Why I read the comment section

Am I losing the ability to debate? Are my social media circles too tight? In the wake of Brexit I'm going in search of alternative view points to my own. 

I'm a journalist. I've written many stories that have been commented on and have had people comment on me when my opinion has become the story. I'm also a researcher. I've got friends who study the relevance of the comments section to democracy, to communities and to the changing journalism ecosystem. I'm also a pretty average person, and I know the comments section is to internet trolls as cake is to me: very important, almost addictive. With all these different perspectives in mind I normally make an educated decision to avoid reading what people say below stories. But lately I've been thinking I should make more effort to read the comments section. Hear me out. 

Like most millennials, I get a lot of my news from Facebook these days. Truth be, I look there first then go to news sites if I want to confirm a story or read more about it. This is pretty standard practice for my generation and those below me, of whom almost 60 per cent register online and social media as their first port of call for news consumption - a growing statistic. I don't wake up and scroll a news site, I scroll my Facebook newsfeed. On top of this, I have an ambivalent and somewhat pretentious attitude about keeping up with the day's stories, despite my journalism background: I figure if there is anything super important going on in the world it won't be long before it appears on one of the many social media channels I regularly check. I do read independently of these sites, but given my liberal, educated, left-leaning social networks and interests I know that I can normally rely on my network to share insightful, informed articles throughout the week. 

But that's just it. This is the problem. Not necessarily the getting news from Facebook, nor the disregard for news websites - those are the realities of my generation - but the fact that there is no plurality with what content I'm exposed to. I don't know much about algorithms, but I know that mapping my digital connections would be a pretty straight forward affair. So each time something horrible or politically unexpected happens in the world I think 'who are these people?' that have such different views of the world to me, because I certainly don't seem to be hearing or reading their opinions - and the people on Facebook who share different views to mine are pushed to the edge of the algorithmic logic.

The news I receive through social media is decidedly one sided. And in an era where in the USA Facebook has been described as the most influential media outlet in the nation's history, and where in New Zealand and Australia Facebook has so much influence and capital that it is sending its staff on messenger trips to advertising agencies, this is troublesome. When my newsfeed is full of left-leaning commentary and Guardian articles, it seems like the only way that I can leave this self-affirming bubble is to reluctantly read the comments section of news articles. This way I will at least be exposed to the diversity of opinions that I seem to be more and more sheltered from. I don't really want to read this often-vile section but I feel like the more I stick in my bubble the less I know about the world. Which is ironic, because I do read a lot. But it is worrisome that it is so easy to forget that not everyone shares my perspectives because this means it is easy to become complacent. And complacency is not going to stir active citizenship. The results of Brexit are case in point. More than half of the voters in Britain didn't share the views of my newsfeed friends, and that alone is a wake up call.

Here in New Zealand we're going through a merger of our two biggest print and online news networks. One of the main concerns about this is that if there is no competition, will we lose plurality of voices? Forget all the other drama with this happening, that's too big of a beast to focus on in one post, but if we concentrate on this plurality question for a second then I can tell you that I'm still more worried about diversity of news when giants like google and Facebook are seeking to cement their positions as key global media networks. The thing is, even if we have one major commercial print news network, we will still get a certain amount of diversity. Many small countries similar in size to New Zealand, such as Austria, already have media systems that rely on one main news network. Mainstream media in this case has a responsibility to give all sides of a story, and to provide commentary across the political spectrum. The argument is that journalists will still compete against each other and networks will still have to offer contrasting opinions to keep readers interested. 

But if we agree that it's becoming more common for the upcoming generations to rely on Facebook and social media to find our news, then we may not even have access to the variety of content that say, a singular print network in New Zealand could offer. Blogs, rants and commentary that affirms each users view is what is usually on display via social media. And that's not even delving into the whole facebook trends debacle. This personalisation of perspectives is only likely to increase - Facebook has announced they are adding more focus on having their algorithms tailor information to so "the things posted by the friends you care about are higher up in your news feed".

What we essentially run the risk of is the next generation living in a digital bubble where our ability to consume information on a global level is vast, but our ability to consume across a variety of opinions is more limited than ever before. How does that translate into real-life, offline conversation? It certainly doesn't encourage young people to be open-minded nor to debate. If you aren't exposed to differing opinions then how can you make an educated decision? And whether coming from the political right or left, this uninformed ignorance can be dangerous. 

As it usually goes with ideas, not long after I started writing this post I stumbled across a story on The Spinoff and realised someone else had already written about this same conundrum. Beat me to it, aye. Fair enough. Richard MacManus articulates exactly what I've been musing on in an article called Blinded by Brexit result? Blame it on the 'filter bubble' of social media. He's pretty on point when he says that "personalisation has been a catchphrase for social media up till this point, but it’s become too narrow. There needs to be more serendipity and better access to alternative viewpoints." True that. MacManus gives a few suggestions for how to burst this bubble on Facebook and twitter, namely:

  • Facebook adding a new module to its news feed that highlights alternative view points to those you mainly get
  • Twitter making it easier to create and subscribe to topical lists, that way you could sign up to receive those alternative view points if you know what list might supply them 

He adds that the next step to being aware is to 'converse with the enemy'. I'd agree. This is the more challenging part and I'm not sure that adding my own views to the commentary section would necessarily help (troll-bait, right). I've discussed this with a few friends and one has suggested messing with the algorithms by clicking (and then clicking out of) links that you wouldn't normally give a look into. That way, perhaps the filters are set a little wider. Or maybe it's a matter of not de-friending that person whose opinion you don't like - small minded as it could be, isn't it worth having a somewhat realistic perspective of topics of public importance? I also appreciate those friends on my newsfeed who play devil's advocate and every now and then get a little controversial with their opinions as opposed to peddling the same perspective each time. Good on them. 

The straight forward answer, probably that my Dad might give, would be to 'just read the news'. Forget Facebook; read the news online, watch the 6pm news on tv and get the weekend paper. And on the latter point I do, there's nothing I love more than coffee and time spent reading the weekend paper. But I think it's a little more complex than that. Even if I were to scour news websites, it doesn't address the insipid nature of social media that characterises life for anyone below 30. It's one thing to consume news but that doesn't burst the filter bubble, which is the main problem here: every time I want to discuss these stories the views on offer are most likely ones that affirm my own world view. 

This is definitely a millennial, first world problem and I don't have the answer nor do I think that it's as easy as 'friending' or 'de-friending' certain people. All these 'solutions' raise existential and much more complex questions about how our modern, western societies operate in an increasingly digitalised public sphere. But for now, if you can come up with a better solution than resorting to trawling the comments section, then I'm all ears.

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Photo credit: Luis Manuel Gil