Article was originally published on the IRAS Global Observer as part of a new collaboration project between their site and The Conversation Room
Be it the colossal shift in our diets towards snacking processed food to the life changing opportunities of international travel arising from commercial aviation, history shows that for better or worse human behaviour and consumption patterns are shaped by new technologies.
In 2017, nowhere is technology changing our behaviour more rapidly than through mobile consumption of news and information. The research group Pew found that the number of United States citizens who receive news through a mobile device rose from 54% in 2013 to 72% in 2016.
In their more detailed report analysing the demographics of news consumption, Pew found that:
“While solid majorities of both those ages 50-64 (72%) and those 65+ (85%) often get news on TV, far smaller shares of younger adults do so (45% of those 30-49 and 27% of those 18-29). Alternatively, the two younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news – 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 49% of those ages 30-49 often do so.”
The data shows the explosive effect of smartphone technology and a global youth migration to social media platforms for news and information. In the past people might skim the morning paper on the train to work or catch the six o’clock news while making dinner but today we have an endless minute by minute drip of news and information at the end of our fingertips.
For news outlets this presents stark new challenges. Rather than only competing with other newspapers and magazines in a shop window, news outlets must now fight on a global scale through the thick grass of cat memes and clickbait to fight for our attention and clicks.
This seismic shift in publishing and consumption was aptly summarized by Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian and Observer who noted in a recent address:
“The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organisations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers. For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers. But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising; as a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organisations has become less and less meaningful.”
Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds contain everything from superficial selfies to news of nuclear Armageddon, delivering content in one messy mashup without significant demarcation between news and fun. Information is not ranked in degree of importance or category but algorithmically ranked in its importance to advertisers and what the hosting platform believe will hook your attention the most.
From annoying, automatic advertisements to eye catching, irresistible clickbait, cynical tactics are employed to suck us into a never-ending cycle of meaningless clicks and consumption.
“Publishers that are funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find – desperately binge-publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most shrill and most extreme stories to boost clicks. But even this huge scale can no longer secure enough revenue.”
This highlights how the capacity for mainstream media to operate its dualistic goal of being a trusted information outlet and a commercially viable business in the digital age have come into radical reconsideration. Subscription based services have failed to garner significant support and reliance on ad revenue means journalists are evermore replaced by BuzzFeed style “content creators” often pumping out 10 commodified stories a day without making a phone call.
“Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism, and advertising,” the academic Emily Bell has written, “we now have ‘content’.” Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of “news” they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable.
The information overload is having drastic consequences on our mental health and collective social wellbeing. On an individual level the constant competition for our attention can leave many miserable, anxious and eventually feeling they have lost valuable time and years to aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds and consuming junk news.
There’s also the superficial egoism which has crept into news consumption. If you share an article from the Guardian about climate change, you are signalling to the world that you are a caring liberal who is concerned about the imminent ecological collapse of our world. Sharing news, just like sharing photos of your food has become all about ego and brand. #Vegan #NewYorkTimes.
From a wider societal perspective, we cannot underestimate the massive loss of a common sphere of news. One of the primary public goods of media is the power to engender public debate and provide a platform for different societal groups to communicate with one another. Yet Facebook is wilfully blind to the interests of community and the public good. All its algorithm sees is individual consumers whose attention can be captured and monetized by concentrating content they know you will click upon.
When claims that Russia had hired trolls to bombard certain demographics of the U.S population with “fake news” during the 2016 U.S Presidential election the damage caused may have been more subliminal than obvious. It is not that people believe fake stories (well some believed Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC Pizza parlour) but that they are bombarded with so much information that it becomes disorienting and difficult to determine what to believe and who to trust. This misanthropic media landscape of misinformation and mistrust is a serious threat to the future of liberal democracy.
Individuals are following news that never challenges but only reinforces their ideas about the world and tailors a narrative of world events to suit the audience. Thus, once established an online community can be far more important to individuals than their geographical one. Democracy today is waking up to a world where people are physically living beside each other but digitally couldn’t be further apart.