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Echo chambers on autoplay: How social media news videos hurt political dialogue

Commentary/Opinion by

Flashing through countless newsfeeds with bold lettering and eye-catching, often shocking imagery, online news videos have become intrinsic to users’ experience on social media. Painstakingly engineered for maximum impact on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, these brief videos are just one embodiment of social and news media’s increased reliance on one another. As social media’s importance in journalism grows—a study published in 2015 by the Pew Research Centre showed that 63 per cent of Facebook users use the platform as their primary news source—the video formats that inhabit it may change the way news is consumed on social media for the worse. The information we see in online news videos may make us feel informed, but if the information comes solely in the form of politically streamlined, easily digestible chunks, we risk shutting out the potential for genuinely new information that challenges our views.

Two media companies, NowThis News and Al Jazeera’s AJ+, founded in 2012 and 2013 respectively, are the primary producers of news videos on Facebook, according to Variety magazine. The videos, covering a wide range of subjects, are short—frequently under three minutes long—directed at a younger audience, and feature recognizable, bold text, all for the purposes of optimization for a mobile platform. Media companies must strategically adapt to the changes in social network platforms. Such was the case when Twitter and Facebook rolled out an autoplay feature for videos in 2016. As AJ+ Engagement Leader Jigar Mehta explained in an interview with Nieman Lab, “If you look at our videos when we first launched, they weren’t optimized for autoplay. But then Facebook, and now Twitter, have rolled out autoplay. So you have three to five seconds, as someone is flipping through a feed, to grab their attention.”

Online media companies invest immensely in those three to five seconds, employing text, visuals and strong subject matter to boost the appeal of their videos. Engagement rate—the number of people who interact with a piece of content per the number who see it—is frequently used as a measure of success in the world of online journalism. By these standards, online news video producers have certainly been successful. In August 2015, AJ+ reported that six times as many people interacted with their videos as had liked their page, and as of today, NowThis has a Facebook following of over 12 million.

The information we see in online news videos may make us feel informed, but if the information comes solely in the form of politically streamlined, easily digestible chunks, we risk shutting out the potential for genuinely new information that challenges our views.

Central to the appeal of these videos is viewers’ belief that they are informative. With information delivered in byte-sized chunks directly to users’ newsfeeds, staying in the loop seems easier than ever. Yet, the informational “echo chambers” that plague social media news content are a well-documented phenomenon. When viewers have total control over what they see, as is the case on platforms with self-reinforcing content algorithms like Facebook’s, it creates an environment of political self-reinforcement. The advent of autoplay informer videos, more quickly and immediately available than even a listicle headline, only furthers this trend.

Moreover, with the increasing importance of Facebook as a news source, video creators face intense competition with the multitudes of attention-savvy media outlets that populate it, and must work hard to keep up. When news outlets rely on the same attention-grabbing video techniques as entertainment networks or advertising agencies, the political content of these videos serves as a tool to boost engagement. Both AJ+ and NowThis are openly left-leaning, and often use strong political messages to attract viewership. Their viewers, who often share similar political views, see the things they already agree with. The snappily cut and oft-replayed content further cements existing political feedback loops on social media.

A study published by Yale professor Dan Kahan in 2013 found that the more scientifically literate subjects were, the more politically biased they were likely to be when interpreting data results. The study seems to suggest that more information is not the silver bullet to political disagreement, but that political views remain entrenched no matter how many facts they are hit with.

The 2017 Cision State of the Media report called online video news “nascent,” and suggested that the format may take on an even greater role in future journalism. Being in-the-know is important, and online video has huge potential to inform. However, when scrolling from soundbite to soundbite, social media users ought to remember that dialogue and disagreement are essential to healthy politics.

 

Andras is a U1 student in Economics and Computer Science. His parents didn't let him study philosophy.

 

@mcgilltribop | [email protected]

 

 

 

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