The rise of skeptical reading

“Unlike technology, culture changes slowly. But when it does, the consequences of these changes stay for a long time.”

There is a quiet revolution in the making. It’s about how people make sense of the news. Barely perceptible amidst the loudness of commentary about bots, trolls, fake news, echo chambers, filter bubbles, confirmation bias, artificial intelligence, and so on is the realization that readers, listeners, viewers, and users are becoming ever more skeptical about the information they encounter in the news and social media. And that’s a good thing. Skepticism is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for the emergence of sustainable solutions regarding a potential state of misinformation marking contemporary politics and culture.

As far as media and journalism go, 2017 has been a transition year. Practitioners, analysts, and scholars have grappled with a collective sense that a fundamental dislocation has emerged in how the news are reported and distributed. While there is some consensus about a massive shift, there is much less certainty about what it exactly consists of, its causes, and its consequences. The initial cultural reflex has been a narrative about technological disruption of old conventions that have long governed the production and circulation of news, thus ushering a new regime of misinformation.

Often lost in this dystopian narrative is an account of how people make sense of an increasingly digitally created and curated new world of news. This, in turn, has led to an implicit overestimation of the power of technology and a parallel underestimation of the interpretive agency of news consumers. It would appear that readers of twenty-first century news can be more easily manipulated than those of the previous century. But are they? I suspect not. If anything, it might be the opposite.

For the past twelve months, my collaborators and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with a broad sample of consumers of news, entertainment, and technology. Among other things, we have asked them about issues such as fake news and trust in the information they see on the social media platforms they use and news media they consume on a regular basis. An account published previously on this site showed the existence of four mechanisms guiding people’s reading practices: strategic curation, mindful processing, emotional interpretation, and subjective attachment. What has emerged in conjunction with the combination of these mechanisms is a heightened degree of skepticism.

There is skepticism about the news media. For instance, one of the interviewees said that she is “concerned about the news programming. I think when I was younger I trusted it implicitly, which probably was not a good idea when I look back. But some of my trust and faith in the news and the news community is not what it was. I’m not trusting. I’m wondering what they’re leaving off.” Similar idea recurred in multiple interviews. “I think there has been a shift in the news and I feel like the news is not, no matter what you listen to, it’s not completely giving you both sides. It either gives you one way of looking at it and doesn’t really make you a critical thinker. I think that before, maybe you were getting news that was more critical thinking and you had to analyze if it’s correct or not correct…There is definitely been a shift in the news.”

There is also skepticism about the information that people see on social media. One person commented that on Facebook “it’s hard to decipher what’s real and what’s not. So, like, if I have just seen an article on Facebook, then I might go to the Internet and try to find that same headline. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would read it on Facebook.” Another interviewee added, “I’m very familiar with my friends’ posting habits and ignore three quarters of what’s on there because of that.”

How do people deal with this increased level of skepticism?

They are more mindful of the provenance and treatment of information. One of interviewees commented that she “started to pay attention to where the news is from because of fake news.” Others singled out specific sources. For instance, one commented “CNN used to have a fairly good reputation but they, too, report rumors without really confirming things and then they go back, maybe in the middle of a program, and retract what they said.” Similar patterns apply to social media: “I usually check things now that catch my eye so if I think it’s too dramatic to be true, I’ll look into it.”

They also check multiple sources. For instance, “I tend to look to see if the different political—just taking it from that point of view, then the different political view—or messaging sources converge, they both say, both agree on the same basic facts about something.” Finally, they use search engines to do their own fact-checking. “I don’t share news articles very often but if I do I probably try to read three or four articles on the topic. I’ve taking to generally Googling things just to try to get a concept of it.”

Taken together, these responses, combined with the overall skeptical stance, are the kernel of an ongoing revolution in interpretive practices. It is more quiet transformation than that of how technology has affected the production and distribution of information. But it is no less fundamental and likely more sustainable, since it has been shaping the cultural foundations of sensemaking. As such, it will be a key source of collective antibodies against the perils of misinformation.

By emerging organically from within the social fabric, these interpretive antibodies will be more durable than any technical fixes, and also a necessary complement to their possible efficacy. Unlike technology, culture changes slowly. But when it does, the consequences of these changes stay for a long time. So here’s to a 2018 full of skeptical readings of the news!

is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.

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