brexit is simply a very bad thing. Trump is a barely concealed dictator. Climate change will end the world. You know how it is. The package.
The second person I spoke to dislikes Trump, but doesn’t for a second believe him to be a dictator. She has no position on Brexit, but is aware of the arguments on both sides, and thinks it will likely work out fine. She’s not currently going into prepper mode in anticipation of a Koch-funded carbon apocalypse (although to be fair, neither are the climate fretters, whose dread about the end of civilisation isn’t quite severe enough for them to actually alter their lifestyles).
And the other, crucial, difference between my two interlocutors? While the second one reads the same mainstream liberal media as the first, she also then goes on Twitter and reads the reactions and replies to the stories that the mainstream liberal media is constantly pumping out.
And when she does so, she finds rebuttals, and reasoned disagreement. She finds that the liberal media is selective in its reporting. That it runs with this but not that, because this is convenient but that isn’t. She finds all its flaws and biases being exposed, every day, by pesky anonymous accounts who very often happen to have background knowledge, time on their hands, and an intense dislike of misleading journalism.
Twitter provides instant pushback against suspect reporting. It might well spread fake news from disreputable alternative sources, but it also flags up misleading stories from the supposedly respectable mainstream sources. And it does this every day, all the time, because the misleading stories just keep on coming, while the curmudgeons in the replies—sticklers for detail, contrary, never doing as they’ve been told—aren’t budging an inch.
So I’m torn. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is much about Twitter that is damaging and unpleasant. But, on the other hand, it’s currently providing the opportunity for an unprecedented challenge to the top-down, narrative-controlling authority of the mainstream media. Whether on the left or the right, journalists, ideology-hawking celebs, and politicians themselves, simply cannot get away with being dishonest or badly informed.
Or rather, they can, but only as long as no-one goes on Twitter and checks the replies. And my sense is that a growing number of people are realising that if you don’t go online and look for the voices answering back, if you don’t listen to the dissenters, then you aren’t really hearing the news at all.
Towards the end of my time as a Guardian reader, I barely even bothered with the articles anymore, and would simply skip down to reader comments, where I was sure that some more balanced, rounded, and propaganda-free views could be found. The Guardian isn’t so keen on comment sections anymore, and I doubt if they’re that keen on Twitter either.
But they can’t moderate Twitter. They can’t close social media.
Out there online, where everything is disseminated, they’re not in control.
Sam White is a writer whose work has appeared in The Spectator, Quillette and Vice. Follow him on twitter: @SamWhiteTky