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Matt Wilcox

Musing

Aug 22nd 2014

National vs social media

Social media is rapidly gaining ground as the best place for timely unbiased news. It's not all roses though.

It took days for national and international media to pay attention to Ferguson. Social media had been the only place to get reliable and timely eye-witness news of the events that followed the shooting of an unarmed man in the streets of an American town; news of police intimidating a native population for days, ignoring law and civil rights as and when it suited them.

Once national and international media finally showed up those media companies turned it into a circus (read that link, it's from one of those reporters who's refusing to go back precisely because of how it is being reported). It's not surprising, these national media companies know their audience. They know what their audience pays attention to. They know they'll post better end-of-year profits by playing into what the audience think they know already than reporting all of the facts, being objective, or asking their audience to challenge their viewpoints. National media tailors its service to whoever listens to it the most, those are the people that pay the wages. They know that stringing out something inherently interesting pays better than anything else. And so we get spin, bordering on lunacy in places, and endless debate and oration.

It's more and more obvious that national media has less and less of a credible role to play in genuine news, especially news originating within the nation state where it itself is based. The only sources that I saw being timely or objective were foreign sources, such as Al Jazeera (who's reporter is calling out the media circus in Ferguson). The BBC had the whole event as a sideshow buried in a sub-section.

It's more and more obvious that the only reliable and prompt sources of information are the people living the reality and posting about it on social media. This is the true power of social media; the ability for any person to get primary-sources for current world events, unfiltered by companies, media outlets, or governments who have things to gain by manipulating what is being reported.

Which is why we should all be wary of companies and governments who seek to control and filter social media. GCHQ are reported to have this capability already. The NSA is reported to have this capability already. There are proposals for government states to have 'kill switches' to disable phones remotely, so in the event of 'riots' such as at Ferguson, the authorities can stop people's ability to get messages to the public.

We have seen in Ferguson what happens when authorities seek anonymity. We have seen authorities try to silence witnesses through intimidation, arrests, and violence. We have seen authorities seek to remove reporters from the area (illegally), stop people filming their activity (illegally), and we have seen police remove identity badges as they go about this work.

We've seen it on Twitter. We've seen the video's of it happening, live. We've not really seen it that way in the news.

The future of social media

Which bring up a problem; Twitter is a company. It too has to make money, and has an agenda. That's why we're beginning to see tweets appear from people we've not chosen to follow, and adverts from brands we haven't chosen to follow. The company controls what you see, and can over-ride what you've chosen to see.

Facebook, the other social media giant, has experimented this year on manipulating user's feeds; showing only positive stories to some people, and only negative stories to another set of people. Imagine if Ferguson had kicked off then. You might not have heard about it, because FaceBook was running an experiment, and you didn't know, because you weren't told. Because Facebook controls what you see.

It's not a wise idea to rely on companies to have this kind of power over how we can get information out to the world in real time. As brilliant as Twitter has been for this, and as much as I appreciate it in exposing such events; we need something better, something owned by the public.

If this had happened a decade ago, most of us wouldn't have heard of Ferguson at all because social media didn't exist. Those that did would have a very different opinion on it. What if happens again ten years in the future… will we still hear about it, or will it have been swept away by the filters of the people running our social media networks?