The New Media Has Become like the Old Media—And That Means the Usual Bias
A sizable majority of American adults say—when polled—that social media organizations “censor” political viewpoints:
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June finds that roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults say it is very (37%) or somewhat (36%) likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable. Just 25% believe this is not likely the case.
At this point, of course, it’s hard to see how this is even debatable. While “censor” is perhaps not the most accurate term to use here—given the word’s connotations of state intervention—it is apparent that social media firms, at the very least, limit discussion and the reach of certain political viewpoints by banning certain users. These firms also openly admit to biasing readers against certain content through the use of “fact checkers.” Anecdotal evidence also strongly suggests that these social media firms also engage in tactics like “shadow banning,” which hides certain posts and content from certain users.
This is no haphazard or “neutral” bias, either. It is clear that the user bans and “fact checking” warnings against certain posts are designed to fall most often on groups that could be described as “conservative,” or “libertarian,” or which advocate in favor of Donald Trump and his allies.
As far as media companies go, this is just par for the course. What is perhaps so unusual in this case is that so many self-identified conservatives and libertarians seem surprised that things turned out this way.
This may be due to the fact that many continue to believe the false notion that social media companies are a sort of “public utility.” The social media companies themselves promote this myth and like to give the impression that they are open forums facilitating open communication. In reality, the firms are essentially just media companies like CNN, NBC, or the New York Times. The only meaningful difference here is that social media firms don’t produce their own content like ABC News or the Washington Post do. Rather, social media companies have convinced their users to produce all the content. The social media companies then reap the rewards in terms of selling personal information to advertisers and curating user-produced content to suit the companies’ own vision and needs.
Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here is that anyone who holds opinions outside a center-left or far left narrative should expect about as much “fairness” from social media firms as one might expect from CNN or NBC News. In other words, we should expect social media firms to ignore and marginalize the very same opinions and groups that have been ignored and marginalized by established media companies for decades.
This also means that organizations, writers, and publishers of these verboten opinions must do what they’ve always done: create their own publications and find effective methods of disseminating their content outside the control of establishment gatekeepers.
A Brief History of Media Bias
More seasoned observers of media behavior, of course, aren’t surprised or shocked when they hear that social media companies have taken steps to constrain the parameters of acceptable debate or silence certain voices.
The establishment media, its reporters, and its editors have viewed this kind of “censorship” as both necessary and laudable since at least the early twentieth century. It was at that time that American progressives began to make headway with the idea that journalists should act as gatekeepers of truth and that “the press” should determine for itself what it was that people ought to be allowed to read and know.
As I noted last year, this idea was promoted especially forcefully in Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion. Lippmann contended that ordinary people are incapable of reading about events from diverse sources and making up their own minds. Rather, it was necessary for experts to provide only “controlled reporting and objective analysis.”
But how is this “objective analysis” to be achieved? The answer, according to Lippman, lies in making journalism more scientific, and in making facts “fixed, objectified, measured, [and] named.”
Thus was born the idea of the “objective” journalist who was above bias and who communicated to the public the only truth. Naturally, this implies that all “untrue” narratives must therefore be silenced.
[RELATED: “‘Objective Journalism’ Has Always Been a Myth” by Ryan McMaken]
In reality, of course, the journalists and editors themselves, like all human beings, brought with them their own biases and partisan sympathies. As the twentieth century progressed, journalism schools at colleges and universities cemented certain biases among those who went to work for major media companies. By midcentury, changes in the technological and media landscape narrowed the number of media outlets and the public became increasingly dependent on fewer and fewer editors and journalists at a shrinking number of companies. As Bruce Thornton has explained at the Hoover Institution:
The second development that increased the malign partisan influence of the media in the postwar period was the rise of television and the decline in the number of newspapers. With that, there were fewer and fewer information sources from which readers could chose, giving the three television networks and the big metropolitan papers, especially the New York Times, inordinate unchallenged power over public information. At the same time, those seeking alternative points of view had fewer and fewer daily papers, while the ones that remained were dependent on a few news services such as the Associated Press, which represents one point of view. To speak in Madisonian terms, one media faction had now expanded to the point that it crowded out and marginalized alternative points of view.
Creating Alternatives to the Establishment Media
This transformation did not go unnoticed. By the 1940s, it was increasingly clear that a distinction had arisen between the “establishment” media and what would come to be known as “alternati
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