It's been said before, but Artificial Intelligence isn't the only thing we have to be worried about. We also have to contend with Real Stupidity.
Unfortunately, those who oppose democracy are heavily invested in both.
Making matters worse, social media users' access to real journalism is evaporating.
As Sara Fischer reported for Axios this week:
Traffic referrals to the top global news sites from Meta's Facebook and X, formerly Twitter, has collapsed over the past year, according to data from Similarweb.... Website business models that depended on clicks from social media are now broken... tech giants (have) abandon(ed) efforts to elevate quality information, leaving the public more susceptible to misinformation ahead of the 2024 election.
A slower ad market and less reliable traffic contributed to a record number of media job cuts this year.
Efforts to reach voters with trusted information are becoming more difficult as tech platforms lean into viral trends, instead of quality news.
As the non-profit group Accountable Tech tweeted:
Social media platforms have caved to pressure and deprioritized authoritative news sources, which will have consequences for the 60+ world elections next year.
As the chart above shows, Facebook and Twitter sent more than 170 million "clicks" to leading news sites in August 2020.
As of August 2023, that has dropped by about 75% to 44 million.
A Disaster for Democracy
America's next (final?) presidential election is now little more than a year away. Even before most of its social media traffic evaporated, it was pretty obvious that, as Mark Jacob wrote recently, "mainstream media is not going to save us."
As the recent Kristen Welker interview with the traitorous, twice-impeached, 4X-indicted, jury-convicted rapist Donald Trump confirmed, the "access game poisons political coverage."
Even though, as Jacob writes, "major news outlets will never wake up to the fact that right-wing authoritarians are out to destroy them," we need them more than ever.
Why? Because, while they may not be able to tell the difference between stochastic terrorism and an election horse race, mainstream media can at least serve as the stenographers and fact-checkers we need to tell us what—in an age of deepfake videos, AI-manipulated photos, and unrelenting disinformation campaigns—the people competing for power are actually doing and saying.
Musk, Meta and Misinformation
The damage that social media is doing to the news business isn't new.
Facebook pulled off one of the biggest frauds in business history—and accelerated the demise of legitimate journalism—with Mark Zuckerberg's massive "pivot to video" scam that began in 2015.
As Laura Hazard Owen reported for Nieman Lab in 2021:
It turns out that the metrics that Facebook was using to measure engagement with news video were wrong, massively overestimating the amount of time that users spent consuming video ads. In 2019, Facebook settled a lawsuit with those advertisers, paying them $40 million (while admitting no wrongdoing). But it was too late for the publishers who’d already pivoted to Facebook video and then either made big cuts or shut down completely when it turned out people weren’t actually watching.
Facebook walked away from a scam that killed entire brands and caused countless layoffs at news media by paying a mere $40 million to the advertisers it ripped off.
It then began consciously decoupling from news shortly after the 2020 election/2021 insurrection, and doubled down on that plan in August 2021, saying it would continue to reduce the amount of political content in people's feeds in ways that would, inevitably, reduce traffic to publishers.
While Facebook users have been seeing less political news "organically," that hasn't stopped publishers such as The Daily Wire, Hillsdale College and PragerU from spending millions on Facebook advertising to advance their extreme right-wing agenda.
Meta's distaste for news and politics carried over to its much-hyped launch of Threads. The platform's rapid embrace as a "Twitter alternative" was followed by an-almost-as-quick collapse in engagement, perhaps because real-time news and political commentary are what once made (and still makes) Twitter so essential for many (some) people.
Under the guise of promoting "free speech," Musk has made it his mission to inflict as much damage to legitimate news media as he possibly can—deboosting journalists, slowing access to news sites, and silencing users he doesn't like, while elevating extremists and "anti-woke" voices who share both his fascist worldview and his desire to overthrow U.S. democracy, violently if necessary.
He's done a lot of damage already. And he's not finished yet.
In Musk's latest anti-news innovation:
X now completely strips all headlines and subheader text from the embed card that shows up when a user shares a link. The platform now simply shows the header image, with just the domain displayed in a watermark-like overlay on the lower left hand corner.
As Mashable reported:
Some users have decided to show their disapproval for the new format by weaponizing it in an effort to troll Musk and demonstrate how the change makes it much easier to spread disinformation on the platform.
Pulitzer-winning columnist Michael Hiltzig summed it up this way:
By removing links from tweets, @elonmusk has really made X work great! (Just kidding, he's just added another pile of shit to its functionality)
Meanwhile, the Venn diagram of "Elon Musk, citizen journalist" and "Elon Musk, stochastic terrorist" continues to be, more or less, a perfect circle.
Musk, who has a multi-year history of using his personal Twitter feed to put innocent lives at risk, is now being sued by an innocent 22-year-old who, along with his family was "doxed and suffered an enormous wave of harassment and threats from belligerent strangers," after Musk tweeted unfounded allegations to his 150M+ followers.
Manipulated Memes and Viral Videos
Traffic to major news sites from Facebook and Twitter may have dropped 75% in the past three years.
But that doesn't stop users from thinking that they are consuming "news" when they scroll through their feeds.
According to data released by Pew Research in September 2022:
- Half of U.S. adults get news at least sometimes from social media.
- Facebook outpaces all other social media sites. Roughly a third of U.S. adults (31%) say they regularly get news from Facebook.
- While Twitter is used by about three-in-ten U.S. adults (27%), about half of its users (53%) turn to the site to regularly get news there.
- On several social media sites, adults under 30 make up the largest share of those who regularly get news on the site. For example, half or more of regular news consumers on Snapchat (67%), TikTok (52%) and Reddit (50%) are ages 18 to 29.
What today's consumers—especially younger consumers—consume as "news" may be nothing more than sharable memes and viral videos pushed at them by algorithms designed to keep them scrolling.
Meanwhile, older consumers are being bombarded by fake news in traditional formats too—from pretend newspapers on their doorsteps to national political messaging delivered through the mouths of once-trusted local TV news anchors.
The truth is, if you think you're being lied to, you're right.
But figuring out who's lying and who's telling the truth is getting harder than ever.
Where's The Hope In All This?
Clearly, it's too late to hope the "mainstream media"—battered and diminished, but still profit-driven—will do anything to fully recognize and report on the threat to democracy between now and November 2024.
On social media, we're being manipulated by bad actors spreading misinformation.
AI-generated "synthetic media" and secretive algorithms are making the problem worse.
Over and over again, these right-wing extremists tell us they can't be reasoned with. We should believe them.
But we shouldn't forget that they and their followers are in the minority.
Authoritarian leaders have long relied on rallies and racist propaganda to convince their dumb, vicious recruits that the steamroller of fascism is unstoppable.
Social media—especially Musk's X—is already a cesspool of hate. And it's only getting worse.
But Twitter isn't real life.
There are more of us than there are of them. It's OK to ignore the online trolls. But don't dismiss the threat. More than ever, Democrats need to organize, communicate and mobilize.
Stay united. Stay connected. And make the 2024 victory decisive.
Because the only hope for democracy is us.
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