Rebooting the news

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, flags a fundamental issue in our attention economy. As the window to the world is increasingly framed by the screen size of a smartphone, makers of apps – Instagram, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and makers of games like Candy Crush Saga – have to find ways to grab and hold the attention of users. On-screen notifications, that appear even when the phone is locked, alert users to breaking news alerts, game upgrades, likes, shares, comments, posts, new videos, direct messages and reminders – all designed to increase the engagement with an app. Each app finds a new way to control attention – and often, this is in the form of gamification, which rewards the users of an app who consistently check it, instead of users who only periodically check for updates. Add all this time checking up on apps, and the point made by Harris is a simple one – you lose focus on what’s important, and you gradually lose the ability to interact meaningfully with one’s immediate physical surroundings. The more hilarious manifestation of this is the plethora of videos online where people engrossed in their smartphones walk straight into glass doors, poles, other pedestrians, fall into manholes or trip over and fall ignominiously. The hidden side to the attention economy is that these apps mediate what we know of the world, how we engage with it, and deeply influences what we consider important and meaningful. Through Facebook alone, a company struggling to meaningfully deal with the volume of content its users create, over two billion people a day are served with content entirely hostage to opaque, and when made public, deeply problematic algorithms that are designed with the sole purpose of increasing advertising revenue.

Before these colossal online social networks and the ubiquity of smartphones, the primary means through which the majority access and engage with web based content, politics, propaganda and persuasion worked very differently. News was slow, and breaking news was over radio or through special segments that interrupted the regular programming on TV. A newspaper provided insight into what was newsworthy but also, for the majority of readers, genuinely new to them. Now a newspaper, if read at all in print, is skimmed to get to the news one already knows through social media or SMS alerts, for any useful bits of information that soundbites, short snippets and partial updates didn’t deliver. And while the focus is on fake news – its generation, dissemination and power to influence citizens – the news itself isn’t what it was just a few years ago. Our windows into the world have shifted the way we are alerted, consume, engage with and respond to news. This has a bearing on politics.

What the mainstream media now denies, social media delivers. But this also means playing nice with Silicon Valley. A video bearing witness to a horrific human rights violation or a vicious event can run afoul of guidelines on the uploading or distribution of violent material. This often penalises more the organisations that seek to bear witness to human rights abuse and serves the agenda of the perpetrators, who don’t want eyeballs on what they do. Facebook’s algorithm means that in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, gossip and entertainment are prioritised over news and information that have an implication on governance and democracy. Hard news and complex issues are always sacrificed for gag reels, cute cats, animated GIFs and inspirational quotes. The average consumer of social media is both glued to their screens and supremely ill-informed. As far back as 1998, Linda Stone, a researcher at Microsoft called this ‘continuous partial attention’ – the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information, but at a superficial level. Most of us are plugged into Twitter, Facebook, and various instant messaging apps, but unable to focus on what’s really important. Our attention deficit lends itself during elections to campaigns by political parties to generate votes or denigrate opponents by marketing tricks. And thus, we have short clips that go viral, infectious memes and taunting tweets. The substantive content in a manifesto remains locked away, in full public view. Arguably, this status quo is fine for those with and in power, including technology companies. If profit is the driver of software development, anything that undermines it – like a more conscientious design to make users engage with content and each other more meaningfully, will simply not fly.

This is what Harris flags. A few years ago, well before Trump, Eli Pariser warned us of this same thing and in a TED talk proposed a radical idea. He asked why social media couldn’t filter content by relevance, importance, on how uncomfortable it made a user, on how much the user wanted to be challenged in their beliefs or by the engagement with other or different points of view. What the US political landscape makes very clear is that Pariser’s belief in the ability of individuals to use these filters, even if available, may be misplaced. For example, those who support Trump and the current Republican administration in the US live in a self-referential reality, where only what conforms and is convenient matters – the rest is, for them, fake news. Fixing this problem, which plagues so many countries, isn’t going to be easy – partly because it is the news industry as it stands today that created voter polarisation, a disturbing and divisive foundation that social media has taken to new heights.

Arguably, the readers of this column are generally from a generation that isn’t hostage to or indeed, even conversant with social media. But what’s first or only online is increasingly driving official policymaking. It’s now on social media that important announcements are made, even here in Sri Lanka. A Twitter Q&A with a former President of Sri Lanka, just last week, resulted in key news stories published in the mainstream media. Clearly then, the footprint of social media extends far beyond just those connected to or enslaved to it. Without media literacy, or more broadly, information literacy, what matters the most in our politics and democratic fabric will continue to be subsumed by what is the most entertaining, or slick propaganda. The underlying causes of war which endure, on-going discrimination, gender violence, drivers of self-harm and suicide, endemic corruption and macroeconomic data are all worth framing, probing, exploring and engaging with. Stories about government officials who are responsive and honest, policemen who really help, development projects that benefit citizens, teachers who break the mould and inspire are also worthy of our attention. The news as it stands today denies citizens this depth, dimension and detail. From the online to print and broadcast, the news needs a reboot. Harris and Pariser lead globally.

Who will take the mantle locally?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 30 July 2017.

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