I’ve generally refrained from responding to articles and columns in the newspaper the past few years. Well it’s time to step out into this world again and respond to a newspaper column. In the middle of February 2012, The Sherwood Park News (My former hometown newspaper) had a column written by one of the staff called “Politics and social media don’t mix”. You can give it a read here.
First I want to say the staff, including the columnist, are fantastic. It is a great paper that strives to keep the community informed on various issues and happenings. I have nothing but respect for them – it’s why I’ve kept reading the News despite living in a different province.
The columnist, in my take, is concerned that social media is essentially allowing politicians to reach the masses without any check and balance on their communication. As social media grows this ability to communicate directly with the voter opens up more potential for false and inaccurate communications. There is a concern that with social media that there are no check-and-balance system, and there is an implied sense that the media’s job is to provide that role.
Here are a few quotes that stand out to me:
There is no check-and-balance system when anything and everything can be thrown online in a matter of seconds.
Let’s use Twitter as an example. If a politician posts something to Twitter, everybody will read that and it could get the ball rolling on conversation, or it could swing votes in the favour of the politician at hand.
Just to give a glimpse at three different levels of government, that’s nearly 11,000 people (assuming nobody follows all three) that see unfiltered tweets on a daily basis.
People are so intent on going straight to the source to hear political information that it can be forgotten that, if it’s coming from the source, that means nobody is playing Devil’s Advocate.
I’m going to diverge for a moment though from the column and recount some history (my apologies to those who are historians if my generalizations don’t do it justice).
The Gutenberg Press was created in the 1400’s. Mass publishing was now possible! This incredible invention changed and transformed the world leading to centuries of discovery and learning. The comparison between the impact of the Gutenberg Press and the digital age are not new, and are well founded. I believe there are some lessons that were learned in the 1400’s and 1500’s that should be heeded as we move forward into the digital age, and I believe these lessons connect directly with the column I’m responding too.
As a pastor, the Gutenberg Press had a significant impact on my profession. The Gutenberg Bible – the first book printed on Gutenberg’s moving type printing press made the Bible accessible to the laity. There was no limit to who could have one. The lesson for the church was harsh. The church had control over ‘The Truth’ until that point. They held the information and they chose what to pass down and what to communicate. They chose what to share as truth and what to hold back. The response of people reading their own Bibles after they were printed was inevitable – and the Reformation happened. Part of the Reformation that led to the Protestant tradition I’m a part of was a recognition that the church had been offbase in thinking that people needed a priest/pastor to intercede between them and God. A position partly created by Centuries of controlling information and being responsible for sharing that information.
The lesson of the church should not be lost on the media today. The media has had the priviledge of bringing us information for decades. They have had the access to the newsmakers we have not and have provided that information to us. Now the information is becoming available to the masses. I regularly find news on Twitter hours prior to reading it or hearing it from formal media. Information of disasters, uprisings, and crisis are on social media before someone can even type NEWS RELEASE. This is a foundational shift in how information is communicated.
For decades formal media has had to filter and limit what information is communicated based on the constraints of time, cost, or even a pre-determined word limit. Today’s media must not make the mistake of thinking that it was their role to filter truth or to be the sober second thought on information prior to the masses receiving it. The role of media has always been to be a conduit of information… unfortunately, for some in media, their role has allowed them to be much more and act as a gatekeeper of information.
As a part of the masses, I value the transformation that is enabling me to receive information directly. I do not need the content filtered, sorted, disected, interpreted, or anything else. If I do, I have information on where and how to do that. I do not need someone to be the devil’s advocate for me. If I choose to do that I can, If I don’t – that is my right and my choice.
Finally – when we’re reminded that no one is verifying what someone is saying online and their is no due dilligence conducted before social media is viewed – that is only partially true. If something is of concernk, those involved in social media verify, question, analyze, dialogue and debate much more easily than ever before. When no due diligence is taken by an individual in what they communicate – the consequences are far more swift with little time for damage control. Due diligence may be missing for now, but that too will change as individuals start understanding the consequences of communicating directly.
The concerns expressed by the column about politicians seems to reflect the loss of role and priviledge the media has enjoyed. The politicians now have the access to the communication lines that the former information gatekeepers once dominated. Times are changing and today’s media need to rediscover their place – not as THE voice of information that they once were – but as one voice among many in the chorus of the people.
As the implications of the Gutenberg Bible began to be experienced, some warned about the doom of having the masses able to read their own scripture. The individuals raising the alarm were those who stood to lose their priviledged role. Whether one believes in God or not, it has been apparant that the church experienced some of it’s richest history in the centuries that followed, and the role of the priest/pastor changed to reflect what their role intended to be – a guide and not a gatekeeper. The media may be going through change, but as they rediscover themselves they may find that their biggest contributions are not in the past, but in the decades ahead. Perhaps the media of today will find out that the future restores them to what their role was intended to be – a communicator of information – not the gatekeeper of it.
Personal Note: The Sherwood Park News, and her staff, are on Twitter and Facebook. My response is to the themes in the column, and not a critique of the newspaper or the columnist. From my experience I’ve found myself more engaged in local politics through the use of Social Media and have had far better communication with my local councillors both in Sherwood Park and Prince Albert as a result. I’ve also had more engagement with the local media who participate online than I did prior to using social media.