Whenever we open our social media we are met with a greeting, informed of the weather and asked about ‘what’s happening’ in our lives. From the outset, the individual user is situated at the forefront of the discussion. We are invited to write our ‘bio’, and ‘share with friends’, because our opinion is always important. The very infrastructure of social media, down to its language is designed to elicit user engagement with worldly content, and contribute their two cents to the public sphere. However its framing within the logic of creating a ‘profile’ makes social media participation an essential act of self-interpellation.
Every time we set finger on social media, we are constructing our identities. As news companies and journalists enter this space, this notion becomes especially intriguing, as the relationship between news and audiences becomes less about the sending and receiving of fixed messages, and more about the user as a co-author in a dynamic space.
The internet as we know it today is typified by social media and user-generated content, that which we refer to as ‘web 2.0’. This was not always the case, as in its early days the internet was mainly occupied by white collar industry professionals such as academic researchers and journalists, not the average individual.
It was not until the 1990’s that the internet started to gain mainstream public attention as the infrastructure was rapidly developing, and web URL’s were even appearing in television commercials (Streeter, 2010). At the same time, U.S. news organisations began an online presence, however this represented more of a ‘dumping ground’ of stories, rather than an engaging news space (Nadler, 2017).
The late 90’s saw the birth of the first mainstream social media channel ‘Six Degrees‘ (1997), which was focused on profile creation and ‘friending’ (History Cooperative, 2018). This paved the way for later social media giants to develop such as MySpace (2003), Facebook and Twitter (2005), and with that, the phenomena of ‘instant messaging’ and ‘micro-blogging‘ began. Alongside this, news outlets were responding to the changing landscape, and in keeping with the online demands of citizens, began to create their own official ‘pages’ to circulate news content.
The ‘Owners and Controllers’
The landscape of media ownership has been the subject of large political debate. As media giants have become more powerful and acquired other companies, there has been a media oligarchy effect, whereby the majority of power is contained in a small percentage of the population. This is especially critical in a field such as journalism, whereby the messages conveyed have such immense influence over public opinion and general societal discourse.
In the United States, 90% of the entire media is controlled by just six companies, most notably GE (Comcast, NBC) and News-Corp (Fox, Wall Street Journal) (Business Insider, 2012). For more detail about media ownership, watch the video below.
In Australia, there is a similar pattern to a lesser extent. Despite the constitutional attempts of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to diversify Australian media, ownership is still concentrated (Brevini, 2015). The major players in the Australian media scene are Rupert Murdoch’s News-Corp Australia and John Fairfax Holdings, which hold the majority of media circulation.
The emergence of social media has further problematised the concept of ownership in the media industry. Social networks are privately owned companies, held by a number of stakeholders. The largest player in the social media industry however is undoubtedly Facebook, who have acquired a number of other major social media destinations such as Instagram and WhatsApp.
Facebook’s user population is larger than any other country in the world, with a total consumption set to reach 2.72 billion by 2019, a third of the world’s population (Roese, 2018). Not only this, but social networks additionally own any content created by users, as agreed to in terms of service. This fact demonstrates the immense ubiquity of social media in a global setting, and the extent to which power over public discourse is held by private bodies. Thus, the broadcasting of news information over social media, as well as processes of news sharing fall into the ownership of social media companies. It is their terms of service and internal regulations that almost resemble a separate constitution.
The ‘Implications’ for News Media
The intersection of news media with social media has seen an interesting shift in consumption behaviours. Rather than deeply engaging with news content, users are submitted to a ‘headline’ culture, whereby a limited span of online attention demands a need for concise online content.
In the case of the news organisations, social media news sharing holds a great deal of potential for dissemination of information. As much as clickbait culture might lead to more superficial engagement, social media offers a greater reach (Dwyer & Martin, 2017). Whilst the degree of reach might be strong, the culture of social media consumption raises questions for journalistic integrity. With ease of access on the internet, the barriers to publication are weaker and attitudes towards the prestige of news outlets is weakened as the market becomes more saturated with online offerings.
Additionally, the push towards social media news has resulted in a strongly commercial intent, rather than a focus on the journalistic elements which were once integral to news production. As news becomes available online, so to does information about audience engagement known as metrics. These metrics are harnessed by social media corporations and sold as data to third party advertisers so that consumers can be targeted more directly (Nadler, 2017).
This creates a commercial imperative, as there is a product to be sold behind every social media activity. This is the same for news production. The more clicks an article can receive, the more page views a news outlet will get, which leads to a higher price for advertising space in popular destinations. For journalists working in time-restrictive environments, this undoubtedly leads to a recirculation of the same types of stories (Dwyer & Martin, 2017). Rather than embarking on intensive investigative stories, journalists are more likely to ‘pump out’ a story they know is going to sell, such as celebrity news and popular culture.
This commercial imperative also leads to a manipulation of headlines to secure reader attention, and every word becomes more important in a space where there is so much information to detract a user’s attention. The focus on ‘shareability’ is also a key driver in story creation. More than ever, user engagement is driving news circulation, as metric-indicated user preferences are responded to by news outlets. This means that we are starting to see more repetitive news production, such as ‘The Bachelor Recaps’. Due to the instantaneous nature of social media, media companies can more quickly join the conversation, and ‘piggyback’ on breaking news stories already reported on by other outlets. Overall, diversity in news information is lessening and so to is the journalistic integrity of news production, as social media places more authority in the hands of the user.
The ‘Implications’ for the individual
As discussed, social media places more power in the hands of the user. To contribute to public discourse, to dictate flows of information coming from news outlets and to create their own identities. With the media landscape as kaleidoscopic as it is today, these factors all come together as the user navigates their own identity in profile creation on social media, the key imperative of the sites (Herdagdelen et al., 2013). Whilst Twitter moved into the ‘News’ category of the Apple App-Store in 2016, they still ask users ‘what’s happening’ and invite their personal opinions.
The availability of news information on social media allows users to integrate this information on their own journey of online interpellation. The process of news consumption in these spaces is multidimensional. There is an internal process of reading the information, and the external process of sharing it (Choi et al., 2017). The former of these represents a more traditional mode of news consumption, except with a change of scenery. The latter of those represents a more dynamic approach to news consumption, where the user incorporates the news for their own strategic intent. This may be externalised to push a certain political agenda amongst their social circles, or more internalised, whereby sharing a piece of information becomes a building block to identity and what the user perceives as ‘valuable’.
Where to now?
We know that with the current media landscape, power dynamics have shifted from a top-down model to an reciprocal model of information. Individuals take and repurpose news for their own personal gain, and news sites take individuals’ information and sell it to third parties for their own financial gain. News in this way becomes symbolic, for users to manipulate and respond to, critique and influence. With the ever-present algorithm involved, questions are raised about homogeneity of political views. This is problematic for talking about social and cultural inequities or political debates. Ultimately it is in the hands of social media corporations that the fate of individuals, news outlets and society at large are held.
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Choi, J., Lee, J. K., & Metzgar, E. T. (2017). Investigating effects of social media news sharing on the relationship between network heterogeneity and political participation. Computers in Human Behavior, 75, 25-31. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.05.003
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Who Owns The Media? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awRRPPE3V5Q