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Let's Stop Pretending Media 'Balance' Isn't Empowering Hate

12/09/2016 11:25 EST | Updated 12/09/2016 11:27 EST
Harrison McClary / Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media during the National Federation of Republican Assemblies at Rocketown in Nashville, Tennessee August 29, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

A few weeks ago, we were talking about the tricky balance between quality content and users' (supposedly) limited attention span.

Well, a lot can happen in a few weeks, and by now we all know what's been going on with our friends to the south. More than a few of us have been wondering what's happened to public discourse, and how the conversation's gotten so degraded.

A lot of attention's been focused on "the media," as if that's a large uniform entity, and on the role played by both corporate media outlets, both as filters and as gatekeepers, and by social-media platforms. We've talked here about the effect of the, er, "suspect" content served up by Faceborg, and whether FB's properly accepted its responsibility for that. And we've noted Twitter's ostensible attempt to crack down on trolls and hate speech, although who knows whether it's going to work or not.

The echo chamber

So, let's talk for a minute about the echo chamber and the bias filter, and how they work to undermine critical thinking by reinforcing things users are already inclined to believe, regardless of whether they're valid or not. Not only does that make it that much harder for people with different viewpoints to understand each other -- sooner or later it means they're barely even speaking the same language. It's not hard to see what that leads to.

And let's talk about algorithms that serve up "trending stories" without checking to see whether they're true or not. We've already examined the effect of taking human judgment out of that process (and, as usual, Mathew Ingram's ahead of the curve), and what happens when those algorithms decide that because you liked this, we think you'll like this, regardless of whether it's credible or not.

Let's talk about the cowardice that prompts media outlets and social media platforms to focus on "engagement" rather than veracity.

And when that's done, let's talk about the cowardice that prompts media outlets and social media platforms to focus on "engagement" rather than veracity. When you measure success by clicks, likes, shares and links, rather than by, you know, the quality of your content, then, naturally, you're going to shy away from anything that could expose you to charges of bias. That would affect your engagement figures, and then advertisers wouldn't want to use your platform because you wouldn't be able to deliver enough eyeballs.

So, sure, why not? Fake news! Self-reinforcing bubbles! Who cares if it's BS, or helps empower racists, or puts a charlatan in the White House? People are clicking!

The new normal

It's pretty clear what that's led to. The question is, are we going to recognize it for what it is, or are we going to keep on pretending that this is more of the same old, same old?

Well, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it's hard to think that the usual suspects are opting for anything other than Plan A: the path of least resistance.

Let's get set for a steady diet of false equivalencies like "trading barbs" and wishful thinking. We'll have to pretend, in the face of the evidence, that all sorts of horrible people haven't been empowered by this. We'll have to pretend, in the absence of any evidence, that he's not going to do the horrible things he kept saying he was going to do. And we'll have to punish people who won't participate in that pretense, because it hurts our brand's reputation for "objectivity."

Let's talk about the cowardice that prompts media outlets and social media platforms to focus on "engagement" rather than veracity.

Bias: the least of our worries

One hates to sound like a fatalist, but in today's venomous, dumbed-down and polarized landscape, the accusations of bias are going to keep coming no matter what. So back to the choice set out above. If it's about "engagement," and that's how you market yourself to users and advertisers, then who cares about the quality, veracity or authenticity of your content? As long as people are clicking.

Or is it, as some naive optimist once suggested, about quality, about truthfulness, about cultivating good character and critical thinking habits in your audience? Maybe it's about furthering the public good? Maybe it's about, oh, I don't know... not enabling racists?

And maybe set aside the pious bleating about avoiding bias, and recognize that pursuing spurious equivalencies and appearances of "balance" is enabling them, because They Don't Follow Those Rules?

Because really, if that's your moral touchstone, then what good are you accomplishing? You're not elevating the conversation and you're certainly not making things better.

An extended version of this essay originally appeared on my own site.

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