Social media is no saviour of journalism

Public engagement does not necessarily equal public interest, and certainly not public benefit.

Naimul Alam Alvi

Naimul Alam Alvi

The Daily Star


Visual: Teeni and Tuni

February 9, 2023

DHAKA – In recent years, especially after the pandemic, electronic and print news outlets in Bangladesh have been increasingly reshaping their business models, adjusting their editorial practices, restructuring their resources, and adopting new tactics so that they can, too, board the “online train.” This isn’t completely unexpected, right? Journalism, if we put political and sub-ethical economic intentions aside, is a business venture at the end of the day. And the online world, especially social media, is where people are now. This era-defining technology is redefining consumer outreach. Media houses can now earn per-view ad revenue or display the data to get sponsorship or a business deal where they’ll put paid content in a news format. And as business institutions are just trying to survive in this brutally competitive, and economically tragic industry, diving into this expanding space only makes sense.

Let’s consider a national news daily named A. Till now, A’s business model has been to get enough circulation, accept that its direct sales can never be enough, and try to sell circulation numbers to commercial clients for ads. To acquire and retain subscriptions, A needs a consistently good product. If people see that A doesn’t have significant, seemingly unbiased, or in-depth news that they want, they’ll switch to a newspaper that delivers that. So, an act of survival for A, in this scenario, is to consider public trust – and in turn, what the public expects from journalists – as a significant parameter in producing content.

But when A decides to venture more into the virtual realm, especially social media, the management notices that their newspaper is not acting as a whole and that individual stories have their own circulation. They’re not only competing with other newspapers on newsstands; they have to draw views and clicks amid an infinite inflow of content every moment.

So, A hires a social media team, SEO experts, maybe a multimedia team, and pushes employees to create social-media-friendly content. The online strategists analyse the tips provided by social media platforms and train the employees and even the higher-ups on how to win online with these easy-to-moderate hacks. Employees with better online stats get a pat on the back (and hopefully a raise!) from the team leader, and that team leader gets the same from upper management. It matters less and less if the story has journalistic prowess – this depends on how much journalistic integrity the media house has; sadly, very few have or can afford the integrity – views is the new wonder boy in the newsroom!

But the problem is, public engagement does not necessarily equal public interest, and certainly not public benefit. It’s the super-sophisticated algorithms, with the sole purpose to serve the hypercapitalist tech giants, that control what every individual sees when they open their infinite feeds or search for any information. Algorithms are the editors of the online world.

These tech giants, with consumer populations larger than any empire or nation in history – Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc – are basically in the information business. They want two simple things from their users: i) every possible kind of personal data; and ii) every moment of everyone’s lives on their platforms so that they can sell ads and get as much personal data as possible.

Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard professor who calls this model “surveillance capitalism,” writes in her 2019 book, “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, or later… We are not surveillance capitalism’s ‘customers.’ … We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus.”

Eventually, the AI algorithms that run the operation found out that Homo sapiens’ tribal instincts, their biological impulses against crisis – polarised herd mentality, intolerance, violence – are very suitable for public engagement.

So, my fellow journalists and media houses, please don’t structure your entire business strategy on platforms that don’t care about a non-Western nation like us, and over which we have functionally no control.

Let’s take our star player, Facebook, the second most popular news source in Bangladesh. Study after study – both external and internal – and multiple top-level whistleblowers have said that Facebook’s AI models learnt to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints and push them towards polarisation. In 2016, Facebook’s own research found that 64 percent of all extremist group joins were due to their recommendation tools. Even the United Nations and Amnesty International accused Facebook’s algorithms of fuelling the 2017 Rohingya genocide. In 2022, militias in Ethiopia used those intolerance-loving algorithms for ethnic violence. I may not have found many large-scale studies on Facebook algorithms’ correlation with recent religious riots in Bangladesh, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that far-fetched.

So, when our news media houses celebrate a viral report or a social media milestone, they’re actually jumping up and down for their successful attempt at aiding surveillance capitalism. And all those social media hacks and SEO training are just the multi-billion dollar companies’ way of guiding creators to create algorithm-friendly content and sustain an efficient inventory for their arsenal.

Personally, I think the biggest problem with journalism conforming with this trend is – besides pushing employees into exhausting mediocrity to keep up with the 24/7 “breaking news” cycle, digital “leakage” of information, advertising dollars to offshore capitalist overlords, and of course, aiding a vile economic system – that it’s endorsing these online platforms to become the primary source of news and national narrative.

The national survey on news literacy in Bangladesh conducted in 2020 by the MRDI and Unicef found that 76 percent of the country’s population has low news literacy, and half of the population is unaware of the importance of checking news accuracy. So, many of them can’t even distinguish between an authentic news media house and its countless knock-offs. Whenever you see comments like, “This is the news The Daily Star/Prothom Alo is covering nowadays!” or “Ar kono news pailen na shangbadik bhai?” they’re probably getting only that kind of news in their intricately curated feeds. As media houses are betting more on social media, they’re pulling themselves and the population into the whirlpool of fake news, intolerance, and mass manipulation. They’re essentially propagating the narrative, “Journalists are untrustworthy” – a really, really bad move for the business.

The only reasons some of the legacy media houses are still doing well are because they have better resources, and their badge of public trust hasn’t worn off yet. But if they’re diluting that trust, I don’t know how long they can afford said resources. What scares me the most is that this has the potential to not only damage the current state of this industry, but also leave a permanent scar on the credibility of journalism as a public interest institution. This is deeply concerning for Bangladesh and its state of journalism, which is already gasping under political and successive self-induced censorship.

So, my fellow journalists and media houses, please don’t structure your entire business strategy on platforms that don’t care about a non-Western nation like us, and over which we have functionally no control. I mean, Facebook knew what their algorithms are doing and can do, but they didn’t want to take antigrowth actions – only after the accusations of rigging US elections or Donald Trump’s #StopTheBias tweet did they try to console their government and conservative voters with a handful of reforms. Please don’t evaluate your content or content makers based on social media outcomes, don’t let online marketing teams overpower the basic ethics of journalism, and don’t let political parties use this excuse to impose stricter censorship, or worse, repurpose these surveillance and propaganda tools for political benefit. Instead, use online tools with a cynical approach, and actively try to preserve journalistic values over everything else. In the long run, this will be the ultimate act of survival.

Naimul Alam Alvi is senior production executive in Star Multimedia.

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