Online Only

Me, we and them

Compassionate communities and misinformation ghettos

THE INTERNET IS driving a digital revolution in which audiences want an emotional connection, a sense of purpose and to be part of a movement for change. We, who New York University’s professor of journalism Jay Rosen calls ‘the people formerly known as the audience’, are demanding a seat at the media table. We want to share, like, comment, react. We want to be more than participants in the public debate; we want to be protagonists.

The media has woken up to this new trend. Chris Anderson explored this new phenomenon in his 2004 WIRED article ‘The long tail’, recognising that marketing creates an initial spike of interest, but engaging an audience on a deeper level creates brand loyalty.[i] In other words, harnessing a marketing-weary online audience’s desire for agency, providing them with ways to connect and to consume with a conscience, is good for business. Consequently, the new media buzzword is ‘engagement’. Online audiences are being sold ideas rather than products via social media messages where the emphasis is on being emotive, engaged and empathetic. Think of your Facebook feed and the calls for you to ‘share if you agree’ that something is morally wrong, asking you to ‘support a friend’ in their fight for a cause, or inviting you to ‘sign the petition now’. The sharing of personal stories, the drive for collective action, the promotion of ideas which are likely to be shared, liked or commented on take precedence in the digital age. This is a world where people have the potential to rise above product, and the emphasis is on conversation and empowerment, creating community, rather than preaching a prescriptive message.

Change.org calls itself the ‘world’s platform for change’, claiming that 275 million people have signed its petitions. A recent online petition hosted by the group aimed to remove controversial senator Fraser Anning from the Australian parliament. In the end there was no need for the government to take action on the petition, as the electorate made the decision for them on 18 May 2019, when Anning lost his Senate seat in the federal election. In the meantime, 1.4 million people had signed that petition. Also at this election, GetUp! mobilised a campaign to remove Tony Abbott. Although it’s impossible to determine whether the GetUp! campaign was truly influential in the result, the ABC reported shortly before the count that Abbott’s team was rattled by it.

The roots of the digital change movement lie in ideas about audience persuasion that date back to Aristotle: that a combination of pathos, ethos and logos – the mixture of a credible hero, an emotive, empathetic story and a logical argument – is what’s needed to convince an audience to take action. These ideas were developed further in social marketing theories of the 1970s and ’80s, when the aim was to sell ideas, attitudes and behaviours rather than products. ‘Edutainment’, the packaging of social information campaigns in entertainment bundles, was established as a way to garner public support and engagement on social issues, especially health. Think Sid the Seagull singing and dancing to ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ to teach the public about sun safety – a health campaign the Cancer Council say was one of the most successful in Australia’s history.

Crucial to the concept of edutainment was the idea that to motivate change you need to create an emotional connection with the audience, fulfil their needs and foster a sense that individual members of a community can have autonomy and influence. Now a new generation of transmedia products, born in the digital age, are aiming to capture the audience’s need to be part of a movement. In the new social media ecosystem, the boundaries between fact and fiction, message and marketing, entertainment and education, are blurring. Emotively engaging media products are creating digital communities, web tribes, online activists. The aim of these media products is to change attitudes and behaviours, and to lobby for wider societal change: sign this e-petition, share if you agree, click here to make change. We appear to be living in a new era of capitalism with a conscience, in which social media has become social wedia.

All this is a radical departure from the way in which what is termed ‘legacy media’ once operated. Traditionally, media messages were one-directional. The producer created a media product that was then consumed along with TV dinners by a sedentary, sofa-bound audience. The audience, some academics have argued, was forced to be a mindless mass whose habits and attitudes were shaped by the media it consumed. It was the media elite who had the power, who determined the nature and content of public debate. As a former producer in the UK television industry, I can testify that I rarely knew what the audience thought of the programs I made. As producers, we dictated how social issues were presented and discussed. Even though we cared about the stories and what the audience thought of them, when our programs were broadcast they disappeared into the ether. But our representations were accepted as reality and determined the course taken by the public discussion of ideas; in that respect, we held the power.

Internet communities, empowered by the interactivity of Web 2.0, have rejected these traditional power structures. The internet has offered a dream of a digital democracy, where everyone has a say and truth is determined by a sort of online collective bargaining. In this online utopia, geographical boundaries are obsolete in the spread of messages and the formation of niche-interest tribes. In fragmented but focused online communities, the fringe has a voice, the disenfranchised become empowered, the marginalised are heard. Events such as the Arab Spring and the 2011 Occupy movement seemed to confirm that online community action had the potential to be a force for change, a force for good.

As time has gone on, these utopian dreams about the power of the internet to create good have been pulled up short by a more complex picture of what the internet is capable of. Euphoric internet dreams of creating empowered egalitarian communities have turned into waking nightmares of online communities clustering around issues and shunning outsiders. The emotive froth of the online cappuccino, critics say, disguises a bitter brew of propaganda, conspiracy and misinformation. Arguments that would have been dismissed for their lack of credibility in the old media age become normal, viable and difficult to challenge. In this new media world, the distinction between fringe and mainstream sources becomes obscured. What Michael Barkun, professor emeritus in political science at Syracuse University, calls ‘stigmatised knowledge’ is able to put down roots.

