Two stories cropped up in the last week that merited disquiet, albeit in different ways. One local, the other international and both to do with the way we frame and consume news. The local story was a news report on a press briefing called by President Maithripala Sirisena for the heads and owners of leading mainstream media, print and electronic. The nature of the news report, in a leading daily English newspaper, basically reported on what the President had told the participants. There was no context. There was no framing. Based on the news report, not a single question was posed to the President to contest or backup, with credible evidence, the claims made openly. What he said, which in this case appeared to be a tirade against the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was basically reported unchallenged and almost verbatim.
On some social media fora on the web, I juxtaposed reportage of this engagement with the media with another from 2013, under the auspices of the then President. From the accompanying official photo to the tone of the reportage, the similarities are positively disturbing. Here too, the same newspaper reported completely unchallenged what the President and key ministers present at the briefing told the heads of mainstream media, around the time CHOGM was being planned in Sri Lanka. The hesitation to question openly, which at the time could have been put down to outright fear, is no excuse today, and yet, the same free pass is given to those in authority to deliver their version of reality without being challenged. A culture of supine genuflection in the face of power continues to largely define how media engages with those in authority. Reciprocally, those in authority continue to treat the mainstream media as vehicles of partisan propaganda, giving free press to subjective opinion, claims without any evidence, conspiracies without any basis in fact, plans without blueprints, accusations without substantiation and a parochial, party political agenda passing off as the national interest. Operating together, consumers are robbed of any opportunity to hold those in power accountable and over time, expect the media to just report on what happened, instead of asking why. A public that doesn’t expect answers to hard questions, and a media that isn’t interested in and doesn’t know how to ask them is an autocrat’s dream, whether they adorn a red satakaya or not.
The other story was around Facebook, and it’s earnings in the first quarter of 2016 alone. From the last quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of this year, Facebook added about the size of Sri Lanka’s population to its daily user base in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Globally, the platform’s monthly user base is now 1.65 billion, which for comparison is around 300 million more than China’s population. In 2013, Sri Lanka’s GDP was around 67 billion US dollars. In the first quarter of this year alone, Facebook’s revenue exceed 5 billion US dollars. The numbers are mind-boggling, but what’s more pertinent here is what the users do on Facebook. In addition to its main social media platform, Facebook as a company owns WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. Independent of each other, all of these almost ubiquitous apps and platforms have a user base at least in the hundreds of millions. All are growing apace. Facebook revealed that people around the world spend on average more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram and Messenger alone. That’s indubitably far longer than any mainstream media consumer would spend engaging with content over terrestrial broadcast and print, perhaps combined. Current academic research suggests a decline in original content users are producing to share on Facebook, and an increase in sharing content (especially links and video) produced by others – big name media companies as well as entirely new purveyors of entertainment, specialising in niche productions and issues. Coupled with the almost totally opaque underlying algorithms that Facebook uses to channel content on to our newsfeeds, Facebook today is not just any other social media platform. It is the world’s (arguably) monopoly for news and information for hundreds of millions of people. It decides what is and what isn’t important to be consumed. This is why news media is clamouring to use the increasing range of tools Facebook provides to publish content – from live video streaming to articles that load instantaneously on smartphones. No longer is a blog, website, newspaper, TV or radio channel enough to reach the masses – if you’re not accessible on Facebook, or create content that is easily discoverable on or shared by it, you’re not reaching crucial audiences, irrespective of the newsworthiness of the content. This matters a lot. If we are often frustrated by what our own media owners and Editors hide from us, we should in theory be far more concerned about the unprecedented power of a single company, which isn’t even remotely bound to uphold media ethics and standards, that across so many continents today directly shapes how we see, read about and engage with local and global affairs.
Social media’s great promise was that in the aggregate, diverse opinions and viewpoints from consumers would contest the news agenda set by a select few. Coupled with the incredible proliferation of smartphones, it offered perspectives from places, people and processes mainstream media erased or ignored. So much in the mainstream media is engineered to appeal to as many as possible. Social media’s overt power is around how it can focus on an issue or process, no matter to how few it appealed to. Much of this promise and potential is founded on a usually uncontested assumption – that the average media consumer is really interested in learning more about the world they live in, and the majority of media producers in turn are interested in bearing witness to inconvenient truths. That may well be untrue.
In Sri Lanka what we see is a mainstream media that is by default deeply hesitant and unwilling to contest those in power. This is an ingrained culture, independent of the kind of political authority that governs the country. Globally, the concert of platforms and apps a single company controls determines, more than any other time in history, how billions perceive the world, their leaders, countries, communities and neighbours. The world is at the same time smaller, and more distant. We are a click away from empathy, yet a world away from questioning and insightful critique. We are at the same time sceptical of everything, yet believe much of what comes through our newsfeeds. Technology, ironically, has made political authority and media work more harmoniously to keep the news that matters the most away from us. We see more. We know less. We like more. But care less.
It’s an autocrat’s dream. And we are all co-architects of it.
First published in The Sunday Island, 1 May 2016.