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COLUMN: Blame social media for erosion of free press, functioning democracy

"The Trump presidency showed the world how powerful and persuasive social media can be, to the point it now threatens the foundations of journalism."
Bachynski Brian c
Brian Bachynski

“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?” — Vladimir Lenin

Those words spoken by the father of communism more than 100 years ago have a haunting relevance today as our media landscape morphs from an independent, free press to the Wild West of social media.

This is National Newspaper Week, established to mark the essential role of the free press in a functioning democracy. Worryingly, there are forces eroding both.

Social media, initially intended to connect family, friends, and colleagues, has become the dominant communication tool around the globe, about to replace its predecessor — the printing press. It’s a pervasive, powerful instrument with endless potential to communicate ideas instantly to an immense audience.

Yet, in spite of that incredible potential to inspire humanity to greater heights, social media platforms have a well-documented dark side. From global election tampering to brainwashing and inspiring hate, social media has inflicted significant damage to the human condition.

The Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol has been directly linked to social media. While Donald Trump Tweeted out his version of the truth (a.k.a. The Big Lie) out to the masses, conspiracy theorists, racists, and extremists used the platforms to organize the insurrection. Trump never tired of discrediting journalists, calling them the purveyors of "fake news," a tactic soon picked up by the authoritarian leaders around the world. Dispensing misinformation and propaganda became his obsession and social media was the perfect tool.

Trump isn’t the only one obsessed with the platforms and there’s a reason for that. The platforms, including Facebook, its sibling Instagram, and all the others demand your attention by design (the documentary The Social Dilemma, delves into this). As recent Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleges, the algorithms that keep you on the sites are the foundation of their business models. Users are essentially the cattle on the platforms’ farms, with every action tracked and then sold to the highest bidder. Advertisers, primarily, but also political parties, insurance companies, and anyone able to profit from your data are the buyers. Worse yet, she alleges, drug cartels and human traffickers use its services openly.

The Trump presidency showed the world how powerful and persuasive social media can be, to the point it now threatens the foundations of journalism. Copycats can be found at every level of government with politicians, drawn by the allure of controlled messaging on social media, who no longer feel compelled to return a reporter’s phone call. Announcements can be made on their terms in a virtual domain where questions can be simply ignored, and "information" can go unchallenged.

Advertising has long supported local journalism’s business model, but it is moving to the platforms attracted by their ability to target customers. Often referred to as surveillance capitalism, the platforms have leveraged their use of our personal data to command an astounding 80 per cent of the digital advertising market in Canada and the U.S. Facebook and Google alone now control 35 per cent of all advertising globally.

As the underpinnings of journalism crumble, we’re approaching the point where democracy itself is under threat. After all, there can be no democracy without a free press. Think about that as we mark National Newspaper Week.

Brian Bachynski is the president of Great West Media and the publisher of the St. Albert Gazette.