How disinformation is forcing a paradigm shift in media theory 

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The whole thing has been overblown. The data actually shows that although news consumption on social media is significant, the platforms’ users don’t actually trust the content compared to traditional media outlets. 

The pandemic, despite unfounded warnings of a ‘disinformation crisis’, has actually catalysed the consumption of mainstream news. UK viewers have flocked to BBC One, ITV, Sky News and Channel 4. In the US, meanwhile, The New York Times has surpassed 7m subscribers.

Trust in search engines, video sites, social media and messaging apps has remained relatively low, with even 70% of respondents in one Kantar survey going as far as saying that they don’t trust social media content (see the Reuters Institute for more historical data). 

But despite all the evidence to the contrary, the West’s prevailing narrative since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 has been around the ‘disinformation crises’ (credible research into fake news during that White House campaign revealed that it had little impact, showing that “untrustworthy” websites accounted for only 6% of all Americans' news diets on average).  

A lot of the worry has been around the power of microtargeting, where digital marketers can use highly specific information, including interests, age, location and educational attainment, to serve ads against a particular group. 

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign did this (also read The Victory Lab) and it was largely seen as fine at the time. This is all not to say that disinformation campaigns should be permissible, rather it is to highlight that over-indexing on the issue creates perversions and bad precedents in the discourse. 

This has also led to people concentrating on the malicious disinformation tactics rather than their efficacy – a key factor for resource allocation. A man who knows all about the power of stories is Professor Ben O'Loughlin.

The University of London academic has advised NATO, The British Council and the EU on strategic narratives, a branch of international relations which stems from Lawrence Freedman’s thinking. An example of a strategic narrative is the UK’s Global Britain agenda or the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. 

O'Loughlin sees the concentration on disinformation and scrutiny of social media platforms as an opportunity to change how the academy can focus on big moral questions that it apparently “let slip” in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“Although there was a lot of change in how the media worked between 2005 and 2010, things have settled down a bit,” O'Loughlin told FN. This consolidation, he argued, means we can now ask important questions, including queries about the nature of representation and when and how the public trusts or mistrusts the government. As for the narrative that we’re in a ‘disinformation crisis’, he warned that this story has been “driven by anecdote and fear”.

O'Loughlin added: “When you look at the actual data, media consumption is still pretty mainstream. It’s possible to have a national conversation – it’s not as if everything is fragmented.

“I’m also curious about why certain political leaders do think that everybody has moved into filter bubbles. When all the data is showing that that’s not true, other than 5% on either end of the political spectrum.” 

O'Loughlin advocates a more holistic approach to tackling disinformation, rather than just proscribing fact-checking or warnings (like Twitter), policy makers and others need to understand an individual’s full interaction with the media ecosystem. 

They could, for example, digest mainstream news media content, but they could also be exposed to disinformation on messaging apps or word-of-mouth. If they or their social/community network has had a negative interaction with the government, or an agent of the state, that could create perennial trust issues, making them more susceptible to anti-government disinformation. 

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O'Loughlin first outlined his argument for the positive side of disinformation in the International Journal of Communication. The paper builds on the concept of media regimes, an imperfect way of describing historical eras defined by the structural relationships, norms and interactions between news media outlets, technology, regulation and political elites. 

Michael Delli Carpini, who has popularised the term, has argued that political, economic, technological and cultural changes lead to disruption and the creation of new media regimes. The US, according to Carpini, would eventually move from the ‘Partisan Press’ onto the ‘Age of Broadcast News’, by way of example.

In ‘After Broadcast News’, Carpini and Bruce Williams would argue that the role of professional journalists as gatekeepers had been eroded due to our digital age and that there increasingly was a blurring of entertainment and news (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and The Colbert Report) as well as blurring of fact and opinion (the US’ major broadcast news outlets are littered with monologues and celebrity commentators). 

The book was published in 2011, so Carpini’s and Williams’ pessimism wasn’t unfounded since the news media industry faced serious uncertainty about its sustainability and funding at the time. But it is now outdated because of the adoption of subscription models (thanks, in part, to the Netflix effect) and the embrace of monthly recurring revenues has significantly bolstered the news media. 

Consumers are paying for high quality information that isn’t necessarily blurred by opinion or entertainment. This is all happening in the digital age, where social media platforms and the microtargeting functions they provide aren't going away.

So, as O'Loughlin has argued, we need to drop the false narratives, understand how the current news media consumption ecosystem actually works and then decide what we deem to be permissible or not. The disruption has already happened – it’s time to catch up.

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For high-praise, tips or gripes, please contact the editor at iansilvera@gmail.com or via @ianjsilvera. Follow on LinkedIn here.

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