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facebook isn’t destroying journalism or reality (i think)

Posted on 15 October 2016

Update: One month after I first wrote this I think I need to add an important caveat. While I think it’s still worth remembering and pointing out that people have always lived in different realities, it is also troubling that people are rejecting verifiable facts and embracing outright falsehoods. I’m not sure if this is true or not but it feels to me as if in the past people were ignorant about major issues because it wasn’t being reported on- it wasn’t easily accessible. Now, it is easily accessibly but people just don’t seem to care or no longer believe sources of facts. So this post still holds true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are some major problems with the way information is consumed and shared.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Once upon a time we all lived in the same world. We watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, and, crucially, read the same newspapers.

We may have disagreed on some things but we were at least coming at it with the same baseline knowledge: whatever was in the news was what was going on in the world.

Today, we are splintered. No one watches TV news. People get their news from specialized sources with specific angles and Facebook algorithms send us into echo chambers where we only see things we agree with.

We may as well be living in different realities.

*  *  *

I’ve seen this same basic story told in many different ways. Sometimes people are mourning the death of capital-j Journalism as a time when the News was respected rather than ignored in favour of memes. Some people are mourning the death of a cohesive society altogether.

I have a tough time mourning this because I have spent my entire adult life in the internet age. I can’t say with absolute confidence that things aren’t worse now than they were back then, but I suspect they are not.

I think, for example, of a recent story where a woman was saying there was no racism in America until Obama was elected. This could be used as exhibit A in a series of stories about how we are living in different realities.

Clearly she is being fed this information by some right-wing site attempting to blame all the ills of the world on Democrats rather than a good old-fashioned centrist news source- right?

Except consider how she got here: she would have spent all of her time pre-2008 being completely unaware of racism. All those years of everyone watching the same nightly news and somehow she missed this. Only now has she become aware that racism exists in America. She may be upset about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and think it stupid, but she is aware of it. Unlike every other similar movement that preceded it.

Closer to home, here in Canada, most Canadians spent their time being completely unaware of residential schools. You want different realities? How about one where you could read the papers and watch the nightly news and not be aware of a cultural genocide taking place in your own country?

*  *  *

These are the sorts of things I ask whenever I read someone mourning for a better-informed, bygone era.

How much journalism was there about Indigenous rights against major infrastructure in the 70s?

How well-examined was policing against people of colour?

How many voices from women, transgender, Muslim people were being heard in media?

I suspect people weren’t better informed in previous times. My guess is the threshold for being well-informed was just lower.

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