According to the 2020 Digital News Report released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University this week, the use and consumption of social media as a news source has increased substantially on a global scale. In our country, this year, social networks surpassed television and cable for the first time -71% vs. 67%, respectively- as the chosen source of news for Argentines.
In times of profound and accelerated transformation, our way of consuming information has also changed. However, in many cases we continue to think of informing ourselves as if the information ecosystem remained the same. A fundamental question then arises: How can we readapt to this new reality without getting confused, losing or neglecting the valuable sources that could broaden our view and prevent us from becoming hostages to our own information bubble?
We all have a repertoire of news sources, which we can define as our menu or informative diet. No one reads all the newspapers, watches all the news channels, or listens to all the radio stations. It is important to stop for a moment to think about how we inform ourselves, and to be conscious of it. Just as we nourish ourselves with food, our thinking, our opinions, biases and even our world views are nourished by the information we consume.
Information diets are made up of content, channels and media. The contents can be data, facts, concepts, comments or opinions, while the channels and media are the language and support that transmit the content from the sender to the receiver. It is of key importance to distinguish these concepts and, at the same time, to understand what type of content we are consuming. Are they facts or opinions? And, if they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Do we confuse media with channels? Media implies a language with a methodology that allows it to be reached, but channels are only transmitters with a certain format of transmission, which is not exactly the same, although the two may be integrated.
In an information universe that has radically changed in the last 25 years since the popularization of the internet, social networks have become a new form of democratization of information, by allowing interaction between actors, direct feedback and the generation of content and news by any citizen. Today, we can all be "journalists" -although the required thoroughness or the methodologies that this implies is not applied- and we give our opinion on social media in one way or another.
Social networks, which make us feel part of a big community and expand our own networks without limits, also lead us to believe that we are being offered diverse information. But although it might seem that there is diversity on social networks, we all know that in reality there is not: algorithms are designed to show us posts, photos, news items and even other users that may be to our liking.
One could say that before, with traditional media, we also chose -consciously or unconsciously- friendly media that validated our ideas and preconceptions. However, thanks to the advancement of technology and its ability to detect our tastes and thoughts more and more easily, today it is the news that chooses us. This phenomenon is called “the incidental news”.
The excess of content, the new ways to be or believe to be informed, the loss of credibility together with the uncritical acceptance of what is read, have placed the validation of information as a necessity for conscious consumption on the shelf. Thus, we validate contents in social networks by volume and through an emotional filter. The same opinion is read countless times, whether generated by individual users or by the so-called bots, making it all the more plausible.
Furthermore, in this new digital universe, the dissemination of false information found the technical ease to circulate at unexpected rates, even generating new terms to identify it, such as fake news, deepfakes or infoxication. Normally fake news is subdivided into seven categories: fake content, deceptive content, sham content, manipulated content, fabricated content, parody or satire and propaganda.
The loss of methodology and technique in generating valuable information gave way to the post-truth era, where the story is above the facts. It is also a consequence of the trivialization of content, the devaluation of the professional value of journalism, the belief that any content is worthwhile and the blending of information with entertainment, the media with the channel and volume with validation.
This leads to an even deeper problem that touches the very core of our democratic coexistence: the radicalization of thought. If I only listen to and validate one way of thinking, and do not expand or question it, sooner or later I build my own thought bubble and, in the end, the biases that inevitably lead to intolerance. And when tolerance ceases to exist, the basic principles of our democratic societies begin to crack. Examples, both historical and current, abound.
In this context, a new agenda for information undoubtedly emerges, which we cannot neglect and which determines the correct literacy of a responsible citizen. It is essential to incorporate the questions that allow us to be aware of the information we consume. What kind of relationship do I have with information? Am I a conscious, incidental or radicalized consumer? Do I keep in mind the simple questions that I should ask myself in the face of any content: Who says it? What does he/she say? and Why does he/she say it? In each note or article, do I look for indicators of what is called ethical journalism, a type of transparent journalism, in which the sources are easily identifiable and that do not confuse facts with opinions or evidence with experience? In these infodemic times, am I aware that, by action or omission, whenever I share or forward content, I am validating and also becoming a source of that information?
We are in a special moment, where we want to feel protected. The search for protection makes us delegate control and rights, which we must defend with conscience and extreme attention. To regain a sense of responsibility about information and tolerance of opinions, as actors, generators and consumers of content, can immunize and protect us. Just as disinformation makes us vulnerable, allows us to be manipulated and even makes us ill, information, when it is correct, empowers us and allows us to make better decisions.
María Laura García is Founder and President of GlobalNews Group, the largest Latin American media-monitoring and analysis company; President of FIBEP World Media Intelligence Association; and Vicepresident of Vital Voices Southern Cone.