MICHAEL MULLINS. Why I avoid social media news feeds

Facebook and the like are not interested in truth in journalism. They use their algorithms to create news that confirms their users’ pre-existing views. If they gave them content with views they didn’t like, chances are that the users would ditch the feed for a rival and revenues would drop.

Yesterday I invited Tony Kevin to lunch. He is a friend from Canberra whom I got to know as a frequent contributor to Eureka Street when I was editor. He’s a former Australian diplomat and author who these days writes commentary on Russia. His 2017 book Return to Moscow reflects on his first visit in the 48 years since his posting there as a young diplomat at the height of the Cold War.

He told me that he’s feeling demoralised because most editors reject his articles. He says they view them as too friendly to Russia. An exception is John Menadue, who today published Tony’s Kerch Strait incident analysis, which scrutinises the pro-Ukrainian ‘false narrative [that] is already solidifying in Western media’.

It’s true that most people only want to read commentary they agree with. They don’t want to be told their world view rests on shaky foundations, even if they’re confident that this contrary view is wrong. If their news source includes unpalatable views, they will go elsewhere. Editors don’t want to lose readers and most of them will only publish content that is is comforting. It makes commercial sense.

Science and tech communicator Ketan Joshi described ‘algorithmic news’ on ABC TV’s The Drum on Monday. He said that Facebook and the like use their algorithms to create news that confirms their users’ pre-existing views. If they gave them content with views they didn’t like, chances are that the users would ditch the feed for a rival and revenues would drop.

People who’ve grown up with social media are particularly averse to discordant views. I’m from an older, more perverse generation that thrives on views we disagree with.

I like to avoid the journalistic junk food of social media news feeds. I don’t even spend much time at The Guardian, which would have to be my own online comfort zone. Instead I pay money to Rupert Murdoch to subscribe to The Australian.

That goes against the grain and I don’t like a lot of the views I read. But it makes me think, much more than content from The Guardian or the titles of Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment).

I often end up respecting commentators I disagree with. I have no doubt that grappling with diverse opinions gets me far closer to the truth than an algorithmic social media news feed would. But just as importantly, diverse news consumption habits also contribute to a less polarised society.

In The Australian this week, I read Greg Sheridan’s argument for the rejection of UK prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Sheridan didn’t persuade me to change my mind, but he prompted me to identify exactly why I want to see the UK Parliament pass the deal.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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