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Facebook not letting dodgy conservative stories trend is the least of our problems

You may have been outraged last month by allegations that Facebook editorial staff had suppressed certain conservative stories from its ‘trending’ news section. Since Facebook had us believe its ‘trending’ stories were selected by an algorithm, based largely on the popularity of stories among Facebook users, the revelations initially caused a credibility crisis for Facebook.

Those initial concerns largely fell away when we learned Facebook may have done us a huge favour by savings us from nutty conspiracy theories, and poorly written scaremongering, by such illustrious right-wing media outlets as Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, and Newsmax, unless a newspaper of record or other respected news organisation reported the same matter, in which case the more reliable and respected news source was made the trending item.

Nevertheless, some continue to see an egregious breach of the right to the freedom of expression. Others assert that merely ‘disallowing’ something from trending on a particular social media network is by no means denying the right to free speech by those who otherwise freely publish, and are accessible online, and note that Facebook arguably has an obligation and responsibility to filter out the nutty, conspiracy theories from the real news, just as it has an obligation and responsibility to act on hate speech, homophobia, misogyny, and racism.

While the integrity of Facebook’s news delivery is of concern, because research shows people are increasingly relying on social media to deliver their news, there are much larger issues of concern when it comes to news media and the delivery of news: the echo chamber and cognitive dissonance, working together to stupefy the public, and the slow demise of quality journalism.

While people increasingly rely on social media to deliver their news, it’s important to acknowledge that much of that news still comes from traditional media …

‘Echo chamber’ is the phenomenon whereby accepted ideas, information and opinions are amplified and reinforced by repetition inside a closed system, where ideas, information and opinions that are different are censored, or underrepresented.

Meanwhile ‘cognitive dissonance’ results in individuals seeking consistency between their expectations and their reality, and rejecting new ideas, information and opinions, even when they are correct and factual, if they don’t conform with the individual’s existing value system.

FacebookI would prefer news media that delivers the facts only, and allows me to form an opinion of my own.

However, modern news media practically forces us to consume the opinions of hacks and pundits. We have precious little media these days that focuses on delivering the ‘news’ – news papers and networks are brimming with political hacks and pundits spewing their opinions, coloured by their respective cultural, political, and social ideologies.

Of course I have my own ideological value bias. Everyone has theirs. No one is immune.

Mine is guided by the principles of kindness, common decency, human dignity, fairness, integrity, and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding through science and education – a liberal, progressive, and secular value system.

It is of the utmost importance to me that my opinions are based on observable facts, and supported by credible, testable evidence. This means my opinions can, and will, change if new factual information, and credible evidence comes to light.

I call this learning, personal growth, and the evolution of self.

Sadly, the growing introduction of paywalls across the online presence of traditional media outlets is significantly narrowing our exposure to differing points of view.

While people increasingly rely on social media to deliver their news, it’s important to acknowledge that much of that news still comes from traditional media and, to a lesser extent, from innovative challengers. I must also confess that the first time I looked at Facebook’s list of trending stories was after the ‘scandal’ broke, which makes me wonder how widely it is used …

Sadly, the growing introduction of paywalls across the online presence of traditional media outlets is significantly narrowing our exposure to differing points of view. It is understandable that traditional media is looking at new sources of revenue, to make up for falling hardcopy circulations, and the dilution of advertising revenue.

But the introduction of those paywalls is acting as a serious deterrent to seeking out views contrary to our prevailing values. In my opinion, paywalls represent a far more serious threat to our exposure to a sufficient variety of views than a level of editorial intervention at social media companies, akin to editorial oversight that had always characterised traditional media outlets, from newspapers to the evening news bulletin.

So-called metered paywalls fail to address this problem, as access to ten or twenty free articles per month is not a solution for your serious news junkie.

My personal experience is the perfect illustration of our diminishing exposure to a variety of views, even in circumstances where I am genuinely interested in being exposed to views that conflict with my value system.

If you are a regular reader of The Vue Post, you would be well aware of my ongoing concerns about the conservative ideological bias of News Limited. I am particularly concerned about the regular anti-gay, anti-refugees, and anti-climate change ‘crusades’ of The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, which are arguably verging on the pathological.

Such opinions directly confront not just my value system, but the very person I am: an ex-asylum seeker, and a gay man.

I used to be a regular reader of The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, despite the fact some of their articles and ‘journalists’ made me want to pluck out my own eyes so I won’t have to endure their unique brand of ‘journalism’ any further.

Nevertheless, I persevered because I believe in the importance of being exposed to a wide range of views, even if I don’t agree with all of them, and trying to understand the mindset and ‘reasoning’ behind such views.

Paywalls changed that.

I have been a subscriber of The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) for over two decades now, finding it a reasonably centrist and respectable newspaper of record. One of my favourite guilty pleasures has always been to curl up in bed on a Saturday and Sunday morning, with a cup of coffee and my home delivered copy. But after finishing with the SMH, I would always go online and check a variety of other news sources from The New York Times to the BBC, The Australian, The Washington Post, and The Daily Telegraph, to mention a few.

I am a self-confessed news junkie.

Accessing News Limited, and a range of other, publications is difficult these days without a subscription. While I was happy to peruse their take on culture, politics and society while I had free access, I find it a bridge too far to subscribe and directly finance the production and dissemination of outlandishly weird opinions I don’t just often abhor, but also believe to be damaging to our culture and social cohesion.

Also, if I wanted to continue to read as widely as I used to do in the pre-paywall environment, I would have to subscribe for up to thirty or more news sites, costing in the vicinity of $300 per month. Doing so is financially prohibitive.

The consequence is that the variety of my news consumption had narrowed over the past couple of years.

Thankfully we still have some outstanding free news services, including the Australian and British national broadcasters, the ABC and the BBC. We are very fortunate to have such high quality journalism still available online, free. For example, the ABC is still consistently rated as the most trusted news source in Australia.

Nevertheless, free sources for independent, quality news are diminishing. Consequently, unless one is willing, and able, to make a significant financial investment in accessing a wide range of perspectives, our exposure to ideas, information and opinions is shrinking.

For many exposure is increasingly limited to mundane network morning ‘newstainment’ shows which are to journalism and news what cancer is to humanity.

While your house is on fire, it would be silly to worry about the dirty dishes in the sink.

As for Facebook news feeds, unless people specifically follow news organisations and friend people they disagree with, their exposure is already limited to items they will generally agree with – the echo chamber is well and truly alive on social media.

A ‘trending’ news feature unlikely to make much of a dent on that inherent limitation of social media, whether subject to some level of editorial control or not.

While we are distracted by the manufactured outrage over Facebook ‘filtering out’ a few dodgy conservative stories produced by questionable ‘news’ outlets from its trending news, we should be far more concerned about newspapers of record sacking quality, investigative journalists, and cutting editorial staff.

While your house is on fire, it would be silly to worry about the dirty dishes in the sink. We can deal with those once we saved the house from burning down.

Social media, ‘newstainment’, and top ten cat videos and other lists are fine and dandy, but they are not a substitute for ‘journalism‘.

Quality, investigative journalism is not cheap, and it must continue to be funded. It must continue to be funded because it is indispensable to a healthy, properly functioning liberal democracy.

After the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary, journalism is the fourth, indispensable, pillar of our democracy.

Because the reality is that, despite the hundreds of millions we spend on law enforcement, the judiciary, and anti-corruption bodies, too often it still falls on journalists to uncover staggering corporate and political corruption and misconduct.

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