A new information age

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism talks about digital media and the news, algorithmic serendipity, echo chambers and filter bubbles.

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Digital media are very powerful for individual users, I think we can see every day that people vote with their feed, every day there is a referendum on which media we find most appealing and most useful, and most of us vote for digital media. This is broadly beneficial for most citizens, there are very few people under the age of 40 who would wish themselves back to a pre digital media environment. It gives people access to more information, it gives them more convenient and compelling ways of accessing and engaging with an information, sharing it with others, commenting on it and passing it on. That's all broadly very beneficial for society, as well as for individuals. The flip side of this is that the rise of digital media has existentially threatened the business models that funded professional journalism in the twentieth century. These were based on a low choice environment where people had little to choose from and high market power for news providers, that meant that advertisers had very few other options to reach people. Now we live in a situation that's the opposite. People have a lot to choose from and as a consequence news publishers have very little market power over advertisers. Predictably, they make much less money. On the one hand, the digital media environment is very beneficial for citizens, it gives us access to more information, better ways of finding it, accessing and using it. But, on the other hand, the rise of digital media has also challenged some of the ways in which quality information was found in the past. In that sense, we have quite a paradoxical situation that's very good for us, the citizens, but very challenging for journalists.



Digital technologies enable a whole range of different forms of media content and media experiences, ranging from just the sharing of text and the posting of pictures in ways that are very recognizable from twentieth century media environments, to wholly new forms like social media and the like, that are premised on people connecting, opting into networks with other users on platforms, that then rank and filter information at scale. These are entirely new experiences. Of course, they build on social networks that we know from a pre-digital age, as well, but the scale and scope of this, and the pace at which digital technology can filter content and serve it to us as users is entirely unprecedented, and this is a fundamental transformation in our societies. There's been a lot of concerns about what this would lead to. One of the central concerns is the idea that the phenomenon, we already know from pre-digital media environment, of echo chambers where people end up living in media environments that only provide them with information that affirms their existing point of you, never challenges and never forces them to see things from a different perspective or see the other side. This fear on echo chambers that we know, from pre-digital environments, where people would sometimes only read one kind of news in the newspaper, for example. The fear has been that the ways in which algorithms filter content would lead to the creation of so called filter bubbles, where search engines and social media would only serve people more of the information that they have already shown that they're interested in. This is an important concern, is a very important question, is important we continue to ask it. So far, most of the best available research, suggests that, in fact, search engines and social media have the opposite consequence, that they lead people to more diverse information that they seek out of their own volition, a wider range of use, different perspectives, different ways of seeing the world, than the things we seek out on our own. So, this is what I call an “algorithmic serendipity”, where in fact the technologies that could lead us to an ever-narrower information diet, turns out to, in fact, lead people to more and more diverse content.



We are seeing a very fundamental change in these years, in how people find and access news and information. If we think back, to the early days of the internet and especially to pre-digital environments, really, the only way in which we got access to news, apart from if we overheard at the pub or friends would told us about it at home, is that we directly sort it out. So, if I wanted to read a newspaper I would pick it up, if I want to watch television channel I would turn on. This form of direct access was also the early days of the internet. We would go to a website, or perhaps an app, to get the news. But, increasingly, what we're seeing is a separation between the content of news and the channels of discovery, where people increasingly rely on various forms of platforms. Initially, search engines and social media, now increasingly, various forms of messaging applications and micro blogging services to find and access information. So now, that we have a separation between the content, that still comes from news publishers and the discovery, which is increasingly driven by search engines, social media and the like. The ways in which these systems work is constantly evolving, but, right now, most research suggests that for most citizens, these platforms drive more diverse news usage so not the narrowing of information sources, or information that some fear, but it's also clear that the very same platforms that broadly empower most citizens, and help them find and access more news, than they would otherwise and more diverse news, than they would otherwise; is also leading some highly motivated partisan minorities into self-contained information cocoons and is enabling some malicious actors to try to undermine the integrity of public debate and the flow of free information that sustains our democracies.



Fake news is a very fashionable term, it's also a dangerous and misleading term. The term is dangerous because it plays to a perception, in much of the public, that much of the information that's produced by professional journalists is sensationalist and superficial, and perhaps inaccurate. The term fake news can conflate the imperfections and shortcomings of professional produced news, with a much more profound problem of false and fabricated information that is designed to mislead and manipulate individuals. So, the term is dangerous because it leads citizens to conflate the difference between an accurate journalism and actual false and fabricated information. It's misleading because much of what is often discussed under the rubric of “fake news” is neither fake nor news. It's not fake, in the sense that it's often content that is actually factually accurate but taken out of context and willfully misrepresented to manipulate public debate, or let citizens astray or to make money, for that matter. And it’s not news, because much of it is not really about journalism or the provision of information, but about the manipulation of public sentiment through various forms of fake accounts, or bought networks, or other ways of manipulating discussions to create the appearance of public opinion, or the appearance of public engagement around certain issues. Many of these problems, of course, we have faced for a long time as a society. There’s always been poor journalism, there’s always been examples of powerful people, or for-profit organization that try to mislead the public, whether for political gain or for commercial gain. And there's always been, what we might think of a sort of “bottom up disinformation”, where we as citizens, often in good faith, were sharing information that was factually inaccurate and/or misleading. If I don't believe vaccines work, I will of course share that with friends of mine who have kids, because I want to help them, I want to protect their kids. Only, in that case, I would be sharing information that is factually inaccurate, misleading and dangerous. Bottom up misinformation, has always been with us. What we see today, however, is a C-change in the amount of this kind of content, that is around. The development of digital media, have made it easier to publish any kind of information including disinformation. So, the overall volume is growing and in particular in cases where they are political motives, where the domestic or foreign, or for-profit motives to produce information we see a larger amount of this. We should be very careful not to overestimate, however, the scale and scope of this problem. The best available research on the scale and scope of disinformation in Europe, would suggest that while a serious issue, and a serious issue for some parts of the population who are highly motivated to seek out disinformation, because it affirms their existing beliefs, or help them be part of communities that they identify with. For most of the population, people see very little of this. Much less than what they see of news from established news organizations and what they hear from established politicians. In those contexts, if you will, disinformation is real, but it's a very small part of people's overall information diet and I think we need to question sometimes the assumption that people are easily led astray by disinformation, and focus more on whether people have access to credible information, that they actually trust from a variety of different sources and society.