The degree of polarization – especially among media outlets – is at a zenith, Tom Weber ’89 asserted at Princeton Social Media Day. His talk – “Bursting the Bubble” emphasized the need for journalists to emphasize utmost accuracy and to encourage consumers to read from both sides of the aisle.
“I don’t think many people questioned that this is a moment in the US where polarization, which as always existed to some extent, feels very tangible on a daily basis,” Weber explained. “This is very striking. If you travel around America and talk to people and report, you get pretty much the same picture.”
With the advent of less careful tweeting, as illustrated by President Donald Trump, Weber said that this is an age of immediate and unlimited access to information. Corporate tweets no longer necessarily go through six layers of approval, dramatically quickening the publishing process, but also opening the door to more mistakes.
“[Trump’s tweeting] really epitomized the immediacy and the unfiltered nature of social media in a way that few other people at his level have,” Weber explained.
Weber, President of the ‘Prince’ Board of Trustees, is the Executive Editor of TIME Magazine. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal and was appointed a Ferris Professor of Journalism at the University in 2010.
Joking that it has been a “slow year for news,” Weber launched into an interactive discussion about news, social media, politics, and polarization in the current atmosphere. He explained that his concern with the onslaught of endless information and the direct access social media creates for consumers is that it may be contributing to the current political polarization.
“We have to work hard to get views that are not coming from those pipes,” Weber explained. “We all feel to some extent that we are locked into those bubbles.”
“People are familiar to hearing about this bubble – is there an orange bubble?” Weber joked, “It’s pretty nice in the Orange Bubble – I had to find something orange.”
Weber polled the audience for their news preferences. Based on the phone poll of the room, 14 percent of the audience got their news from television, 2 percent from print newspapers, 41 percent from online newspapers, 31 percent from social media, and 12 percent from radio.
He followed up by asking people which social media platform they preferred for getting their news. The room was split between Twitter and Facebook as first choices.
“We’re a very digital country right now,” Weber said, adding that based on a poll, most Americans get at least some of their news from social media.
After asking audience members for their thoughts, he joked that they were making all of his points for him.
“This is great; I don’t even have to talk,” he said. One female audience member and graduate of the University explained that she prefers Facebook over Twitter because it allows a lot of her fellow “extremely intelligent” University graduates to add their own take and thoughts to the news rather than being limited to 140 characters.
Weber explained that the polarization and filter processes through which people see their news contribute to asymmetries of information across the population.
In a Dec. 5, 2016 Pew Research Center poll that Weber cited, 54 percent of people had never heard anything about the alt-right – something that had be covered extensively in mainstream media and a proponent of which would become a close White House adviser.
“It’s amazing that at a time when we’re all consuming these endless torrents of news. . .” Weber said. “That such a thing could be.”
Weber set this situation in context by harkening back to his own column for The Wall Street Journal from Oct. 15, 2001 – right after 9/11. In the column, he explained that people’s understanding of events was highly influenced by custom web designs which were just starting to grow in prominence at this time. In his column, he wrote about how many people didn’t know about warring factions in Afghanistan or the Taliban because it wasn’t relevant to them prior to 9/11.
He explained that with all of this information, it’s necessary to find a way to filter.
“What’s a sensible way [to filter information] is to give people more of what they want and less of what they don’t want,” he explained. But this distorts what information makes it through such filters for consumption – it often results in information from just one side.
“In 2001, people were already worried about this – losing serendipity and losing having to confront things you don’t want to know about,” he said. “Really though, 15, 16, 17 years later, are we cracking this problem?”
Weber said that we have much more information and more filtering than ever, and yet “this debate is at an even more fevered pitch.”
“Everybody needs to remember with almost every news source media source, or even just platform, everybody is in business,” Weber explained. “Facebook makes more money when you want to look at it more, you want to look at it more when you are engaged with what it looks like.”
“Business decisions are not nefarious,” Weber said. “Making money is better than not making money.”
When asked if the news media can do anything about this, Weber at first said no “because it’s suicidal to try and push things that you aren’t going to engage with.” He admitted that this was probably not the answer the audience was looking for.
“The serious answer is the news media has to keep learning more about what writers, editors, and producers make those things that are engaging to these audiences,” Weber said.
He explained the “Blue Feed, Red Feed” project of The Wall Street Journal that compares a conservative’s and a liberal’s Facebook page side by side. The differences illustrate a chasm between what news is consumed, Weber pointed out. Using the example of the Affordable Care Act, Weber questioned how anyone can be a great defender of either side if one is not exposed to the other side’s arguments.
“How can individuals be more proactive without becoming victims of our own biases?” Weber questioned.
Weber also discussed how in this era of immediate access to information, journalists must move even faster to break stories – and sometimes reporters make mistakes. Moreover, the emergence of fake news has further complicated the space media occupies.
“It’s distressing to see so much of the media coming under attack because almost everyone I have ever worked with has been of a similar mindset,” Weber said. “They want to get it right for the sake of that being the whole point of what we do.”
“Every young reporter learns after that first lesson the talk that’s kind of passed down from editor to editor,” Weber said. “You know what? You make a mistake, but the important thing is you admitted it immediately and corrected it immediately.”
Weber said that the journalists he knows and works with are handling the complex atmosphere “with incredible grace and commitment and aspiring to do better.”
Weber emphasized that the need to expose yourself to other opinions and other interpretations of the news is incredible. And as for fake news, getting it right is imperative.
“Boy, if people just admitted their mistakes and owned up to them, it would be a better world,” he said.