The DNC’S Scheme To Control All News Has Collapsed Into A Failed Media Apocalypse
– The Bosses of Google, Facebook, Netflix and Linkedin hatched a scheme to only allow woke news on the planet. It backfired !
Story by Charlie Warzel
Over the past decade, Silicon Valley has learned that news is a messy, expensive, low-margin business—the kind that, if you’re not careful, can turn a milquetoast CEO into an international villain and get you dragged in front of Congress.
No surprise, then, that Big Tech has decided it’s done with the enterprise altogether. After the 2016 election, news became a bug rather than a feature, a burdensome responsibility of truth arbitration that no executive particularly wanted to deal with. Slowly, and then not so slowly, companies divested from news. Facebook reduced its visibility in users’ feeds. Both Meta and Google restricted the distribution of news content in Canada. Meta’s head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, noted that its newest social network, Threads, wouldn’t go out of its way to amplify news content. Elon Musk destroyed Twitter, apparently as part of a reactionary political project against the press, and made a number of decisions that resulted in its replacement, X, being flooded with garbage. As The New York Times declared recently, “The major online platforms are breaking up with news.”
This is correct, but the narrative is missing something. Journalists tend to fixate on how our work is or isn’t distributed. Doing so allows us to believe that algorithms and shortsighted, mercurial tech executives are fully to blame when our work isn’t consumed. Fair enough: Platforms, especially Facebook, have encouraged news organizations to redefine their publishing strategies in the past, including through disastrous pivots to video, only to change directions with an algorithm update or the falsification of key metrics. They’ve also allowed their platforms to be used for dangerous propaganda that crowds out legitimate information. But there is also a less convenient and perhaps more existential side to tech’s divestiture of news. It’s not just the platforms: Readers are breaking up with traditional news, too.
Last week, the Pew Research Center published a new study showing that fewer adults on average said they regularly followed the news in 2021 or 2022 than in any other year surveyed. (Pew started asking the question in 2016.) There’s some shakiness when you break down the demographics, but overall, 38 percent of American adults are following the news closely, versus a high of 52 percent in 2018. This tracks: In 2022, Axios compiled data from different web-traffic-monitoring companies that showed news consumption took a “nosedive” after 2020 and, despite January 6, the war in Ukraine, and other major events, engagement across all news media—news sites, news apps, cable news, and social media—was in decline.
The struggles of legacy news organizations have no simple explanation. Trust in the media has fallen sharply in the past two decades, and especially the past several years, though much more so among Republicans. Some of this is self-inflicted, the result of news organizations getting stories wrong and the fact that these mistakes are more visible, and therefore subject to both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, than ever before. A great deal of the blame also comes from efforts on the right to delegitimize mainstream media. Local-news outlets have died a slow death at the hands of hedge funds. A generational shift is at play as well: Millions of younger people look to influencers and creators on Instagram and especially TikTok, along with podcast hosts, as trusted sources of news. In these contexts, consumer trust is not necessarily based on the quality of reporting or the prestige and history of the brand, but on strong parasocial relationships.
You can see how public opinion has shifted in surveys covering the 2010s. In 2014—squarely in the halcyon days of social news—75 percent of adults surveyed by Pew said that the internet and social media helped them feel more informed about national news. But by 2020, the conventional wisdom had shifted. That year, a Pew survey of more than 10,000 people found that “U.S. adults who mainly get their political news through social media tend to be less engaged with news” and, notably, less knowledgeable about current events and politics.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is by considering the effects that online news and social platforms had on each other. In the fall of 2013, while working at BuzzFeed News, my colleagues and I noticed that, almost overnight, Facebook had turned on a fire hose of traffic to news stories on the site—and it wasn’t just us. According to data I obtained at the time, in the span of three months, a subtle tweak of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm resulted in more than 200 different news organizations becoming much more visible on the platform.