 

THE IDEA OF community is being reshaped in this online context. Digital tribes are neither geographically specific nor a direct product of the media that addresses them. Communities are viewed in terms of social networks: digital spaces where people who interact socially share a sense of purpose and have a shared culture. According to Freud, tribes define themselves more in terms of what they are not than what they are, and so, as well as a me and a we, these tribes need a them to point their digital fingers at. Dissenters are vilified, shunned and ultimately excluded from the discussion. A kind of group narcissism is created. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are shared unfettered and unchallenged.

Conspiracy theorists existed before the age of the internet, of course, but their geographical spread, and therefore their difficulty in communicating with each other, meant their ideas remained peripheral to the main channels of communication. As Norwegian media scholar Bjørn Sørensen says, the internet makes it possible for conspiracy theorists to connect, grow and cross-reference their theories. Pro-ana (pro-anorexia), anti-vax and alt-right communities now flourish. Climate change deniers and fad-diet enthusiasts are able to congregate online, sharing their stories, bonding and forming community ties that make challenging their alternative truths almost impossible. Opening up the channels of communication fuels the desire to create compassionate online communities in which members support each other and offer advice, and are able to share their personal stories, feelings and opinions openly. It allows marginalised individuals to come together. Here, the ideas of what once would have been lone wolves can be given credibility through connecting digitally with others who share their opinions. It seems that in the digital age we may have opened an online Pandora’s Box, releasing malign forces we are struggling to control.

 

ONE OF THE fundamental concerns of modern public communication is the truth of what is presented in public discourse. The World Economic Forum in 2013 published a report which concluded that misinformation was becoming pervasive online and creating a major threat to society. If public debate is not based on facts, then the outcome of that debate is essentially vitiated, as demonstrated in the Brexit campaign and the UK’s subsequent vote to leave the EU. Establishing truths is hard, however. Evidence is elusive, absent, ambiguous and inconclusive. Absolute certainty can only be reached in conceptual matters. Empirical truths are just such because they are constantly revised, challenged and rejected. They come up against resistance from established assumptions, prejudices and beliefs. A fact is only a fact until it is not. All this is exacerbated by social media which fosters a climate where what the British philosopher Julian Baggini calls ‘my fact, my reality, my truth’, creates absolutes from relativities.[ii]

So, is the idea that social media offers an effective way for us to deliberate on social issues, to reappropriate a quote from the American journalist and satirist HL Mencken, a ‘pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance’? Democracy depends on the public actively engaging in the discussion of issues. In a free society, citizens should be encouraged to participate in the spread and discussion of ideas. Individuals assert themselves and their views by coming together to form groups with common interests and goals. In this way, power is decentralised and dispersed through constant negotiation by the people and for the people, with meanings construed and created on a collective level. On all these levels, social media can provide a unique opportunity to create genuine public discussion of ideas and social issues. The #MeToo movement, for example, drew attention to the prevalence of sexual misconduct in public life and created wide-ranging public debate on the issue.

Capturing the internet’s promise of creating compassionate, concerned communities who want to debate issues and who want to take action is therefore something we should celebrate. The answer to the spread of misinformation online is not to reject these online communities or the platforms that support them. We should recognise that they reflect a response to genuine needs and desires to discuss and find solutions to society’s problems, and that the platforms they congregate on allow people to connect.

Perhaps the solution to the spread of misinformation lies in the presentation of the message, not the platform it is presented on. It used to be the media gatekeepers’ job to help the public navigate this minefield and to keep extreme opinion in check. But the ethics of the digital era are the ethics of the crowd, and in the amphitheatre of the internet, the slaves of truth are fighting the gladiators of popular opinion. In the race to engage the audience, Aristotle’s logos seems to have been lost. The norms of factual media – objectivity, veracity, truth and facts – are shouted down by emotion and opinion. The result is a sort of dangerous coffee-table compassion, put on public display without much concern for the substance of what it is throwing into the public arena. Waiting to be infected with prejudice, it allows dangerous ideas to spread and to fester. In our desire for audience engagement at all costs – blinded by the idea that entertaining messages can engage more deeply with an audience far wider than before – we have strayed too far from presenting the facts.

Research I’ve been conducting at QUT appears to back this up. This work explores the strategies being used in a new documentary ecosystem that media academics Kate Nash and John Corner have called ‘strategic impact documentary’, focusing on the ways social issues are discussed online by the audiences of this new breed of social issue documentary. These socially conscious media products aim to change attitudes, behaviours and laws on subjects such as health, the environment and human rights. The audience is presented with a call to action – invited to join a cause as much as watch a film.

