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News in a digital age: cutting-edge tech meets age-old virtues & vices

Digital Consumer Trends 2021

News is as old as civilisation, as is its misappropriation: one of the oldest recorded uses of ‘fake news’ - Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017 - dates back to 33BC.

Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar, spread (alleged) lies to discredit his enemy Mark Antony who he subsequently defeated. Octavian, who realised the value of disinformation in corralling public support, went on to became Emperor of Rome, a title he held on to for forty years.
Octavian used slogans printed on a coin, poems and speeches to spread his message. Today we have smartphones, the Internet and social media.

Modern times. An ancient problem...

As in Roman times, all technologies can be and will be used for benign or malign purposes. Smartphones can be used to access the Internet and tap into infinite omniscience, guided by search engines and online encyclopaedias, sometimes for free - at least for those with perfect knowledge of which sources, or elements thereof, are truly reliable.
Knowledge is also shareable via a single link, as is disinformation (deliberately misleading content, sometimes with malign intent, sometimes purely out of mischief) or misinformation (false information that is spread, regardless of whether deception is intentional).
Falsehoods travel faster than truths. With current technology, fake news can disseminate globally within minutes, powered by one-click sharing.
Other technological advances make fake news feel more sinister because they enable ever more convincing deep fakes – digitally doctored images, audio or video.
The ability to spot what is real and what is faked varies. People who are more familiar with and adept at digital creation tools, among which younger people predominate, are likely to be more adept at spotting signs of manipulation of photos, such as unrealistic shadows, or blurred edges around faces. However, people who unwittingly get caught out by a falsified image may become more cynical about all news sources as a result.
Given fake news’ profile, it is not surprising that almost everyone (83%) we surveyed in the UK in mid-2021 considered fake news to be a big problem today, with a mere 5% disagreeing.

Another source of disquiet about news is a change in how it is distributed, which is steadily shifting. And most people tend to be unsettled by change. In the 20th century, most news was distributed via broadcast and print media. In this century online distribution of news has steadily grown in dominance, especially among younger generations.
And online news has increasingly been distributed via social media, which, per our survey, is now the preferred source of media among 16-34 year olds, with older age groups favouring TV (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Preferred way to stay updated with news, social media versus television, by age group

The growing reliance on social media as a source of news is, for some, a further concern. Currently a majority (55%) of people consider information on social media to not be trustworthy. A similar proportion (53%) consider traditional news providers to be trustworthy.
Some research suggests that there is a link between relying on social media for news and being less informed. For example, a study undertaken in the US market by Pew Research Center in September 2020 found that American citizens who ‘mainly get their news on social media are less engaged, less knowledgeable’.
Worries about the calibre of news have been accentuated by COVID-19, and the spread of misinformation across a range of related issues, from its origins to vaccines. These add to concerns about technology being used to influence outcomes, such as elections.

Context as well as concern...

The combination of these data appears alarming. There is, without doubt, both cause for concern and a need for remedies. But each data point needs careful interpretation, and all terms require definition.
The perception of what news is, for example, varies by person. There are generational gaps. According to the Reuters Institute, younger people see news as what you should know, what is useful to know, what is interesting to know and what is fun to know. Reuters Institute further observes that younger generations don’t seek out news, but let it come to them, via social media, among other media.
There are also differences by education level and income group, with one distinction being a preference for broadsheet or tabloid news. As newspapers have gone online, these differences have remained: the FT has yet to appoint an agony aunt or uncle.
There is similarly a wide scope of what is meant by social media. This now spans a wide variety of genres, from TikTok, which offers infinite frivolity, to LinkedIn, a platform proffering bottomless business commentary from the thrilled and delighted. All offer content, but of different types, in different formats, and each varies in its provision of news.
Among social media, Twitter is most used for news among UK users: 21% go there because ‘it’s a good place to get the very latest news’. But more Twitter users in the UK encounter news passively: 25% ‘mostly see news while I’m there for other reasons’. It’s also worth noting that whilst tweets frequently appear in reporting, regular Twitter consumers globally are a niche: 206 million daily average users, as of its second quarter, 2021.
The predominance of social media as a preferred news source among younger generations could be explained by the fact that heavy social media users are younger. Per a Reuters Institute survey: Instagram users are mostly under 45, Snapchat users under 30 and TikTok users under 25.
Whilst people get news from social media, it is rarely the primary reason for being there. And when people do come across news, they pay most attention to mainstream media, but in aggregate they listen more to other news sources: smaller or alternative news sources, politicians and political activists, Internet personalities and ordinary people. All can be a source of misinformation as well as enlightenment. Would tens of millions of people in the UK know who George Floyd was and how he died were it not for an individual with a smartphone who posted the video online?


But social media does not have a monopoly on the dissemination of untruths. All other media can be co-opted to spread untruths, whether deliberately, such as is the case with some state sponsored TV stations, or unintentionally, such as when inviting certain individuals on a TV debate with the intent of providing a balanced point of view but with the unintended consequence of providing a platform to untruths.
As for the widespread perception that social media platforms are used to influence elections, most national, regional and specialist newspapers and news magazines have a specific political alignment, which aligns with the personal politics of the reader.
Politicians regularly express their views in newspapers, via quotations and by-lined articles. In so doing, they tend to be affirming the viewpoints of readers, rather than trying to change minds. This is also often the case for fake news: it typically (but not always) exists and is consumed to buttress existing biases, rather than to change minds.
In recent years, social media has been used to disseminate myths about COVID-19. But again, it is not singularly culpable, and in some cases social media sites have been proactively advising readers of content that is untrue. It is also worth reminding ourselves that vaccine misinformation predates social media. Scepticism of the MMR vaccine originated in a magazine, in 1998. And as far back as the early 19th Century the anti-vaccine movement flourished, opposing one of the earliest known vaccination efforts combatting smallpox .
News is essential to the functioning of society. News is imperfect and innately nuanced, and always shall be. This is partly because absolute truths are elusive, particularly for breaking stories, which tend to be the most consumed because they are the most incomplete. It is also imperfect because of its readers, who consume news not necessarily to become more informed, but occasionally to nurture existing world views, be these right or wrong.

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