Social media has come of age, but has it grown up enough to be a ‘digital public’? As we find a new critical voice dealing with a new statistical truth out there, we can consider it has.
When kicking off a new series of long-formed blogs launched by the comment-is-free section in the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger recently asked a crucial question: What’s the future of the fourth estate in this digital age.
In his post, he discussed the relationship of social media to the general news environment as it is being stretched and redefined; also he asked if social media doesn’t need a better name. Oh yes, it does. Actually, this is overdue.
There is no doubt that in the past years social media like blogs, Twitter, or Facebook became part of the public sphere. But what is their role there? Are they just private chatter, or more? Are they just publicly available, or can social media live up to the burden that comes with the notion of ‘the public’?
1 There is a voice out there
Cases like Trafigura, when the British press was gagged, banned from reporting a parliamentary question that was then posted all over Twitter; the outcry to the Daily Mail Moir’s homophobe column regarding the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately; or even the live commenting of the spending cuts recently show that there is definitely a voice out there, the voice of a new digital public.
In countries with no free press like Iran or Egypt, Facebook is an important and independent alternative – no wonder that the Egypt government recently considered regulating Facebook.
Contrary to someone like Malcom Gladwell who believes that social media are ‘weak communities’ a lot of governments think differently, and find this loud voice of the new digital public threatening.
As the Committee to Protect Journalism reports, half of all the journalists now in jail are bloggers or online-journalists.
There is a new and strong public digital voice out there, and it might be even more journalistic than it seems at first sight.
2 On a new, statistical truth
It is obvious that there is a lot of commenting and criticizing going on in social media; sometimes we even feel to drown in opinions. However, this new digital public might be more committed to journalism than we think.
If one has a closer look it becomes apparent that much like journalism the digital public consists of two sides: opinion and facts. There are blogs, Twitter and Facebook on one side, but there is also a new place to look up the facts to which social media links: Google.
What the user gets with Google surely isn’t journalism – instead he or she is turned into a journalist himself. On Google we get search results that link to sources. We have to consider different views; much like a journalist we users have to track down the truth.
The digital truth that users are dealing with when searching with Google is surely different than the journalistic commitment to truth. Quality journalism is relying on different sources corresponding, while the truth the digital public operates with can better be described as a ’statistical truth’.
This ’statistical truth’ doesn’t produce a single fact, but delivers a choir of voices as a variety of different sources can be considered. One link might be wrong, but much like in a choir a wrong note doesn’t mean that the people don’t get the melody.
3 Tiny attention span vs. long tail
Furthermore, links give people the ability to dig in deeper. The digital public that spreads from Twitter to Google might have a tiny attention span as it is said persistently, but it also has a long tail; one that doesn’t forget.
Also interesting that Google uses every occasion to insist on being just a platform, and is not producing any content at all. Can we say that Google is imposing itself a division quite similar to the traditional split into editorial content and advertisement we know from journalism?
Still, there is one question apparent: as its search algorithms get tweaked about 20 times a day, who controls Google? Given Google’s importance for getting knowledge today, the digital public needs a controlling balance. Can we consider classic journalism here as of some importance?
4 Don’t trust the new digital public
One doesn’t have to prick up one’s ears to hear a strong distrust in the social media and the new digital public. However, this distrust was always accompanying journalism, too. No matter if a news organisation was state owned or run commercially, journalism was always under the suspicion of a conflict of interest – and that threat was important.
Being under the suspicion of a conflict of interest kept journalism in its neutral role, a role that Walter Lippmann described aptly as an anomaly of our democratic civilisation:
There is nothing else quite like it, and it is, therefore, hard to compare the press with any other business or institution.
It is not a business pure and simple, partly because the product is regularly sold below cost, but chiefly because the community applies on ethical measure to the press and another to trade or manufacture.
Ethically a newspaper is judged as if it were a church or a school.
Albeit news organisations were often fallen angels, it was important that they remained angels. Fallen or not, telling the truth is the ethos that accompanies journalism, it is the attitude that defines journalism, or as Walter Lippmann once put it:
There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Being committed to an ideal, however difficult that might be, is fundamental to the logic of journalism. A journalist has to be committed to accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability, as well as to consider a limitation of harm with news reporting and to be transparent about its conflict of interest.
This is, however, not only the ethic of journalism, it describes partly the ethic of a democratic society. It may be of no surprise that within the digital public its participants, the people, watch and correct each other, if they fail – and much like journalists from time to time they do.
While the digital public sincerely has a journalistic aspect, there is a conflict of interest written into its skeleton: It might be biased.
Its immediacy feels utterly democratic, but we have to ask ourselves if social media really is so. Isn’t social media a case for the one’s that can express themselves fairly well? Isn’t it a middle class medium? Currently, 9 million Britons never have been on the internet.
There is obviously a digital divide that must be considered. Twitter and other platforms feel democratic, but they are not representative. Reporters, on the other hand, leave their desks to go beyond those digital borders to listen to voices otherwise not heard.
In the future, the digital public will be an important voice within the fourth estate, one voice that is a gain for journalism – equally used, and observed by it.
This new digital public already enriches traditional journalism, but it isn’t replacing it. Traditional reporting, leaving the desk, will remain an important balance to the digital public; one we can’t do without.