Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Social media will shape the future of news

And that means difficult questions about editorial responsibility and news consumption

On 8 June 1972, the South Vietnamese air force dropped a load of napalm on the village of Trang Bang, about 25 miles north-west of Saigon. Outside the village, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut saw soldiers and children fleeing the carnage—among them, a naked, screaming girl. Nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc had napalm burns over 30% of her body. Ut took her to hospital after taking a photo of her that sparked a heated debate among The New York Times’ editors: Should they print a photo containing nudity? The next day, they ran it on the front page, putting it at the heart of the conversation about the US role in the war.

Over four decades after the photo was taken, it has sparked another important debate about censorship and editorial responsibility. Last week, Norway’s largest daily, Aftenposten, published the photo—only to have Facebook remove it from the newspaper’s Facebook pages. The reason: The photo violated the social media site’s guidelines governing acceptable content, which include a no-nudity rule. A strong pushback that included Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg led to Facebook capitulating.

But the debate, as Solberg put it, “is about more than this one picture…. It is about the responsibilities large media institutions and platforms have to not pervert or distort reality." In other words, the same editorial responsibility to accurately present news and facts that traditional news media is tasked with.

There’s the kicker: Facebook now falls under the rubric of a media organization for all that co-founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg insists it is not. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s annual Digital News Report—a survey carried out in 26 countries in Europe, Asia, North America and South America—released earlier this year, more than half of online users use Facebook and other social media sites such as Twitter as their news sources; the former dominates with 44%.

This trend is particularly strong in developing countries. And while there is no India-specific study—other studies back up the findings elsewhere, such as one by the Knight Foundation studying the US market—there is no reason for the situation to be very different here. As reported in Mint, mobile traffic and access via social media sites—they always have a direct relationship—for both new and traditional media portals is rising swiftly. With Facebook’s user base in the country now a little below 200 million and the number of smartphone users a little over—both set to grow rapidly—this trend is likely to accelerate.

The natural corollary of the tech giant positioning itself as the gateway of news is that it is also the gatekeeper. And no one quite seems to know under what rules the gatekeeper operates. Earlier this year, Republicans in the US were up in arms over allegations that news curators at Facebook manipulated its “trending topics" to exclude right-wing news stories. Zuckerberg denied the allegations and human curators have since been replaced with an algorithm. But that imagined promise of an objective neutrality is false; an algorithm is simply a code written by people who bring their own biases to the table.

Traditional media does not exist in a state of perpetual grace. Yet, it works within guidelines shaped by centuries of practice. The editorial line is explicit, and with it, the organization’s biases. The public expects a measure of accuracy and is quick to point out transgressions, real and imagined. And—in democracies, at least—the media occupies a unique space, sanctified by law, tradition and public expectation to function as both watchdog and guardian of the state’s citizens.

The lack of this for Facebook and other social media sites now operating in the news business means they are in uncharted territory. It would be foolish to impute malicious intent to their missteps. They are corporations looking to the bottom line, not ideological partisans. And the simple logic of the market dictates that a company like Facebook with its global ambitions cannot afford to alienate any part of its user-base by following a political agenda. Yet, as they increasingly come to dominate the flow of information of public interest, hard questions will—and should—be asked.

The Reuters Institute report said the reliance on Facebook for news is highest among 18- to 24-year-olds. That indicates the paradigm shift will gather momentum in the future. Will social media sites then find themselves taking on traditional editorial responsibilities? Will competition provide choice and prevent concentration of power, as has been the case with traditional media? Or will the shift be so complete that the nature of news consumption changes entirely?

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm had broken the “long 19th century" into phases he dubbed the age of revolution, the age of capital and the age of empire. Thus far, the 21st century is bidding fair to earn the moniker of the age of disruption—including in the way our opinions are shaped.

Will social media sites change the way people consume news? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Close