This morning I was reminiscing about change, triggered when I heard on the BBC that the song “American Pie” by Don McLean is celebrating its 50th anniversary. If you’re a fan of that song or McLean, I have to disappoint you: This column is not about the eight-minute word salad he unleashed in the year 1971. McLean himself declared on the BBC that he has no interest in dissecting or interpreting the song. In his mind, it needs to be taken as is.
That led me to think about the old adage that “in the past, everything was better.” Objectively, of course, this is not true. But it’s worth considering the state of our media world.
Consider the statistics, as reported in The Washington Post: “from Jan. 9 to 15, misinformation about election fraud on social networks plummeted around 73%, from 2.5 million to 688,000 posts, according to data from social-analytics firm Zignal Labs.” The trigger: Donald Trump was banned from social media.
And now Facebook has shut out news stories altogether in Australia, as a preemptive strike to show Australian policy makers that news can’t survive without social media. Turns out this is not entirely true: “Australian news sites have seen their visitor numbers drop by about 13 percent after Facebook decided to limit news sharing options in Australia. The number of foreign visitors who visited a news site via Facebook decreased by about 26 percent, the American data company Chartbeat calculated.”
In other words, Australians are now no longer getting their “news” from Facebook, and as a result, click-throughs to Australian news sites decreased 13%. We can’t judge if the news they are now no longer getting is “hard news” about the pandemic, the Mars landing or the local city council, or if it is of the “entertainment variety” (#freebritney). Regardless, it appears the earth still rotates, and Facebook might have shot itself and its argument of being indispensable for news outlets in the foot.
It’s also true that the world was a whole lot less divided at a time when there were far fewer options to access or spread news, information and, consequently, misinformation. Remember how we used to learn about world events? How we shared family news and family pictures? How we came together around unifying moments like sports events, TV shows, etc.? That cohesion appears to have dissipated at the same rate as the rise of social media.
Would the world be a happier place if there was no option to share, and therefore comment or troll on news? The (very early!) data seems to indicate that getting rid of damaging demagogue voices, or even news altogether, might actually lead to a better world!
Don’t get me wrong. I'm not promoting a world without social media platforms or free speech. I also do not want to go give up on some of the technology we have come to rely on. But I could go for a world where social media was used for just that: to be social. Share pictures of my dog or sunsets. Watch funny TikTok videos. Marvel at the Mars landing on NASA’s live feed on YouTube.
Just ditch all the divisive stuff. Who’s with me?