Friday, 8 April 2016

6 O'Clock News or Twitter?

Remember the days when the family sat around on Saturday morning (or Sunday afternoon) reading the newspapers? It was soooo irritating when Mum kept commenting out loud and Dad pontificated on an article he'd just read on something you really didn't care about. It was those family sessions with the weekend newspapers that gave me a lifelong interest in current affairs, politics and world issues. And it was evenings spent arguing with the speakers on Any Questions (the radio precursor to Question Time) that taught me not only to debate but to look outwards and try to learn about life from other peoples' points of view and from situations different from my own.

So, I ask, what's different about doing your news-gathering on social media and, in my case, especially Twitter? There are pros and cons.

  • it's more interactive.
  • there's a wider range of subjects and opinions readily available.
  • conversation is wider than just family & immediate friends.
  • it's occasionally prompted me to write articles/join campaigns that have demonstrably made a difference.
  • it's more democratic: anyone from anywhere in the world can contribute, they don't need to hold a recognised 'position' - MP, Pope, celebrity....
  • the information you see is not controlled by one group such as journalists.
  • I read news articles alongside articles on philosophy, science, arts, ethics, religion (no sport!) and professional development in my own field everyday so the cross-fertilisation of ideas is greater.
  • it's easier to drink coffee and eat toast while looking at a screen than when holding a newspaper.
  • it can be more difficult to distinguish between well-researched material and superficial, misleading or downright inaccurate information.
  • judgements about quality are down to you alone and not necessarily mediated through recognized publications with guaranteed standards.
  • what you see on screen is controlled by your previous choices and it's easy not to venture outside sites that are presented to you and make you feel comfortable or significant.
  • you tend to stick with limited material generated by people with opinions like yours. 
  • it's a dangerous illusion that you are free to choose what you read.
  • there can be pressure to get involved in spur of the moment uninformed or heated discussions.

On balance, it's just a very different way of 'doing news', neither obviously better nor worse. And, of course, it can be blended with the older conventions of TV, radio and newspaper. It all has to be kept in its place time-wise but I think I'm a little better informed than I used to be and a little more inclined to check things out with others - 'Was that article about a green moon appearing every 420 years really based on fact?' 

Online news is undoubtedly changing power structures. I'm excited about the effect this is having on politics. The political world as we knew it is already being challenged - think of the Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump phenomena or the degree to which there's now grass roots exchange between profoundly different cultures. Three years ago I did not regularly converse with people in Indonesia and China or with people of other faiths. This is all a bit of a melting pot and I don't think we can yet see how (or if) the conventional political structures will adapt and assimilate. Corbyn is a good case in point: it's undoubtedly true he has an enormous grassroots following - you can see this clearly on the internet and in the fact that local parties report figures like 800% increases in membership. But how much of this is based on purely internet activity which the parliamentary party system can choose to ignore? And how much is the response to Corbyn simply too disparate to have any long term impact - people see him as a potential leader for their passing cause? In the case of Trump and some of the right wing movements in Europe, the effect of the internet has been to produce knee-jerk reactions and over-heated debate - this is less benign than the Corbyn phenomenon. What we can be sure about is that politics will be different in 25 years time and all this will have a profound impact on both national and international balances of power.

I'm even more interested in the effect internet comment is having on authority. Organisations that have depended on a central authority which to some degree controls what people can know (the most fundamental kind of power) and the parameters within which they say and do things have already begun to struggle. A leadership team commissions a report or sets out a mission statement and it is now immediately open to highly eclectic degrees of scrutiny. Polite critical comment may be welcome; tearing something mercilessly to shreds may end in tears or sackings but authority will have been undermined, public image and relationships within the organisation damaged. I believe we have yet to see how conventional authority structures give way to a more democratic and less 'expert protected' approach to organisational development.

There was a cartoon doing the rounds at Christmas. The angels appear to the shepherds and begin to sing 'Peace to God's people on  earth...'  'Yes, yes,' say the shepherds, 'It's already been on twitter!' So what does the digital angel - harbinger of profound truth - look like and how will internet communities recognise such messengers? 


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