The New Opinion-Shapers

James D Robinson Jul 11, 2011 Back to blog

There is no question that the business of news, and the experience of consuming it, has been irrevocably altered by the internet and the pervasiveness of real-time information channels. As with any transformative wave, structural changes that enable new opportunities dictate that new norms and institutions be built for society to benefit from these civic tools. Real-time news is no exception. As one of a few critical enablers of a well-functioning information-delivery topology, it’s worth considering how we interact with news today, and how our perspectives are directly shaped by this interaction.

A bit of history: Before newspapers were broadly available, societies relied on word-of-mouth to transfer news, beliefs, opinions, and in general, all forms of social commentary. Word spread slowly and information was often completely asymmetrical; those conveying the information selectively released whatever furthered their cause.

That was bad, and public-facing transparency (i.e. what really happened) was often quite poor.

Gutenberg began fixing this problem back in the 15th Century — for the first time information was available to more than just select scholars and royalty (albeit far from all). With the rise of more widely available media in the 1800s, people found themselves with the capacity to access news on a regional — then once the telegraph hit — hyper-regional level.

Still, strong bias persisted.  A modern observer looking back at the newspaper business at the turn of the last century would be staggered by the heterogeneity of options available(see post for a discussion on number of NY-based newspapers in 1800), and the shocking (even by today’s standards) magnitude of slant taken by virtually all of them.

Through all of history, news outlets have catered to self-selecting groups to reinforce beliefs. The now widely-accepted journalistic credo of unbiased or objective reporting was an antibiotic response to this tendency of news-media owners and editors to shape opinion not just through the op-ed (itself a nod to separation of 'church and state') but as a way of giving people what they wanted: the ability to form their own opinions based on whatever facts they could harvest.

This same dilemma manifested again at the advent of radio, and on into television, with its unique ability to deliver ‘seeing is believing / video doesn't lie’ (actually it often does) experiences far beyond the ‘picture worth a thousand words’ or ‘voice of authority’ characteristics of either prior medium.

In restrictive regimes this powerful communications medium was - and frequently still is - used to benefit the few. Such is life. In essence, to use a technological example, we went from a terribly inefficient version of node-powered information-delivery (i.e. people talking) into centralized, authoritarian-by-proxy opinion generators… The master-servers telling the nodes what to believe.

The internet changed all of this. Borrowing from its client-server architecture, it flipped the model back by restoring substantial power in the form of inputs to the edge. But both latency and trusted contributors remained problematic.

Today however, news audiences can now manufacture the news, or play a substantial role in shaping its contours and velocity. (Reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s quote about blogging being the equivalent of firing off mortar rounds into the Milky Way Galaxy. Then again, he also said “bang bang = tweet tweet”). 

We blog, we post to Facebook, we send tweets of the things we see, hear and think. The near-zero variable costs of content production mean that every client is now a server—we are all creators of news once again (this time broadcast-enabled). Every year we rely less on centralized sources, even those presumably trusted to be dispassionate reporters of fact. For example, Out of the 500 million or so observed net-based videos last month, something like ten million were from the traditional networks. Just two percent.

Thus, we find ourselves back to the future; a world where reasonably complete information (certainly by any historical measure) may be known - and transmitted - essentially real-time. Which is great.  Arab Spring is a shining, positive current-day example. This simply could not have happened even five years ago. (Did you know some colleges now offer majors in Liberation Technologies?). Of course, we still wrestle with what I would call ‘mid-casters’ like Fox News who overtly shape opinion (from their perspective as their own antibiotic response to a perceived liberal media).

[Side note: I'm with Jon Stewart on this one… Mainstream media may have some liberal bias no doubt forged in part by living relatively low-paying, hard-working lives often covering rulers of whatever empires appear in their field of vision. But their actual coverage, while attempting to remain true to fairness in reporting, is driven more by sensation-seeking (i.e. drives viewership which drives in-newsroom reward systems) and laziness (i.e. 'why bother no one really cares about details anyway' cynicism)—but not policy-driven. This is not to suggest there exist no liberal commentators, but mainstream media in relatively free societies generally make an attempt at balance. A gift for viewership… Who can then arrive at their own informed opinions.]