In this model, a flurry of media products, and numerous online and offline strategies, all aimed at garnering public awareness, revolve around a central documentary text and are used to create an engaged community, and drive them to discuss and take action. Ambassador programs, information kits for schools, and community screenings all play a part in spreading the message and building an activated community. The campaigns are often personality driven, with a charismatic presenter-hero on a mission leading the charge. The stories take us on a personal journey to uncover some societal injustice, blending entertainment with education, personality with provocation.

My research focussed on Damon Gameau’s 2014 documentary That Sugar Film and the way it used Facebook to engage its audience in behavioural and attitudinal changes around eating sugar. The film follows the light-hearted journey of presenter-director Gameau as he embarks on a sixty-day experiment to test the effects of eating a diet packed with added sugars. The campaign took on a new life on social media, with the goal of forming an engaged community that plays an active role in spreading the media message.

My research looked at the campaign’s long tail of audience engagement on Facebook in order to examine the strategies being used by the social media team and how the audience responded to those strategies. I interviewed key personnel from the social media team, and conducted qualitative and quantitative analysis of Facebook posts and comments from the launch of the documentary marketing campaign in 2014 until early 2018.

Through this work, it was clear that trust plays an important part in building an online community and that authenticity is a crucial element in building that trust. Trust and authenticity lead to an emotional connection between the audience and the media producer, which in turn leads to fans sharing their own stories, and assists in forming a positive, supportive network. When the community is given the chance to elicit or offer help and knowledge, the response is supportive. There seems to be a genuine desire to discuss facts, to find a collective truth. The community want a space where they can discuss and share ideas, where they feel part of a collective that can make change.

However, when the information they are given is not clear, transparent or accurate, problems begin to arise. The community fragments. Some members of the group go along with the message, magnifying its misinformation. Others question it, trying to sort fact from fiction. Still others reject the message and walk away from the discussion. Those who question sometimes protest, and arguments form between those who question and those who accept the information being presented. At times like this, the group becomes polarised. Dissenters are ultimately rejected, either by the group shunning them or shouting them down, or the moderators excluding them from the discussion. Then, the discussion continues, but without questioning voices, without differing opinions. Left without challenge, the community sometimes turns to conspiracy theories, entrenching themselves in the misinformation further still, and creating them-and-us culture of suspicion.

Research shows that sections of any audience are prone to spreading misinformation regardless of the veracity of the argument. In his 1980s studies of UK television, academic David Morley suggested that audiences respond to media messages in three distinct ways. While some people take the information at face value, others question it based on experience – both their own and that of experts – and a third group reject the message. Returning to That Sugar Film, there appear to be members of the group who want credible sources and information that stands up to scrutiny, and get angry when they aren’t provided. The social media team admitted that over time they had been forced to adapt their strategies, shifting their focus from entertaining posts that create lots of likes, shares and comments to ones presenting the community with reliable information which is clearly explained and transparent. Consequently, four years after it began, what started as an online marketing campaign had become something quite different: a movement for change with a voice that is heard by government.

What’s interesting here is that this case study shows how online audience engagement can create both a compassionate community and a misinformation ghetto. The online fans share their own personal stories, which receive overwhelmingly positive responses from fellow fans offering encouragement, praise and admiration. Online fans also expressed thanks for credible information, and shared ideas and information with each other that came from respectable sources. In one discussion about diabetes, a commenter offers an article from The Lancet for deliberation; this demonstrates how the presentation of credible facts can lead to valuable public discussion of ideas.

Therefore, perhaps what we need to guide us in this new media landscape is a better balance between pathos, ethos and logos. We need to understand that while emotive media messages can gain traction and reach via social media, there is a need for transparency around facts. Reason as well as empathy and compassion, and ideas that are not just emotive and engaging but also comprehensive and compelling, are required. More than ever we need champions of factual information and credible sources – steady hands to steer a sure course. Notions of accuracy and fairness as well as some kind of objectivity or transparency are therefore paramount to maintaining informed public debate. These are old-school journalism principles, of course, often marginalised in the modern media environment. Scholars have grumbled that journalistic considerations such as objectivity never truly existed and that there has always been some prejudice in terms of editorial slant, whether that be from journalists themselves or media broadcasters. However, it is said that fairness and accuracy will rise to the surface in online debate, and that it is therefore the public who are the new gatekeepers of editorial control. Unfortunately, the evidence appears to show that this isn’t always the case, and that sometimes the truth can get buried in a mountain of emotive misinformation.

Old journalistic ideas may have a necessary place in the public discourse. If we are to fully utilise the potential of social media to raise awareness about important issues and create compassionate communities that push behaviour and societal change, we should perhaps accept the need for some of the rigours of journalistic practice to be adopted in our presentation of social media messages. Ultimately, when offering information for public deliberation, we should be at pains to remember that the telling of a good story should not get in the way of the facts.

 

References

[i] https://www.wired.com/2004/10/tail/

[ii] Caplan, B. (2007) The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why democracies choose bad policies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p.8); Menchen, H.L. (1995) A Second Menchen Chrestomathy. New York: Knopf (p. 375).

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