Take a fresh look at news after the election bubble

Social media offers engaging information but lacks a nuanced perspective.

By Harry Bruinius, Christian Science Monitor

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Published: Mon 21 Nov 2016, 7:21 PM

Last updated: Mon 21 Nov 2016, 9:35 PM

Like many of those who voted for Hillary Clinton, Steve Hudson was pretty stunned to watch as Donald Trump swept through the supposed "firewall" states presumed to align with the Democratic nominee, going on to win the US presidency. Feeling blindsided, he questioned what may have been the myopic perspectives of his "news bubble." He concluded that he needed a wider range of reliable reporting to get a more accurate understanding of what was happening in the country.
"My trust in my news sources has been shaken," says Hudson, a Chicago resident and self-employed advertising planner, who says he's mostly relied on The New York Times in the past - a source that shares his center-left perspective. "I'm reacting to the overall confidence my news sources expressed in Hillary's potential for winning; the death of the Republican Party; focus on Trump's inflammatory statements and personal failings.
"We've just been paying too much attention to people who think like us," he continues. For now, he plans to add a subscription to The Wall Street Journal for a more centre-right perspective, and to consciously seek a wider range of reporting from other reliable sources. Still, he's kind of feeling a little homeless now," he admits.
Indeed, after the election, a number of Americans have begun to question the mainstream coverage that seemed to confidently assume that Hillary Clinton would emerge as the 45th president. At the same time, the proliferation of unreliable information has approached what many consider to be near-crisis proportions. In addition to the frustration many have felt with the mainstream press, there is growing concern that social media, designed to entice engagement rather than offer factual information, has spawned the viral spread of deliberately misleading and fake news.
The problem of "news bubbles" is in many ways part of a larger social trend that some scholars have called "the big sort" - a troubling trend in which like-minded citizens, with mostly similar cultural preferences and political world views, cluster together in walled gardens - including neighborhoods, places of worship, and information sources.
And as over six out of 10 American adults now turn to their algorithm-driven social media feeds to get news, according to Pew Research, conservatives and liberals often have radically conflicting sources of information, as a Wall Street Journal side-by-side graphic analysis of blue feeds and red feeds recently showed.
It's a trend with troubling implications, scholars say. Long considered a bedrock of democracy, the "free press", enshrined in the US Constitution and considered an informal "fourth estate" of government, is supposed to cover and provide context for the actions of the three branches of government.
"Americans are likely to get what they do know, or think they know, from an echo chamber," says Krista Jenkins, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, via email. "What's needed in our discourse is a cross-pollination of ideas and viewpoints so that we begin to turn the tide on the alarming trend of seeing the other side as dangerous and misguided." Professor Jenkins continues, "rather than those whose experiences and perspectives lead them to believe different things about where to go and how to get there."
If social media has contributed to the sorting of Americans into echo chambers, it also may have enabled the proliferation of fake news sites and fabricated political stories online, especially on the news feeds of those on the right, which often express disdain for the "mainstream media."
Since August and leading up to the election, fake news stories with headlines like "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement" or "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide," garnered over 8.7 million shares, reactions, or comments on Facebook, according to analysis from BuzzFeed News. And of the top 20 most-shared fake news stories, 17 spread information favouring Trump or excoriating Clinton.
Some Americans are ensuring that they get fact-checked information by taking the old-fashioned step of buying a newspaper or magazine subscription. The New York Times reported an increase of 41,000 subscribers since the November 8 election, its largest one-week total since it developed its paywall model in 2011. The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal are among other publications that have reported surges in readership and subscribers since the election. Yet for many of those on the left still bewildered by the election, the issue is often less about discerning fake news than finding ways to have a more nuanced perspective about things they just didn't realise about the country. Consequently, the cacophony of sources online, and the proliferation of fake news has brought many back to traditional news organisations for more reliable news.
- Christian Science Monitor



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