Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

“What surfaces on the timelines of our social media accounts can make the world seem like a divided place where people only shout from the top of their lungs — whether it is to call out the wrongs of those they disagree with or to cheer on the actions of those with whom they identify.”

What surfaces on the timelines of our social media accounts can make the world seem like a divided place where people only shout from the top of their lungs — whether it is to call out the wrongs of those they disagree with or to cheer on the actions of those with whom they identify. This goes beyond political affiliation, ideology, or religious beliefs.

But what we see online is likely not a proper representation of those who actually constitute our virtual networks — likely not even close.

Below is a gif of two Facebook live streams of a Donald Trump press conference, which we recorded and analyzed for BuzzFeed News — one aired by Fox News’ Facebook Page, the other from Fusion’s. The image may make it seem like the world is a place of only Trump supporters or ardent Trump critics.

But even just a quick glance at overall viewership numbers shows that the reactions that are floating across the screens during these live streams only represent a mere fraction — a measly 2-3 percent — of those who tuned in.

97 percent chose not to react. Maybe they felt conflicted about the content they saw. Maybe they didn’t value it enough to react. Maybe they wanted to think long and hard about the implications of the president’s announcement before expressing any sentiment about it. We don’t know what they may have felt because that is something we cannot measure within the parameters set forth by six simple buttons and a comment box.

What is being measured is the cackling, anger, cheering, and sadness of the loud ones, those who felt an urgent need to chime in. The social web is optimized to capture engagement mostly in extremes, in what is measurable through our clicks, rants and emotional reactions online. And it is their engagement that will be fed into an algorithm that decides what kind of information we will see on our timelines, not the inaction — pensive or indifferent — of those who did not feel strongly enough about the livestream to speak up.

Enter the tyranny of the loudest.

What’s more is that, on the Internet, visibility only begets more visibility. The popularity of an article doesn’t steadily rise over time, it explodes exponentially. And in an increasingly distributed information environment, news outlets are forced to compete with noisemakers.

But how can journalists re-introduce the public to nuance? How can reporters make healthy complicated facts compete with those coated with delectable identity politics? How does one lead a mutiny against these loud tyrants?

2018 needs to be the year that journalists find a way how. Maybe it’s by finding ways to infiltrate people’s timelines and lure them away from simplistic shouting. Maybe it’s through suspense; maybe it’s by telling tiny fragments of their stories on social platforms; maybe it’s through visuals. Maybe it’s by addressing the problem with those who optimized the social web for emotional extremes.

Whatever the right way may be, journalists will need to regain access to people’s attention without turning their content into clickbait.

It would be nice to bring quiet, sober discourse back into public information exchanges.

Lam Thuy Vo is a data reporter at BuzzFeed News.

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