The role of social media in distorting societies by pouring unfiltered information directly into the pockets and phones of users has been evident for nearly a decade now.
But it took the American presidential elections of 2016—which installed Donald Trump in office—for Google, Facebook and YouTube to come in for scrutiny.
At first, Mark Zuckerberg and Co feigned innocence. They even denied the possibility.
But groundbreaking journalism by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer, London, exposed the role of Cambridge Analytica, and other state and non-state actors, in using social media platforms to reach voters directly and influence their decisions.
Subsequent investigations and inquiries have removed all doubts that social media is a giant double-edged sword on which populist leaders are dancing.
Now, with the 2020 elections just five months away, social media’s role as a funnel for hatred, violence and propaganda is once again back in focus.
Twitter’s decision to categorise Trump’s unhinged tweets in the wake of the killing of a black American, and Facebook’s refusal to pull down his posts, show which way Silicon Valley is swinging.
In this episode of J-POD, Alan Rusbridger, who has just been appointed to the oversight board set up by Facebook, discusses journalism after COVID—and what role social media could potentially play in the US elections this year.
Mr Rusbridger is former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, under whose leadership the broadsheet British newspaper became a Berliner, made giant strides in its digital presence, and entered America and Australia.
It was under Mr Rusbridger that The Guardian published Wikileaks from hard drives leaked to the paper by Edward Snowden. He is also chairman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.
3.20: “COVID has accelerated many trends that we knew were happening before the virus struck: the economic crisis in newspapers, the hastening of the end of print, the dilemmas of subscriber models, the whole purpose of journalism.
4.50: “There’s a deeper question which journalists have got to think about, which the present circumstances brings into sharper focus: are you in the public service business, or the entertainment business? The answer to that is that journalism is a form of public service.
7.10: “You would have to be mad to replace the BBC with something like Fox News which has has behaved with almost lethal disregard of the proper conduct of journalism. Sometimes the kind of contempt that some politics has for institutions, like in America at the moment, does undermine the best attempts of journalism that it should be trusted.
9.10: “You pick the best newspaper in America and say this is fake. Once you establish doubts in voters’ minds that even the most reliable journalism is fake, then you create a world in which my truth is as good as your truth. It’s terribly destructive thing to do but you can see why would do it if you are a politician like Trump, who really can only succeed if he can convince the people that his version of truth is as valid as anybody else’s.
11.00: “At the moment it really matters what we are being told is true or not. Readers are realising that when you stand on the edge of this precipice of information chaos everything stops working. The period in which we stopped caring has come to an end. It requires all of us to become much more critical readers and much more discerning users of social media.
12.47: “There is always an audience for conspiracy theories, outlandish versions of the truth and highly partisan versions of the truth. In the past, there were very few filters. Now we have literally billions of gatekeepers of knowledge and publishers, and there will always be people who are in the market for different versions of the truth. That’s why it is dangerous to undermine institutional news.
15.10: “Social media is like human life itself. With 4 billion people connected, you will find good people, bad people, lying people, hate-filled people, altruistic people, wise people. It is so new, and its rise has been so vertical, so anything you say about it is likely to be true. I don’t take the view it is all good or all bad. Making it better is not an overnight job. The advance of social media is going to be a long and complicated story.
18.00: “We don’t think we yet understand how social media works. One view is that it creates polarity, echo chambers and filter bubbles. Quite a lot of academic research shows the opposite: people on social media are exposed to more and divergent sources of media than at any time previously. I am perfectly prepared to believe both.
22.30: “The science of it, the psychology of it is all so new that we need to try and understand before we rush to act.
23.52: In general, social media embodies all that is good and bad about human nature. I don’t have a view that they are uniquely good or uniquely bad but I do think there’s a responsibility of people who want them to be better to play a part. If that works, wonderful. If it doesn’t, we will have to try something else.
27.30: “The tech companies say they have tightened up their procedures after the 2016 elections. They say they were in a way taken by surprise. I don’t know if that’s true and I have no way of prejudging if it will happen again. I simply don’t know. I prefer the honesty of that answer rather than the polarised view on both sides.
29.10: “There will always be a need for journalism because societies can’t work unless you can have an agreed basis on evidence and fact.
30.54: “There won’t be one single business model. Some people are having success with the pay wall in some markets, others are not. There is the philanthropic model, membership model, subsidy model, quasi charitable model. There will be different models for different kinds of journalism.
32.10: “The papers I read: The Guardian, The Times, The New York Times, Washington Post, FT, Hindu, Le Monde, De Zeit, The Atlantic Monthly, Buzzfeed. There are so many wonderful journalistic outlets available at a click that it is terribly difficult to be gloomy for very long.
33.05: “What I am reading now: Dark Mirror by Baron Gellman of The Washington Post on his role in the Edward Snowden issue. A measured and considered book on privacy, state surveillance, openness, transparency.
34.20: “Music I recommend: Brahms ‘E Flat Sonata’, a wonderful, slightly melancholic piece.
35.50: “Advice to students: Think broadly. Don’t set your heart on getting a job in a big newspaper in one go. There are multiple outlets where you can hone your skills.”
Also watch: Alan Rusbridger playing the piano