The Problem with Vetting: social media vs the Establishment

This morning, I'm listening to a show on talk radio about the difference between vetted and unvetted media. Vetting, in this case, means adhering to a process of verification by experts.

The premise is that social media is flooding people's computers, tablets, and smartphones with what looks like news but is in reality biased pseudo-news, aimed at shoring up people's preconceptions, which are easily discerned by social media analytics, with falsified or very slanted stories.

In essence, most of these so-called news stories are click-bait to get people to websites full of ads. The news stories are often nearly hidden on these sites by flashing banners, ever-changing shock stories, and ads disguised as anything but ads.

The talk show host and panelists are earnestly stating that in the good old days, before social media introduced propaganda-like "news," the powers-that-be vetted stories before releasing them onto network TV and radio news, respected newspapers and magazines, and other established media outlets.

This vetting process, which presumably included fact-checking and triangulating, which is getting the story from three different trusted sources, is held up as the right way to do news. In the fabled past, people could trust media outlets such as the Big Three TV networks to present only stories that were true.

Social media, cast into the role of irresponsible news-inventor, goes right around this vetting process. 

One of the panelists speaks with horror in her voice of raw, naked stories showing up in social media news feeds. Her point is that people are being fooled by false or slanted stories, and that this did not happen in the past when people got their news from vetted sources.

On the surface, this is a good argument. It appeals to people who think they are too smart to get fooled, who get their news from venerated traditional sources and abhor the mud-splattered nonsense that passes for news on social media.

Yet how different this is from the dawn of social media, when it was hailed as the new tool of the common person, a way to put news into the hands of the people rather than the entrenched elites!

Think about those amateur phone videos from the Arab Spring, or Ukrainian Maidan, or any popular uprising against tyranny. The media establishment loved to show how the common man can get the truth out in the face of censorship.

So what is different here? Why is current American social media now a villain, with its unvetted stories and person-to-person, unmediated communication?

There are several factors in play here:

1. The decaying of profit in established media networks as people no longer depend on watching or listening to news shows to stay informed. Why watch the six-o'clock news when you can catch breaking news on your phone? This change means less ad revenue for those outlets. The established media is fighting back using its own media, such as the talk show I am hearing, though this is simply preaching to the choir.

2. The sense that established media are not as unbiased and trustworthy as they like to present themselves to be. Mistrust of the establishment has driven the current US presidential campaign.

3. The idea that each person is fully capable of deciding for herself or himself what is true, what is relevant, and where to get information; this is the much-touted democratizing influence of the Internet.

But the biggest factor, from my perspective, is this: who is in charge of creating reality?

Each moment brings its load of unfiltered sensation to a person's eyes, ears, and central nervous system. To make any sense out of the vast amounts of input, the brain creates filters, quick shortcuts in thinking, and an efficient storage system to put things away till further notice.

If you depend on some particular vetted version of the news as a way to sort out the world, you are allowing other people to construct your reality. You are handing off part of your own reasoning capability to people or institutions that you trust and consider to be more broadly and deeply informed than you can be on your own.

But if you believe yourself to be the ultimate custodian of your own reality, then why trust those vetted sources? Why not go for the unfiltered versions of the news and pick out what seems logical or likely to you?

These questions go to the heart of civilized society, which is built on the shared belief that the ideas, history, and attitudes of the past provide a foundation for the future. Civilization is vetted: its very composition is vetted by experts, living and dead, who curate events and people into a solid entity that endures.

I think the talk-show panelists are not simply nervous about the rise of social media as a way to get news. Their bigger concern, as I see it, is the growing idea that the past is no longer a trustworthy basis for the present. This is a profoundly destabilizing idea.

If the legitimacy of a society is its traditions and accomplishments, then that society can withstand turmoil and distress. But if enough people decide to go around and ignore traditional, vetted sources of information, how will they know enough about that society to build on it?

The US is in the midst of social change--no one can deny this fact. How this country will look in two or three decades is up for speculation. But one thing is certain: the agreement that has held for more than two centuries as to who gets to interpret reality, or who gets to vet the news, is no longer an agreement that is universally respected.

Social media will play an ever-increasing role in making the news in years to come, unless it is somehow restrained or censored, as may well happen. If left to its own devices, will social media create its own vetting process? That remains to be seen.


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