           Predator? Prey? Seed Eater? Yes.

Which brings me to twitter (and its clones, cousins, neighbors, etc.)… What a wonderful, powerful, useful, informative, exhilarating (insert other superlative here) international treasure. A gift for humanity. Will it ever really make money? Beats me. To some extent I hope not beyond operating costs, given the propensity for money-distortion effects. I don't want sponsored tweets --I want facts, opinions and coverage -- I can sort out the bodies myself (with my own biases, of course—just like you :).

   Can making money tip the scales on what we hear?

But ultimately twitter and other edge-generated news sources require us to reconsider our mores around news and how it’s being broadcast, and how our societal dialogs get shaped by the ways in which information is transmitted to us (and by us). The sheer velocity of transmission and our own cranial limitations processing even small parts of the terrain means we nodes latch onto the bits we see, tend to retain those already in sync with our mindset, and then re-trumpet — all with little reflection precisely because of the rapid nature of the medium. This is one of the downsides of a more symmetrical, very high-speed information-delivery system.

And it's a doozy. The court of public opinion now fosters near-instantaneous condemnation, polarization and, as I like to refer to it, Opinion-Shaping. Facts be damned. Did he do it? Internet Magic 8-ball of your choice says… Yes. Thus, it must be so. Next.

This is a problem. A big one. Along with node-powered content-generation come a series of responsibilities, not just on the part of the authors - who will always bring their respective biases (intentional or otherwise) to the table - but on the part of all of us, the creator-consumers. While encumbered with our own bias, we must preserve constructs like benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty, two sides to every story (insert clichè of choice here) or we damn ourselves to sheep-like acceptance of someone else's (often so well-crafted as to appear entirely 'uncrafted') view, and move on without a second thought. This is especially important now that we are all broadcasters.

In the end, the ability to choose our news sources and curate news for those who happen to listen to us means that all of us must exercise a measure of critical thought that was perhaps less necessary in an era where people could rely on Walter Cronkite (or the local equivalent) to curate information. With atomized, real-time news that often hasn’t been adequately fact-checked and is frequently produced or delivered by anonymous sources whose biases we have no real means of ascertaining, the need for filtering and some yet-to-be developed tools or norms is critical.

               Do you see two pricks, or just one?

To wit… Did DSK, the French guy from the IMF, do the bad thing? I don't know. But most believed it—and knew about it—ten minutes after he was hauled off that plane. And not just because it was plausible and has certainly happened time and again somewhere, but because the memes from the net said it was so IN THIS CASE. Sounds like maybe we all got it wrong. And what of Casey Anthony?  What do we really know, versus what many (most?) chose to immediately believe? Hey, if they're guilty, I stand ready with torch and pitchfork; but if we can't trust either the message or the medium, what do we have?

Sometimes we get it right—Anthony Weiner comes to mind—but here, too, opinions were already shaped on both sides (well, mostly one :) by enormous numbers of people around the world long before the actual facts were, um, exposed.

                   Does This.....                            Plus This.....                             Equal This?

The great thing about this node-powered medium is that the mere threat of exposure can, and does, change behavior, mostly for the better. The inherent danger though, is we need to self-regulate, or the overflowing buffers that are our brains will snap-judge and move on as a defense mechanism against too much unceasing stimuli. We cannot read everything about everything; no one has that kind of time. Though I’m not sure the solution lies in applications that allow you to take any written exercise - no matter the density - and distill it down to a few hundred characters. Here's a state-of-the-art example of this entire post compressed into one tweet-sized morsel via Trimit...

)… What a 1derful, powerful, useful, informative, exhilarating (insert superlative here) international treasure ...(

Then again, maybe it does.

I guess it kind of goes back to Siddhartha… if we don't listen to the river, we can miss what's actually important.

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