Who Controls The News?

The Digestion of November’s Terrorist Attacks Through Social Media and Algorithms.

An Inquisitive nature has never been more important, and the world’s tunnel-vision focus on November’s terrorist attacks, draws attention to the lack of concern for a wider perspective.

The media are constantly criticised for eurocentrism but can we really put blame on just one force? Could another culprit be our lack of curiosity, and our uncontrollable quench for social media?

Pew Research Centre reports show that nearly half of web-using adults within the US in 2014 gathered their news about politics and government from Facebook. These results allude to the fact that half of society seeks information from like-minded friends and algorithms.

To put these results in perspective, A Time article states that Facebook users have access to up to 1,500 posts a day, but only see around 300. To ensure an interesting newsfeed, Facebook applies thousands of factors to determine what shows up. The biggest influences are your closest friends, and this is judged by how often you have online contact with them.The algorithm also assumes “trending” content that has been given big exposure.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researcher Karrie Karahalios ran a study on how people change their online behaviour due to newsfeed algorithms, and she discovered that 62% of her respondents did not even know that algorithms controlled their news feeds.

When we analyse the Eurocentric focus and criticism on November’s terrorist attacks, this information speaks volumes. Eurocentric solidarity was a prime focus on social media after November’s attacks. Facebook was quick to offer its French flag filter for people’s profile photos, as well as their Safety Check. Whilst this is a supportive social discourse, Beirut also experienced a similar terrorist attack the day before Paris, and many critics were quick to point out the obvious hypocrisies.

Vision of Humanity constructed a study, which showed that 78% of deaths from terrorism in 2014 was concentrated within Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Since the year 2000 only 2.6% of deaths due to terrorism have occurred in the West. If we are to express solidarity for ‘all of humanity’, surely this should extend past Europe?

The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik had an interesting perspective on this notion, stating that ” Yes the media is skewed, but we, the consumers, are also complicit – in that media is no longer a top-down affair, transmitting information to inert readers or watchers. We determine the news agenda far more than previously.” This information is proven by the fact that Beirut’s terrorist attack, did get a lot of media coverage from many high profile platforms, however it was society that did not give this event any traction.

If the media gave coverage upon the Beirut attacks and society did not listen, we must ask ourselves, why did we deem the Paris attacks more newsworthy? David Uberti, from Columbia Journalism Review, covered an article with insight from The Times International Editor, Joe Kahn, whom argued that The Paris Attacks were more newsworthy for western society, due to the events “death toll, the scale of the attack, and the challenge to intelligence agencies in the US and abroad that tend to work closely together”. Uberti also mentioned that these attacks demonstrated that ISIS has the ability to attack outside of the Middle East, and on foreign land.

Kahn also verified the consumerist element to formatting news coverage. “It is also true that coverage of terrorist attacks does vary according to other, more subtle factors, such as how surprising the attack is, how likely it is to impact policy among the Western powers, and how likely it is to resonate with large numbers of our readers.” Therefore we must also take in to account that many media platforms run as businesses and to some extent, have to comply with consumerist demands. Therefore western tragedies are more likely to dominate the front page, as this is what the west’s readers have been continuously drawing their attentions to.

Journalist, Max Fisher states “My peers throughout the media have dutifully and diligently covered such attacks for years. Local reporters and foreign correspondents out in the field have of course done far more than I have, spending days interviewing victims and painstakingly reconstructing events — despite knowing that readers were all but certain to ignore the stories. “Nobody is going to read this” is a phrase we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.”

We can see that the media, and the public both have a role to play in what is produced. If journalists are covering international events, and we are not paying attention, then editors will not want to put these as front page spreads, as it is not economically viable.

Psychologist Julia Hormes led a study in the addiction to facebook. Her research showed that her respondents spent 1/3 of their Internet time on Facebook, and 67% got online notifications on their phones.

Thus, we can see that there are a variety of factors. It is not one, or the other. We might have deemed Paris ‘more newsworthy’ and gave those articles more traffic (or criticised that Beirut was not getting enough media light), but we also must take into account, the news operates on a far more complicated scale than it ever has previously. There are algorithms which will preference what we have already viewed/or/liked. Social media is not an adequate representation of what is going on in the world. It is always going to tunnel vision our perspective.

Therefore, when we read the news we must read globally. Do not just read your local news, read many different accounts and perspectives on what is going on, in order to construct your own view point.

We must remember that we have a role to play within the media’s dialogue. Social media subtracted our focus in many ways, but it has also given us a voice. If Algorithms channel our newsfeed, we can make a conscious effort to share international events, and let our empathy and understanding extend beyond borders. Eventually, Facebook, and the media, will follow in our footsteps, as their actions are only a reflection of consumerist demands.