For the next few years, publishers chased the high. More people clicking on their links meant more ads served, which in turn meant healthier businesses. Organizations adopted social-media strategies designed to promote and package stories in ways that were algorithmically pleasing and easily digestible to people casually scrolling on their phones. These years saw a proliferation of clickbait and Upworthy-style “curiosity gap” headlines. Some of these strategies were cynical attempts at “going viral,” but most were earnest attempts to reach people through the immense distribution offered by major social networks.
News cycles became much quicker. And although social media allowed new voices to enter the conversation, the centrality of these platforms also created a herding effect around coverage. News would be reported, takes would be published about that news, and all of it was distributed through social networks, where journalists could easily track metrics to see what was performing well and then tweak their coverage accordingly.
Twitter in particular became a de facto assignment editor for newsrooms, which kicked off races between publications that bestowed outsize importance on niche online drama. The platform helped turn certain journalists into online influencers and microcelebrities and brought some of the news-gathering process into the open. But by humanizing journalists, these platforms also opened them up to attacks and harassment. Traditional news organizations encouraged their reporters to use social media to promote their work, but bristled when those same reporters aired personal opinions.
In politics, a strange, cyclical relationship emerged. Social-media algorithms designed for viral advertising and engagement gave a natural advantage to the most shameless politicians—none more so than Donald Trump, whose every utterance conjured up the kind of divisive engagement perfectly tailored to trend across platforms. Trump’s prominence across social media didn’t just help him win fans or raise money—it also justified more media coverage. (Even now, his posts on Truth Social are covered as news events.) By the logic of social media, Trump’s popularity made him newsworthy, which, in turn, made him more popular, which then made him more newsworthy.
From 2013 to 2017, news content was arguably the grist for the social-media mill. Political news did numbers on the platforms, which created a new kind of toxic political engagement. Massive, hyperpartisan Facebook pages sharing aggregated news stories designed to provoke users became, for a moment, some of the most influential media services on the planet. At some point, an argumentative, trollish style of posting became the default language of social media. Throughout the 2010s, activists, journalists, propagandists, politicos, white nationalists, and conspiracy theorists converged in these spaces, and the platforms curdled into battlegrounds where news stories were the primary ammunition. As the researcher Michael Caulfield has written, a tragic mass shooting or even just a story about a submarine disaster became evidence to fit an ideological position—a way to attack an enemy. This toxicity made public spaces hostile to reasonable discourse and marginalized audiences.
Consuming news might always have exacted an emotional toll, but by 2020, the experience of picking through the wreckage of social media to find out about the world was particularly awful. It’s telling that during the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the very act of reading the news was rebranded as “doomscrolling,” and people have long called Twitter a “hellsite.” It is no wonder, then, that people—and platforms—started opting out of news. The experience was miserable! Likewise, it makes sense that some of the decisions to deprioritize algorithmic news curation was seen by users as a positive change: A recent Morning Consult survey found that “People Like Facebook More Now That It’s Less Newsy.”
It would be wrong to suggest that news—and especially commentary about the news— will vanish. But the future might very well look like slivers of the present, where individual influencers command large audiences, and social networking and text-based media take a back seat to video platforms with recommendation-forward algorithms, like TikTok’s. This seems likely to coincide with news organizations’ continued loss of cultural power and influence.
In a recent New York essay, John Herrman suggested that the 2024 presidential campaign might be “the first modern election in the United States without a minimum viable media” to shape broad political narratives. This might not be a bad development, but it’s likely to be, at the very least, disorienting and powered by ever more opaque algorithms. And although it is obviously self-serving of me to suggest that a decline in traditional media might have corrosive effects on journalism, our understanding of the world, and public discourse, it is worth noting that a creator-economy approach to news shifts trust from organizations with standards and practices to individuals with their own sets of incentives and influences.
Should this era of informational free-for-all come about, there will be an element of tragedy—or at the very least irony—to its birth. The frictionless access and prodigious distribution of social media should have been a perfect partner for news, the very type of relationship that might bolster trust in institutions and cultivate a durable shared reality. None of that came to pass. Social media brought out the worst in the news business, and news, in turn, brought out the worst in a lot of social media.