If Augustus had Twitter, he’d mainly be tweeting thumbs-down emojis next to Mark Anthony’s handle.
It’s true: misinformation campaigns, fake news, sensationalized, or “yellow” journalism, and cherry-topping news events is nothing but new—all that’s different are the communication channels that are being used.
But how are these new mediums influencing its proliferation, often at an exponential rate? Well, by looking at these phenomena via agenda-setting theory, we can gain some insight on why certain topics are more salient than others.
Agenda-setting theory is simple to understand. Popularized in 1960s, it mainly looks at how the media influences what topics and ideas audiences deem as being important, either passively (by the merging of separate topics/information to form a broader/generalized idea), or actively, by only selecting certain topics that are often directly correlated to that media organization’s ideological and/or socio-political stance.
However back then, when newspapers and TVs were at the prime, this model was quite vertical, starting from the top (the source) down to the audience (the receiver) at the bottom. In the US for example, the “big three television networks” (ABC, NBC and CBS) were clearly the cultural hegemons of American society from the 1960s until 1980s.
On the other hand, at present, we’re living in a digital media landscape that’s more horizontal, that is, with the growth of the internet and especially social media, information is now shared “on equal grounds.”
Which takes me right back to fake news, misinformation campaigns, yellow journalism and so forth, and just one of the probable reasons why these phenomena have become headlines themselves—it’s called agenda-melding.
According to an article published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, titled “Agenda Setting and Agenda Melding in an Age of Horizontal and Vertical Media: A New Theoretical Lens for Virtual Brand Communities,” its authors, Ragas and Roberts, state that agenda-melding looks at “the personal agendas of individuals vis-à-vis their community and group affiliations.”
This, tied in with big data, may explain why fake news has spread like a circus parade.
Let me elaborate:
In many Western countries, each internaut now has the freedom to access whatever information they’d like to, however, they will always do so through their own cognitive bias. That is, if I’m only interested in one particular subject, then my often self-selected social media feeds alongside other sources that make up my personal digital profile will make recommendations and search results that churn-out topics that are within the scope of that subject.
While it’s smooth sailing most of us, some fall in this trap and enter the whitewater. Essentially, they’re digging themselves into a hole. They may fixate on that topic and, thanks to fellow hole-diggers like themselves (their preferred community and group affiliations), their agendas become more polarized and all the good-old fashioned journalistic traditions of cross-verification and objectivity are thrown out the window. So, what’s actually fake news, becomes their real news, which is very, very dangerous.
So what are we, as communications professionals who often work for (or are) a gatekeeper, supposed to do about this new form of agenda-setting and ensure the circus stays out of town?
There’s a straightforward answer: it’s called ethics. Our prime responsibility is to not manipulate, but rather inform, backed up with real facts and proofs, and a %&#!-load of honesty.