Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Echo Chambers Involving Old and New Media

Twitter has been widely credited with influencing the 2016 US presidential election.  Not because lot's of voters read tweets, but because lot's of journalists do.  Many of these journalists work for traditional media, which includes TV, radio, newspapers, newsletters, etc.  The sheer volume of controversial tweets generated ensured that journalists looked no further than Twitter for topics to cover.  This kept the spotlight on those who understood how both traditional and social media works, and were skilled at exploiting it.

Journalists and their editors understand that controversy and outrage are good for business. CBS's executive Les Moonves was quoted in 2016 as saying, "the Trump phenomenon may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." And by now we all know that social media algorithms thrive on engagement, and there is no better tool for engagement than tweeting outrageous things.  The cacophony of controversy fueled both traditional media's and new medias' business models.  A win for all media - if not necessarily for democracy.

Controversial remarks on Twitter from political candidates, business leaders and/or celebrities receive an enormous amount of attention from traditional media journalist.  This kind of attention is impossible to generate if one relied only on press conferences or traditional media's broadcast coverage. In other words, controversy equals attention across the entire new and old media ecosystems.

Twitter encourages a bumper sticker friendly style of politics and policy that plays well with significant segments of voters.  Tweets, however, are far too limited by design to provide in-depth commentary and policy details.  A tweet's biggest value is in being a gateway to traditional media where formats support in-depth commentary, opinions and analysis.  Whether you prefer to hear, watch or read more details, a tweet can link you to traditional media sources.  This symbiotic relationship between new and old media has not been given the attention it deserves. Most articles and research today seem focused mainly on the low-hanging fruit of social media’s role in influencing us, but that is an insufficient view that tells only half of the real story.

Before exploring the synergistic relationship between new and traditional media further, let’s stop and refresh ourselves on some of the monumental regulatory changes that have occurred in traditional media over the past few decades. 
  • In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to be balanced in their coverage was ended by the Reagan Administration.   A massive expansion of highly political, highly biased radio and TV programs followed.  For example, today 14 out of the top 15 talk radio shows have right-wing hosts and highly politicized formats.
  • The Reagan Administration also waived the prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market.  This deregulation enabled media companies like Murdoch's to rapidly expand into TV, newspapers and online digital media properties.
  • The George H.W. Bush administration then suspended rules that forbade broadcast networks to own prime-time shows or to profit from them.  This deregulation helped fund the growth of the 4th TV network - Fox Network.
  • In November of 2017, The FCC eliminated protections against monopolies in local broadcast news.  This enabled media empires to own the political slant of large portions of media in local areas.
  • The Bill Clinton Administration signed the Telecommunication Act of 1996,  which removed the 40 station cap on radio station ownership.  The goal of this new law was to let anyone enter any communications business, to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.  
Both sides of the political spectrum in the USA are responsible for the politicalization of the media.  Since these deregulations, media ownership has become increasingly concentrated and politicized.  The result is increasingly the same news and information or disinformation is being shared, distributed, amplified and echoed to everyone within these highly politicized and insular echo chambers and ecosystems.  If you are inside one of these echo chambers, it may sound as if everyone has the same opinion and agrees with each other.

The deregulations listed above opened the doors for wealthy media families with strong political opinions like the Sinclairs, Murdochs, Coxs and Koches to dramatically expand their newspaper, radio and TV holdings and influence.  For example, the Sinclair broadcast group (SBG) now owns 193 television stations in over 100 markets covering 40% of American households primarily in the South and Midwest.  This was not allowed prior to deregulation and was thought harmful to democracy.  

When these four families decide to throw their financial and media support behind a particular policy or political candidate - they can bring enormous power and influence with them.  This influence has been documented in several research papers I read this week.  Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain found that when the Sinclairs buy a local TV station, it takes a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage.  Source: http://joshuamccrain.com/localnews.pdf  In another study, it was found that watching Fox News results in a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.  Their research shows that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Source: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/8/16263710/fox-news-presidential-vote-study 

If you are right-leaning this might not seem so bad, but if the reverse were true it might just seem problematic to an effective democracy.  Our human brains have been found to be quite malleable to both social media and traditional media's influence, which led us to seek balanced views through regulation in the past.

Today, ideological networks consisting of combinations of traditional and new media organizations are working closely together in a symbiotic relationship to influence us and bend our brains.  They create echo chambers where tweets can be amplified and reverberated for weeks between social media, TV news, newspapers, political pundits, talk radio, TV programs, podcasts and back again on social media.  Many of the largest echo chambers participants in traditional media are owned by just a handful of families with similar and strong political ideologies.  

On the social media side of the echo chamber equation, there is just a handful of giant technology companies.  Is this healthy?  Is this in the best interest of a democracy?  Is this the way we want the future of information, truth and influence to evolve?  Do we want all of our news being generated and distributed by a handful of powerful organizations?  Perhaps it is time to rethink our regulatory environment recognizing how old and new media have evolved, and considering it's real and potential impact on democracy.

Read more on the Future of Information, Truth and Influence here:

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.