Over the past two years the “echo chamber” of the social media feed has become a Frankenstein creation for the internet age, a digital monstrosity denounced as the cause of unprecedented societal division and the root cause of shock results at the ballot box.
On the morning after the UK’s Brexit vote in June 2016, Tom Steinberg, an internet activist and founder of mySociety, made a passionate Facebook post, setting out the perceived threat. “This echo chamber problem is now SO severe and SO chronic that I can only beg any friends I have who actually work for Facebook and other major social media and technology to urgently tell their leaders that to not act on this problem now is tantamount to actively supporting and funding the tearing apart of the fabric of our societies… We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.”
His outpouring was quoted a month later by Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, in a widely-shared polemic on the danger posed by social media to journalism and the truth.
Yet there is evidence to suggest that the now notorious echo chamber is something of a fallacy, and that its importance has been greatly overstated.
Echo chamber and fake news threats exaggerated
Dr David Levy has been Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) for the past 10 years and he is far from convinced by the idea that people who are active online are trapped in an ideological bubble that inhibits their access to a diversity of news.
“Not everything that social media is accused of stands up in our research,” he says. “One thing people accuse it of is creating an echo chamber. We actually discovered in our research that people using social media or search (engines, such as Google) for news online actually see more news sources each week than people who don’t.”
The Institute, which has become one of the leading global authorities on the health and future of the news media, has chosen to “push back” against the concept of the social media bubble. “Our research suggests the idea of an echo chamber is very overstated,” says Levy. “There may be small minorities of people who are completely obsessed with one issue or another who only look at news about that particular thing. But in general, looking across the population as a whole, people who use search and social for news both use more news sources and a greater diversity of sources than those who don’t, which is not what commonly accepted wisdom suggests.”
RISJ research across 36 countries last year found that social media users access on average 4.34 news brands per week compared to 3.10 for non-users of social media. RISJ research fellow Richard Fletcher observed that, while 20th century media fostered “incidental exposure to news” through newspaper purchases for crosswords or through casual viewing of news bulletins in the linear TV schedule, the internet era is supposed to be about user control and “the potential for incidental exposure to news feels much lower”. The evidence suggests otherwise, he concluded.
Neither does Levy accept that the subscription and digital paywall models of many quality news titles – from The Washington Post to The Times of London – will add to an echo chamber effect as papers seek a holistic relationship with readers that includes planning their holidays and giving financial advice. “I don’t see a zero sum game that if you are paying for news you are looking at fewer sources,” he says of the 13% of people who pay for news across the RISJ’s sample of 36 countries. “I think you are probably highly-engaged in news and my assumption is that you are likely to be consuming a diet of a multiplicity of [sources].”
The RISJ has brought its scientific approach to examining other current media myths and bogeymen, which are collectively undermining public trust in the news media. In its latest paper it suggests that the perceived danger from “fake news” has also been exaggerated.
The research, the first evidence-based study of the impact of false news websites in Europe, looked at France and Italy and found that the websites of Le Monde in France and La Repubblica in Italy had greater engagement individually than the combined engagement of all the false news sites in the respective countries. No false news site in either country reached more than 3.5 % of the population, and most reached less than 1%, whereas La Repubblica’s site is seen by 51% of Italians each month.
More concerning was the finding that, on Facebook, one dubious health news site, Santé+, racked up more than five times the monthly interactions of the biggest established news brands, Le Figaro, Le Monde and France TV. The Reuters study concluded that “overall…false news has more limited reach than is sometimes assumed”, but it noted that false sites “still produce the occasional story that, for whatever reason, goes viral on social media”.
BBC's counter-balance role comes under pressure
Dr Levy will be standing down as RISJ Director in September, when he reaches his tenth anniversary in the role, and he talked to The Drum about his understanding of the current state of the news media and his concerns for its future.
On the question as to whether the media has contributed towards a more divided society, he sees different scenarios in the United States and the United Kingdom, with its long tradition of partisan newspapers.
“In the UK we have always had the combination of a politically-polarised press where you read the newspaper that you agree with or which reinforces your views, but at the same time most people have also consumed news from the BBC,” he says. “We are seeing that around 70% of people in the UK still use BBC News each week either online or on radio or TV. The widespread consumption of the BBC alongside a more partisan press means that you don’t end up in too bad a place, in my view. I think in countries where you don’t have a BBC and you have an increasingly polarised media landscape there may be more of a problem.”
America, he says, does not have a counter-balance like the BBC. “In the US the most-used news source which is seen as the midpoint between people who describe themselves as on the left or on the right is Yahoo. Yahoo is fine but it’s a bit different to the reach that the BBC has.”
But he says the BBC has paid a price for embracing new media platforms more enthusiastically than other public broadcasters, such as RAI in Italy or France Télévisions, and that, since the Brexit vote, Broadcasting House has been under pressure online from diverse political groups.
“In terms of reach and modernising its services and remaining relevant to the new ways that people are consuming media, the BBC has done great stuff,” he says. “But being available in a much more interactive medium you are at the centre of a range of political disputes. The BBC is in a position where many more groups are criticising it and can build campaigns online, so I think the job of being in charge of BBC News and holding your nerve and having confidence in your judgement…is probably getting much harder.”
Politicians attacking the press
On Friday of next week (16 February), the Institute will host Washington Post editor Marty Baron (a star character in the Oscar-winning journalism film Spotlight, depicting his time as editor of the Boston Globe). Baron will deliver the RISJ’s Memorial Lecture on the theme “When a president wages war on a press at work”.
Levy notes that political leaders attacking their media critics is nothing new, and that the UK has witnessed this from the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But he argues that there is something more dangerous about the approach of a current raft of leaders, from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi of India and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “Their response to criticism is to attack the validity or the legitimacy of the critic,” he says. “That’s a problem for journalism because journalism is about holding the powerful to account and the people in power are depicting journalists as themselves being political players and having their own interests, so their work should be discounted.”
Trump’s message is particularly resonant, he says, because it is directed at a highly-polarised American media. “In the US media environment, people on the left are super-served but there is a big gap in terms of newspapers that serve centre right political opinion,” he says. “In very polarised media environments where people who support the current leader may say that their views are not represented by mainstream media, attacks (on the media by political leaders) sometimes play into fertile ground.”
But Levy argues that it is a mistake to view the state of American media as necessarily an indication of what will emerge later in other countries. That was a widespread misunderstanding a decade ago, as he began as director, when American commentators said the rise of the internet meant the immediate decline of newspapers. “There was an assumption that America showed the way for the rest of the world and that this was going to happen everywhere.”
Levy made a decision to take a more “comparative” view, examining the outlook in media environments all around the world. While the dire predictions were not inappropriate for many local American titles which took 80% of their income from advertising, they were less relevant to European titles – especially in countries such as Germany and Finland – that still banked half their income from circulation, he says.
Nonetheless, in 2018 he accepts that an over-reliance on advertising revenue represents a threat to the future of a news organisation. “If I had money to invest in the news industry I would be more inclined right now to invest it in newspapers that have a pay model and a clear strategy for unique content and building reader loyalty, than I would to invest in an advertiser-funded model,” he says.
This real financial fragility of the news media should concern societies as much as the possibly over-hyped notions of fake news and the echo chamber.