Before the advent of the internet and social media, American citizens relied more heavily on the immediate information that traditional news organisations provided to keep up to date in their communities, cities, countries and the world. Today, there are various information sources alongside traditional news organisations such as blogs, social media feeds and interest group websites that can provide contradicting information. Due to the nature of not only choice, but current technology as well, people are provided with information that aligns with what they may already believe, as opposed to new information and different ideas. Though contrasting contradictions are more easily recognised in the marketplace of ideas, such as how Vice would frame a story versus how Fox News would frame that same story, irresponsibly handled diverse information sources may fortify confusing and stubborn worldviews. Nowadays, traditional news organisations are more readily challenged by blossoming new information sources, while citizens may be trapped within their own perspectives.
When citizens heavily relied on traditional news sources, it was those outlets that had the resources to more hastily distribute information across a large audience via television and radio broadcasts, and printed media. If this were the case today, then only six major media organisations, detailed by Ashley Lutz in a 2012 Business Insider article and infographic, would have a significant voice in the marketplace of ideas. Though they hold tremendous clout in determining what information is circulated and deemed credible news, the internet now provides a platform for interest groups to directly export their perspectives and reporting via tools such as blogs and social media. Because of this phenomenon, reporting by traditional news organisations must now compete with a variety of sources, some of which claim that the empires of earlier journalism are corrupt and no longer serve the interest of true journalism. Such claims have been made against news sources such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC by many Bernie Sanders supporters during the 2016 Presidential Campaigns. Sander’s supporters frequently express the sentiment that he didn’t receive fair coverage during this year’s primaries which are strongly supported by a recent Harvard study. The study blatantly states that coverage was “awful”, and reports that only 7% of Sanders’ coverage was actually about his issues, the smallest amount of issue coverage in comparison to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz.
Sanders supporters realised this issue early in the race, and took to Twitter, Facebook and other new methods to spread and attain information. Though Sanders is believed to be revolutionary, his supporters’ employment of the internet to circulate information unreported by the mainstream media is no new phenomenon. During the trial of Pfc Chelsea Manning, very few traditional news organisations had any extensive reporting on the subject. Nevertheless, Citizen Journalists such as Alexa O’Brien extensively followed and reported the issue, going as far as to provide court transcripts on her website, with live tweeting of the court case. Reporting by O’Brien and fellow citizen journalist Kevin Gosztola were some of the only sources of information regarding the issue.
While The Guardian was one of few traditional news outlets to provide extensive coverage of the Manning/Wikileaks case, people wanted more information than was primarily provided, which pushed them to launch their own private investigations. And for the first time, American citizens had the resources to perform in-depth research on a matter of national security, in real time, from the sanctitude of their homes. Members of the American Civil Liberty Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation took interest in this particular case, leading the vanguard in research, thus driving the evolution of journalism. Now, even more American interest groups have their designated information sources, such as anyone preferring a liberal bias clinging to MSNBC and anyone preferring a Conservative bias adhering themselves to Fox News, thus creating an unquestionable division among many American citizens’ differing perspectives. Because the audience believes their information sources to be factually accurate, they’ll disregard any other information that contradicts what they believe to be true and want to be true, based on their particular interests and affiliations. Now, through the platform of the internet, there are a myriad of different news sources, ranging from Vice to Christianheadlines.com.
Though the internet offers access to a vast collection of perspectives and information sources, search engines and even social media sites alter what users see, based on interest expectation, leaving American citizens to drift within their own echo-chambers. Chief Executive of Upworthy, Eli Pariser, refers to this phenomenon as the “filter bubble effect” in his 2011 Ted Talk. Pariser explains that these web based tools use algorithms to customise search results and news feeds to previously demonstrated interests. Occurrences such as these seemingly revert a library of perspectives into a prison of repetition. As citizens coexist with different perspectives, and are only provided with information that reinforces beliefs and interest-driven ideas of truth, efficient communication is reduced to a seemingly extreme improbability. As people become invested in interest-driven truths, they become resistant to anything that challenges those “truths”. If citizens so readily believe in personally catered “truths”, some of which contradict each other, then the opportunity for citizens to coexist in a constructive country is essentially effaced out of possibility.
Though the current nature of social media, search engines and other platforms of circulated information can cause citizens to remain in a stasis, the seemingly infinite collection of the planet’s information is accessible, which is an unprecedented event in the history of humanity. As stated earlier in this article, six major media organisations control most traditional news sources. If the circulation of information were left to six entities alone, then the public’s worldview could be cartoonishly exploited and unproductive. Though many people may be trapped within their own echo chambers, we now have the advantage of access to a myriad of perspectives. A congregation of this myriad could be a solution to the extreme division and opposition amongst citizens of the United States.
A conglomerate of citizens representing different perspectives, discussing and communicating with each other sounds like a transcendent dream. But even if it sounds like a dream, its possibility is not nullified. A Philip K. Dick-esque world, in which people are either trapped within their own delusions or subjected to enforced truths of an overbearing power could be avoided if these perspectives were able to congregate and communicate. Then the marketplace of ideas would serve the American people even more intensely than it already does: It would prepare people to communicate with representatives of ideas and beliefs that aren’t their own. One asset of social media that already assists in such motives is the power of the hashtag. Though search engine results and newsfeeds may be algorithmically catered to each specific user, the hashtag connects everyone to one conversation, allowing everyone to see the myriad of perspectives and opinions connected to a specific subject. Though virtual and unorganised in nature, this could be the start of a heavier focus on influential topics and ideas being discussed across large groups of people.
In American culture, we are taught that one does not causally discuss politics. The reason being is so people can get along and not worry about the ideas, concepts, desires and beliefs that divide them. But if you have a nation of people who aren’t discussing politics, then you have a nation of people who are wilfully ignorant of the world around them. This allows for the abuse of governmental powers and the self degradation of a nation’s people. It results in a people not taking responsibility for themselves and refusing to truly acknowledge a collection of different entities within their own community. Complete political irresponsibility among the citizens of one of the most affluent nations in the world would unquestionably stand as a testament to the decline of America’s progression.
Citizens could become philosophically isolated from their countrymen, and lose the ability to communicate, if it isn’t put to use. Our communication is one of our key defining phonemes that distinguishes us from many of the other species that inhabit the earth. Erasing or ignoring this would be the equivalent of erasing or ignoring a sense of humanity. If we can’t communicate, then we can’t operate as a civilisation. Unless we wish to become drones to the primal desire of normalcy and expectations, we should seriously modify and progress the way in which we circulate information using the internet.
Posted by ETE’s Regular contributor: David Darcell Hensley