Industry opinion

Online abuse and fake news: How social media and traditional outlets are adapting

Insights from the industry

As social media arrives at a point of global ubiquity and perhaps early-stage maturity, new paradigms to manage its positive and negative impacts are being advanced by both the social platforms and traditional media – what lessons can television broadcasters and social media learn from each other.

  • Social media’s first duty is the safety of its users and which it upholds through new machine-learning technologies. Television, meanwhile, has much to learn in managing the welfare of its contributors.

  • The rise of fake news increases the importance of an editorial hand in both traditional broadcast media and social platforms.

  • Commentary that drives intolerance is unfortunately a ratings hit and is often put forward by important public figures, making it a difficult landscape to navigate without encroaching on freedom of speech.

  • Social media isn’t all bad. It can be very powerful in driving social change.

Upholding a duty of care

In the aftermath of the suicide of the Jeremy Kyle Show guest, Steve Dymond, in May this year, the UK television industry finally acknowledged that it had to improve in its duty of care to television contributors drawn from the public at large, especially those who might be considered to be vulnerable. This is not news. In the US, more than 20 suicides have been recorded of previous reality stars since 2004. It is precisely this vulnerability that drives the jeopardy on which so much reality-based programming relies.

Dame Carolyn McCall, CEO of UK television channel ITV, in dialogue with Saïd Business School, spoke about how ITV was tackling the pressures on reality television stars in particular. “In a reality show, the 24/7 media swarm puts people under a spotlight that wasn’t there before. Broadcasters have to be mindful of that. We’re training participants of Love Island to deal with media pressure.”

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Twitter have accelerated their duty of care obligations to shield their users from online abuse that can have similar detrimental effects.

We’ve got from zero to 38 per cent of abusive accounts being deleted automatically. This has been a boon for us, to make us proactive rather than reactive.

In the case of social media, it’s technology that is being championed to provide the safety net, with machine learning exponentially increasing its capacity and fidelity in detecting abuse and automatically suspending offending user accounts. Not just reactively, either. Twitter’s co-founder, Biz Stone, has noted the importance of social media platforms using the technology available to proactively protect its users from experiencing abuse rather than waiting for complaints to come in.

While the resolution for both forms of media might be different, the priority for both social media and television remains closely linked.

Biz Stone
Biz Stone (L), Carolyn McCall, and Peter Tufano

Policing news content

Similar issues surround ‘fake news’. Traditional news media, according to McCall, is heavily regulated and news is filtered through extensive legalities – which in theory should obviate broadcasters from the trap of fake news. But journalists can and do source news stories from social platforms such as Twitter, and even if that news lacks veracity, it can often still air as ‘news being reported’ – as if the news is feeding on itself and validating the presence of fake news in the most assiduously managed broadcast media output.

If young people only get news through social media feeds, that’s not good for the world.

Fake news itself is one of the outputs of polarity which is evident across the social media landscape. Biz Stone suggests this paradigm is the result of so-called ‘filter bubbles’ – the phenomenon of users coalescing around thoughts and opinions that broadly match their own, amplified by news feeds that share more kindred content that aligns with existing opinions, rather than challenging users by presenting contrary views. “It was an unintended consequence of enabling users to follow people,” says Stone. But in serving the public conversation, social platforms are increasingly finding themselves acting in an editorial capacity, arbitrating against commentary that is unhealthy and limiting the absolute expression of free speech and thereby, in some ways replicating the role of traditional broadcasters.

Policing inaccurate content can prove difficult when important public figures are promoting such narratives. While speaking at Saïd Business School, Stone was asked why Twitter doesn’t ban Donald Trump. “It’s important for people to see what these public figures are thinking and saying.” said Stone. “And that people have an opportunity to respond.” Mainstream broadcasters now have a similar fight on their hands as divisive public figures are driving strong ratings by aping the stridency and intolerance that has become normalised through social media.

Can social media be a force for good?

Sue Black

‘I see social media as a force for good in general, but like anything that’s new, there’s going to be a lot of resistance.’

But for all the concerns about truth and partisan opinion in all forms of media, tech evangelist Professor Sue Black, OBE reminds us of the incomparable good that social media has achieved by driving social change in a positive way from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter. “It is amazing that so much can be achieved by a single word on social media,” she says, identifying another interaction between digital campaigns as the instigators and broadcasters as the proliferators, working unwittingly together as a force for good.