John Oliver and the Buzzfeed Effect

Much, if not too much, has already been said on the subject of fake news, with a significant amount of that being fake news yelled from the bully pulpit of the sentient megaphone now living in D.C. So there’s not much need to discuss the outright lies spread around by awakepatriot.com or ozy.com.

However, there is another type of equally lethal misinformation disseminated and consumed by millions of American consumers of news each day. News which has been especially tailored to entertain viewers, gain high ratings and make money often does so at the cost of accuracy and nuance. Here I refer to the phenomenon of engrossing yet heavily biased and reductionist news entertainment which will be called, for lack of a more scientific moniker, “John Oliver and the Buzzfeed effect.”

It might sound like the name of a bad 50’s garage rock band, but this media phenomenon is more popular and financially successful. Last Week Tonight regularly garners upwards of 4 million viewers each week. Talk shows like The O’Reilly Factor and Real Time with Bill Maher have enough regular viewers to run for longer than many critically acclaimed TV programs. Even the online forms of parody platforms like The Onion and Clickhole easily make millions over the course of a year.

But what is intrinsically wrong with a news media system designed to lure viewers in with entertaining content, you might ask. In a nation which notoriously eschews civilian involvement or familiarity with the sciences and politics, hosting political debate over enticing jokes, images and music or leaning heavily on the private opinions of entertaining personalities is not a manifestation of evil. It is on the other hand a manifestation of a perhaps more insidious phenomenon at work in the economy of American social news media. If you really want to sit down each week to watch John Oliver compare another congressional program to some chain restaurant and make a meaningless gesture after spoofing yet another PSA, go ahead. But what has become obvious is that an increasing number of people can and do rely exclusively on these vehicles for all news acquisition.

In a study conducted in 2016 by the Pew Research center, it was revealed that 62% of adult Americans regularly receive news from social media— up from 49% in 2012—  and that 18% receive information about current events only from platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and for-profit cable television.

That might seem disheartening at first, but before jumping to conclusions, let’s really examine what it means. When consumers gets news from Facebook or Twitter, they are relying on two main tools; the “What’s Trending” section and the content appearing on users’ walls. Both of these sources are heavily influenced by algorithms. Slate explains Facebook’s algorithm, one of the most highly guarded in the world:

“[The algorithm] scans and collects everything posted in the past week by each of your friends, everyone you follow, each group you belong to, and every Facebook page you’ve liked. For the average Facebook user, that’s more than 1,500 posts. If you have several hundred friends, it could be as many as 10,000. Then, according to a closely guarded and constantly shifting formula, Facebook’s news feed algorithm ranks them all, in what it believes to be the precise order of how likely you are to find each post worthwhile. Most users will only ever see the top few hundred.”

Issues that receive the most searches or clicks will appear high on the “What’s Trending” list, while issues that don’t won’t appear at all. The result of this media populism? Stories about Trump beeping the horn on a truck and the final four have both topped the list in the past 14 days. Documentation of the current conflict in the Congo over silicon, which has cost millions of people their lives and made a significant profits for Silicon Valley, including companies like Twitter and Facebook, has never once made the list.

Algorithms also ensure that highly seen items, or items by posters uniquely popular with users, appear more frequently. A combination of demographic breakdowns and saved activity history mean that as a consumer, you are constantly bombarded by articles the sites think you will like, based on the fact a lot of other people clicked on them. If you ever make the decision to click the article yourself, your exposure to such posts will only increase. Because biased and humorous articles which present simplistic views of complex political issues are universally popular, they show up the most.

Basing visibility of posts on competitive measures of popularity wouldn’t be so bad if the posts themselves managed to provide nuanced looks at issues. But they don’t. One John Oliver segment about surveillance never actually broaches the question of whether or not surveillance is a necessary evil or an intrinsically bad thing, instead turning a broad and complex question into a joke about dick pics so that viewers encountered on the street are able to provide the overwhelmingly one-sided answer the shows desires. The actual dilemma and debate around surveillance, regarding the promotion of government profiling, allowance of private medical data to be easily accessible by government and corporate bodies, and decreased number of violent crimes committed and more humane and effective monitoring of the mentally ill associated with it, indeed the important details at stake, are left completely out of the picture. The Guardian’s most recent editorial, a fluff piece on the meaning of pet ownership concludes that animals are too stupid to love, and that any “real animal-lover wouldn’t dream of thinking they had the right to own one and treat it like a personal possession.” Buzzfeed has run nothing on Angela Merkel, the economy or indeed anything international or unrelated to Trump’s faux-pas in more than a week. The site has, however, managed to produce “Comet Ping Pong “Pizzagate” Shooter Pleads Guilty To Weapons Charges,” an ostensibly hilarious piece about a man widely believed to be mentally ill destroying a pizza restaurant.

It’s exciting to be so close to so much information, closer to it than we have ever been at any point in history. But getting information and getting good information are two different things, and the latter remains, as always, more difficult and rigorous than the former.

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