Political Culture and Media Genre: Beyond the News
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He co-edited the collection Media and the Restyling of Politics with D.
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Ms Clinton saw herself compelled to deny the rumours—only to see them gain strength when she indeed developed pneumonia. As the campaign went on, the amount of play such stories got on social media increased see chart 3. It would be easy to dismiss such hacks as mere pranks, as misfits showing off their hacking capabilities to one another and the world, just as they did ten years ago on 4chan. But backed up by an alternative media ecosystem keen to support them, and with judicious help from foreign powers capable of organising themselves a little more thoroughly than ragtag mobocrats, they can become powerful.
Although the facts quickly supersede the fictions, once an idea is out there, it tends to linger. And even if they are not, they are never as engaging as the rumours they seek to replace. The biggest attention hacker is none other than Mr Trump himself. When he sends one of his outrageous tweets, often adroitly timed to distract from some other controversy, the world pays pathological levels of attention. He reads as little as possible, gets most of his news from cable television, retweets with minimal thought, and his humour makes it very clear what in-group he is in with.
Above all, he loves outrage—both causing it and feeling it. Being this thoroughly part of the system makes Mr Trump eminently hackable. His staff, it is said, compete to try and get ideas they want him to take on board into media they know he will be exposed to. Outsiders can play the game, too. Social media are hardly the first communication revolution to first threaten, then rewire the body politic.
The printing press did it see our essay on Luther. So did television and radio, allowing conformity to be imposed in authoritarian countries at the same time as, in more open ones, promoting the norms of discourse which enabled the first mass democracies. In those democracies broadcasters were often strictly regulated on the basis that the airwaves they used were a public good of limited capacity.
Seeing things through the lens of the attention economy, though, suggests that this distinction may not be as sharp as once it seemed. But there is a raft of problems with justifying greater regulation on these grounds.
One is ignorance, and the risk of perverse outcomes that flows from it. As Rasmus Nielsen of Oxford and Roskilde universities argues, not enough is known about the inner workings of social media to come up with effective regulations. This is in part the fault of the tech companies, which have been less than generous with information about their business. For a firm which used to say its mission was to make the world more open and connected, Facebook is strikingly closed and isolated.
It collaborates with researchers looking at the dynamics of social media, but only allows them to publish results, not underlying data.
It has been even less willing than Google to share details about how it decides to recommend content or target ads. Both firms have also lobbied to avoid disclosure rules for political ads that conventional media have to comply with, arguing that digital ads lack the space to make clear who paid for a campaign. Correctly perceiving that public opinion is turning, the companies now say they will be more forthcoming.
Proponents hope it will become law before the mid-term election. He wants Facebook and other big social-media platforms to be required to maintain a public feed that provides a detailed overview of the information distributed on their networks, such as how far a piece of content has spread and which sorts of users have seen it. Such demands for transparency would extend to requirements to label bots and fake accounts, so users can understand who is behind a message.
Other proposals go beyond transparency. This news item has been found to be false. YouTube has experimented with redirecting jihadists away from extremist videos to content that contradicts what they have been watching. Other proposals aim less at dynamics, more at content. The sheer volume of content—more than , comments are posted on Facebook every minute—makes such policing hard.
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It is possible, though, that a mixture of better algorithms and more people could achieve something. Facebook has already agreed to hire a few thousand people for this task; it may need a lot more. As Mr Habermas argues, there is a real value to the openness social media and the internet can bring in restrictive societies.
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And being angry and unsettled—even outraged—should be a part of that. Some point to China, where it is reported that more than 2m moderators, most employed by social-media firms, scour the networks, erring on the side of caution when they see something that may displease official censors. A more far-out proposal, which Ms Tufekci favours, is to require social-media firms to change their business model in some way, making their money, perhaps, directly from users, rather than from advertisers.
Political Culture and Media Genre - Beyond the News | K. Richardson | Palgrave Macmillan
Others argue that the social-media platforms which dominate the attention economy have become utilities and should no longer be run as profit-maximising companies. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, could be seen as the model: it lives off donations and its host of volunteers keeps it reasonably clean, honest and reliable.
None of this, though, offers a truly satisfactory response to the problem. But if, like all political systems, democracy has proved eminently fallible, it has shown itself robustly superior to the rest when it comes to fixing those failings and making good when faced by change. On that basis, history suggests it should be able to weather the storms of social media. But it will not be easy.
And, as with books and broadcasts, the process is likely to transform, at least in part, that which it seeks to preserve. In fact, it was an unrepresentative social-media study by Brand Analytics, an audience-research firm based in Moscow. Mary Katharine Ham. The Nationwide Television Studies. Charlotte Brunsdon. The Prize. Dale Russakoff. Political Research. Lisa Harrison.
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