Our times and the media -DAWN

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SOCIAL media platforms, especially Facebook, and their role in our troubled times — outside of Pakistan for once — have been a topic of interest for quite a while. If the Capitol Hill attack in the aftermath of the US presidential election was reason enough to discuss the potentially polarising role they can play, the recent release of documents by a former Facebook employee have simply added to the concerns.

One report, prepared by Facebook and released by the whistleblower, is titled Carol’s journey to QAnon. It’s been reported on considerably in stories about Facebook’s role in exacerbating political polarisation.

According to reports, Carol is a user who signs up to Facebook in 2019 and describes herself as politically conservative. Her page indicates her interests in Christianity and parenting and she follows Fox News and Trump. Within days of signing up, the social media platform recommends she sign up for QAnon, a far right conspiracy theory group that believes Trump is confronted by a global child sex trafficking ring. Carol wasn’t a real user but one invented by a Facebook researcher to study the social media giant’s role in polarising users. The document has been quoted in multiple stories about how Facebook exposes/pushes users to extreme voices or groups and even hate speech. As one story put it, the platform “pushed some users into ‘rabbit holes,’ increasingly narrow echo chambers”.

Facebook has said that the research was carried out just so the company could identify such dangers and address them but Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, alleges that Facebook preferred to prioritise growth over safety or curbing misinformation.

Social media platforms have mirrored as well as added to the polarised times.

The algorithms are just one part of the problem. Another story in the Wall Street Journal, based on the same cache of documents, reported on how the lack of resources, ie enough people familiar with the languages used, allowed inflammatory content in a place such as India to grow. The report says, “Facebook is privately aware that people in its largest market are targeted with inflammatory content, and that users say the company isn’t protecting them.”

A user from India is quoted as saying: “If social media survives 10 more years like this, there will be only hatred.” There have been reports about how other platforms such as Twitter may also be exposing users to extreme views, or allowing people to exist in echo chambers.

Social media and its role in political polarisation has been under discussion in the US in particular since the Capitol Hill attack and has led to not just renewed calls for more checks on social media platforms but also compelled the platforms themselves to look into these issues.

However, as many have pointed out, the platforms do not create these extremes or polarised politics but may exacerbate them or feed into them. They have been described as “key facilitators”. As one commentator pointed out, why just single out the social media when politicians are also using similar language; they are also contributing to the polarisation.

Indeed, there is no denying the times are polarised as are the politicians. And in these times, the social media platforms have mirrored as well as added to the polarised times — they have come to symbolise the world we live in.

But what does this mean for the more mainstream media? For the latter was seen as the fourth estate not just because it could influence the political system and act as a watchdog but also because as a whole it represented the various and diverse interests which fed into politics and decision-making. And in doing all this, it also helped create the ‘imagined community’.

To misquote or misuse Benedict Anderson (whom I read rather fleetingly many moons ago at university) the idea of a nation, which he saw as a modern concept and not a perennial one, was strengthened by the development of the print media because newspapers brought this idea of a community and its shared experience to the readers.

The papers with their stories about the people and the nation brought the idea of a shared community home, every morning, as readers settled down for the morning read. (It needs to be added here that this idea of all-encompassing nationhood which embraced all communities and people is hardly very accurate.)

But the growing polarisation and the increase in the use of social media seems to have made this role redundant. The news can be had at any time of the day, from multiple sources and to suit one’s opinion and more.

Perhaps this is why mainstream media itself is dividing along political lines and becoming an echo chamber for its target audience. This is something we experience every day in Pakistan, as far as the electronic media is concerned. Even in the US, television news can be described similarly. And in doing so, accuracy has become a casualty. It is not just social media which can be held responsible for spreading fake news. (Though of course, despite all the problems, it is still easier to hold the mainstream press responsible for misleading or incorrect news than a random post or message on social media.)

Can one say this happens because it is more profitable than neutrality — the elusive goal journalists struggled to achieve? If people are bitterly divided, it might be more feasible to curry favour with one side than offend all by trying to be balanced. This does seem to be the case sometimes in Pakistan. But this can at best be a partial explanation, if at all, for what is happening.

As with the debate on social media, it is hard to determine cause and effect. Is the media — mainstream and social — responsible for the polarisation or simply reacting to it and then feeding into it, to some extent?

But is this a phenomenon that the media can address in isolation? For instance, at the moment Facebook and other social media platforms are expected to check against hate speech and algorithms that push users to extreme views, as they should. But chances are this will be addressed fully only when the political system is less polarised.

The writer is a journalist.