Australians are increasingly turning to social media for news and entertainment, but what implications does this pose to diversity of opinion, free speech and independent thinking?
Ahead of our upcoming Bold Thinking free event ‘Is Facebook killing the news?’, we spoke with La Trobe Journalism Lecturer and Walkley Award-winner Hugh Martin about the dangerous ways Facebook filter bubbles warp our worldview.
Is social media preventing us from being concerned world citizens?
Martin says Facebook can close us off from important world events – he calls the results of this a ‘filter bubble.’ According to Martin, filter bubbles are one of the biggest issues posed by social media.
Existing in a filter bubble means we’re most likely to see content that is recommended by people in our networks and served to us based on the data created by our electronic footprint.
This, combined with Facebook’s algorithms which are continuously tweaked to deliver up the most ‘relevant’ and ’engaging’ content to our personal tastes – means we’re increasingly at risk of only seeing news stories that reinforce our beliefs and prejudices.
‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,’ Facebook chief executive Mark Zukerberg once famously told colleagues, reflecting how algorithms serve up what’s engaging but not necessarily what’s most important.
Preaching to the converted
Martin says filter bubbles can be insidious. ‘They help build walls around us and stop us finding out information we’d otherwise find [via consuming traditional news mediums]. Filter bubbles stop us being challenged in the ways news used to.’
Martin says there’s a case to be made that some of the polarising of political attitudes we’re seeing in Australia – and around the world – are a result of the siloing of filter bubbles around communication.
‘The whole idea of extreme right wing and extreme left wing entrenched positions is reinforced by the fact that those groups and those people only hear what they want to hear from people they know. We don’t have the kind of communication bridges that we used to have when ideas got challenged more frequently.’
The dangers of Facebook as a news source
What’s further concerning is that Australians are increasingly turning to Facebook as a news source. ‘I often hear people say: I don’t find news anymore, what’s important finds me,’ says Martin.
‘On some level that’s fine and good, but on a broader kind of social and political or democratic level, it’s limiting. The problem does start with how well-informed a population is.’
A 2015 global survey revealed Australians have the highest rate in the world for using smartphones to read the news, with Facebook the number one social media platform for finding and sharing news stories.
‘15 million people in Australia are regular Facebook uses, out of a population of 22-23 million. That’s an extraordinary number,’ says Martin.
‘If we consider that Facebook is where a lot of people find information these days, well that quantifies the problem.’
Is it all bad?
The other side of the coin is that social media platforms have been a powerful tool for political activists, for example, to present news that would otherwise be filtered out by mainstream media.
‘I think that the means and the tools for previously disempowered groups to have a voice are incredibly important,’ says Martin.
‘What happened in Egypt and parts of the Middle East during 2010-12; in Turkey and other countries across Europe and Northern America during economic protests and the G8; social media played a pivotal role in getting often complicated but crucial political messages out to a very big audience. ‘The importance of social media in that instance can’t be underestimated.’
Martin also points out the opportunity for small publications to start-up because the overheads of becoming a publisher are now next-to-nothing whereas previously you had to be exceedingly wealthy. ‘And that’s a good thing,’ Martin says.
‘As a journalist, I think there’s still issues around credibility, rigour and clarity of thought that I’d like to see more of.
‘While there’s a lot more being said, written and produced, a lot of it is pretty low grade and we need audiences to be able to discern what’s good and what’s not. At the moment I think there’s probably not enough of a kind of decision-making around that.’
What’s the solution?
Martin says education is key. ‘There’s an argument that Media Literacy in the 21st Century should be a core subject at every university and probably every high school too. The subject needs to explore: how do we navigate digital media and be well-informed because it’s not as easy as turning on the evening news or picking up a newspaper anymore.’
This would be particularly useful for the cohort who have grown up accustomed to the web and social media and may not recognise – or stop to think about – how it’s influencing their view on the world.
Martin says numeracy and literacy are the two core skills for educating children and to be able to participate in a functional society. ‘We still seem to think of numeracy and literacy in 19th century Victorian terms. What we need to do is think of it in terms of 21st century global terms and literacy now means being able to engage with new technologies.’
Lastly, Martin highlights that the internet and social media platforms are still in their infancy. ‘The public internet has only been around for 25 years. If you think about what radio was like in the 1920s, or television in the ‘60s, it’s very different to now. So, we’ve still got a long way to go.’
Martin says: ‘as users, operators, businesses and educators, we need to be part of influencing its future, and not be victims.’
Has Facebook killed the news? See Hugh Martin, Jane Caro and Mark Civitella discuss social media and the news in our upcoming free Bold Thinking Event, hosted by Francis Leach.
- How tech and big data will keep us healthy
- Big Pharma and secret deals: how worried should we be?
- Sexist coverage of Rio Olympics no surprise, here’s how we change it