The new department of Emerging Media at Peking University, Beijing, China, held a conference on 15 September 2017 on its subject, ‘Emerging Media’, subtitled Connection, Innovation, Transformation. Peking University is at the top of universities across China, so its establishment of this department about four years ago is reminiscent of Oxford University establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2001. I expect that this new department will have an even larger impact on the development of the field of Internet and new media studies across China and around the world. It was an honor to give one of the keynotes around our research on the political implications of search.
My thanks to the Dean, Professor XIE Xinzhou, and his colleagues at Peking University, including Professors WANG Xiuli (Charlene), Professor LI Wei and TIAN Lily, from Peking Un, and many helpful students, such as Rita Ji, who helped me throughout my stay. Their team pulled together colleagues from around the world, including James Katz (Boston College), S. Shyam Sundar (Penn State), Leopoldina Fortunati (Un of Udine), ZHOU Baohua (Fudan), WEI Ran (Un of South Carolina), Erik P. Bucy (Texas Tech), WANG Xiaoguang (Wuhan Un), ZHANNG Hongzhong (Beijing Normal Un), Kuang WenBo (Renmin Un), HAN Gang (Iowa State Un), Gil De Zoniga Homero (a former OII SDP student, now chaired professor at Un of Vienna), Eriko Uematsu (Musashino Gakuin Un), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (Hebrew Un of Jerusalem), YU Nan (Un of Central Florida), and my former colleague while visiting the OII, Professor JIN Jianbain (Tsinghua Un).
They organized an engaging several days of talks and visits, such as to the Headquarters of Sina Weibo, giving all of us a personal sense of current developments around the Internet and social media in China.
Pack journalism is not only alive and well in the digital age, it is arguably more prominent than it could ever be in the analogue era of print journalism. There is clearly a need for multi-disciplinary research on the sociology and politics of digitally enabled pack journalism.
The concept of pack journalism was coined in the midst of the Nixon-McGovern election campaigns of 1972 through observations made of journalists riding on the campaign buses, leading to the book entitled The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House 1973).
It is not difficult to imagine how reporters travelling together on a campaign bus would interact in ways that shaped the definition of the story and undermine the diversity of viewpoints that might otherwise emerge from multiple reporters covering the same campaign. Recall Kurt and Gladys Lang’s classic, Television and Politics, which demonstrated how different people watching the same parade or demonstration would have very different perspectives from different vantage points, such as being there in person versus watching it on television. Despite blogging and Tweets galore, the news is likely to present one perspective on a demonstration, as well as most other political events, as journalists are more networked – not just on the bus, but – nationally and globally, than ever before possible.
Pack journalism was seen as a problem as it created a more homogeneous coverage of stories, but it also homogenizes the news agenda, every paper covering the same story in similar ways. This is dangerous in creating a sense of THE news agenda and THE truth about a story, rather than a healthier view of multiple perspectives on the news. It is important to remember that TV is still king, and sets the agenda for most other media.
The driving forces behind networked pack journalism are not simply technical, but also economic and socio-political. As news organizations are more financially stressed, in part due to the rise of online and the decline of revenues for traditional media outlets, then reporters are more likely to rely more than ever on other journalists. This is not only a recipe for more reliance on press releases, what has been called ‘churnalism’ rather than original reporting, but also for reliance on the increasingly networked pack of journalistic reporting. It saves money and time. News organizations are also increasingly operating in a highly partisan setting in which journalists might well be increasingly concerned with how their stories are politically categorized. It is safe to travel in the company of other journalists, creating another incentive to stick with the pack, or packs, as in the polarized news political news coverage of today.
Good journalists are alert to the value of diversity in reporting, but it is possible for even good journalists to drift into pack journalism without being aware of the degree there interaction with their peers is homogenizing the news. So beware of pack journalism in the digital age. The ‘boys on the bus’ are an anachronism, but pack journalism is not, and could well be an even greater problem in the digital age of networking.
In this respect, I would argue a need for more multidisciplinary research on the networking of journalists. This requires sociologists, academics in Internet studies, political scientists, and others to study how journalists use networks and with what effect on the diversity or homogeneity of the news. With all the attention being directed on how Internet users are networked into echo chambers, or filter bubbles, it is surprising indeed that journalists are not a stronger focus of critical research.
I had a fascinating and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017
In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, I was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. I then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. I was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.
On the 12th, I was in Rome, where I first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, I spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.
My last stop was in Berlin, where I was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander. I finished my talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. As a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, it was great to end my trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.
This week was an incredible opportunity for me to convey the results of our research. I want to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank my colleagues on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, along with our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in our project.
I must say that I was unable to convince many of those involved in these talks that the panics over fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers have been overhyped. Despite evidence on the many ways that Internet users are likely to mitigate these problems, such as in consulting multiple sources of information about politics, many politicians, regulators and scholars remain very concerned.
I spoke to each group about the ways evidence can fail to change views on these issues as an example of how many divisions in society are not due to filtered or biased information, but to real divisions in opinion. These panics are powerful for several reasons, including the attraction of technologically deterministic perspectives, the role of a confirmatory self-selection or dismissal of evidence, and the role of the third-person effect – I’m okay, but others are likely to be fooled.
Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2960697
‘Through a remarkably broad cross-industry synthesis, Matthew David demonstrates how information industries could benefit by adjusting market mechanisms to support the vitality of sharing-based economies. Anyone with a serious interest in intellectual property policy and practice should read this provocative case for building business models around sharing.’ William H. Dutton, Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University
Information about Matthew David’s new book, entitled Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism (Polity Press 2017) can be found here.
These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.
We found that the fears surrounding search algorithms and social media are not irrelevant – there are problems for some users some of the time. However, they are exaggerated, creating unwarranted fears that could lead to inappropriate responses by users, regulators and policymakers.
The importance of searching
The survey findings demonstrate the importance of search results over other ways to get information. When people are looking for information, they very often search the internet. Nearly two-thirds of users across our seven nations said they use a search engine to look for news online at least once a day. They view search results as equally accurate and reliable as other key sources, like television news.
In line with that general finding, a search engine is the first place internet users go online for information about politics. Moreover, those internet users who are very interested in politics, and who participate in political activities online, are the most likely to use a search engine like Bing or Google to find information online about politics.
But crucially, those same users engaged in search are also very likely to get information about politics on other media, exposing themselves to diverse sources of information, which makes them more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers.
Internet-savvy or not?
It’s not just politically interested people who have these helpful search habits: People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.
That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.
However, for most people, internet searches are critical for checking the reliability and validity of information they come across, whether online, on social media, on traditional media or in everyday conversation. Our research shows that these internet users find search engines useful for checking facts, discovering new information, understanding others’ views on issues, exploring their own views and deciding how to vote.
We found that people in different countries do vary in how much they trust and rely on the internet and searches for information. For example, internet users in Germany, and to a lesser extent those in France and the United Kingdom, are more trusting in TV and radio news, and more skeptical of searches and online information. Internet users in Germany rate the reliability of search engines lower than those in all the other nations, with 44 percent saying search engines are reliable, compared with 50 to 57 percent across the other six countries.
In Poland, Italy and Spain, people trust traditional broadcast media less and are more reliant on, and trusting of, internet and searching. Americans are in the middle; there were greater differences within European countries than between Europe as a whole and the U.S. American internet users were so much more likely to consult multiple sources of information that we called them “media omnivores.”
Internet users generally rely on a diverse array of sources for political information. And they display a healthy skepticism, leading them to question information and check facts. Regulating the internet, as some have proposed, could undermine existing trust and introduce new questions about accuracy and bias in search results.
But panic over fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles is exaggerated, and not supported by the evidence from users across seven countries.
I recently posted a short overview of the findings of one of our projects on fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers in The Conversation. All three are foci of panic over the potential political implications of new technologies, such as search algorithms and social media friending and de-friending mechanisms. Given the comments received and the worries expressed in those comments, the fake news panic trumps all the others – no question.
One reason is that it is so new. The public debate over fake news only began to arise during the 2016 elections in the US, though it quickly spread internationally. I’m sure I could be corrected on that, but I believe that is roughly the case.
Secondly, the definition – to the degree that is fair to apply to this concept – is being constantly enlarged and blurred by pundits and politicians referring to more and more ‘news’ as fake. In fact, ‘fake’ is becoming an almost viral term. There are many ways to characterize much of the news, some of it is patriotic journalism, some partisan, some misinformation, some just poor reporting, etc. But more and more of the whole journalistic enterprise is being labelled as fake. But journalists are not the victim so much as among the major users of this term, increasingly characterizing mainstream media as real news versus blogging and social media as the sources of fake news. In such ways, it has become a pejorative term used to discredit the butt of the insult.
These are a few of the reasons why we did not use the term ‘fake news’ in our survey of Internet users. We asked other questions, such as how often they found wrong information on different media. That said, we found the a surprisingly large proportion of people tend to check information they believe to be suspect, such as by using a search engine or consulting other sources.
So despite the rising panic over fake news, I still believe it is under-researched and over-hyped.
A report we just completed for the Quello Center on ‘Search and Politics‘ concluded that most people are not fooled by fake news, or trapped by filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, those interested in politics and with some ability in using the Internet and search, generally consult multiple sources for political information, and use search very often to check information they suspect to be wrong. It is a detailed report, so I hope you can read it to draw your own conclusions. But the responses I’ve received from readers are very appreciate of the report, yet then go on to suggest people remain in somewhat of a panic. Our findings have not assuaged their fears.
First, these threats tied to the Internet and social media appeal to common fears about technology being out of control. Langdon Winner’s book comes to mind. This is an enduring theme of technology studies, and you can see it being played out in this area. And it is coupled with underestimating the role users actually play online. You really can’t fool most of Internet users most of the time, but most people worry that way too many are fooled.
This suggests that there might also be a role played by a third person effect, with many people believing that they themselves are not fooled by these threats, but that others are. I’m not fooled by fake news, for example, but others are. This may lead people to over-estimate the impact of these problems.
And, finally, there is a tendency for communication and technology scholars to believe that political conflicts can be solved simply by improving information and communication. I remember a quote from Ambassador Walter Annenberg at the Annenberg School, where I taught, to the effect that all problems can be solved by communication. However, many political conflicts result from real differences of opinions and interests, which will not be resolved by better communication. In fact, communication can sometimes clarify the deep differences and divisions that are at the heart of conflicts. So perhaps many of those focused on filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news are from the communication and the technical communities rather than political science, for example. If only technologies of communication could be improved, we would all agree on … That is the myth.