tv Great Decisions in Foreign Policy PBS April 4, 2018 6:30pm-7:01pm PDT
(upbeat music) ♪ read all about it ♪ you want hot gossip ♪ we're hot off the press ♪ why ain't you got it yet - [narrator] the u.s. has thrived on it's vibrant free press since the founding fathers first put the concept into law in the bill of rights. news organizations since then have served as an important, independent check on the power of elected officials. - i've seen the tweet about tapes. - he's a leaker. - where is the evidence? - [narrator] now social media is proving to be a double-edged sword. it's an important means of free expression around the world, but it also allows for the proliferation of misinformation. undermining the integrity of the free press. the media and foreign policy. next on great decisions. (dramatic music)
- [announcer] great decisions is produced by the foreign policy association, in association with thomson reuters. funding for great decisions is provided by price waterhouse coopers, llp. (regal music) - [narrator] when america's founding fathers wrote the bill of rights, they enshrined freedom of the press in the very first amendment. - freedom of the press was one of the foundational elements of democracy and one of the most important elements. but the press was very different in those days, and maybe that's a good reminder when we look at our partisan bickering and polarization today. the press was very partisan. - the idea was partly an extension of political competition and partly, it believed that robust debate and argument would over time create a healthier democracy and a more informed citizenry. this was still early in the idea that
the press should be fact-based. (simple piano music) - [narrator] the democratic process requires a government watchdog, an independent force that holds leaders accountable to the voters who elected them. - we have believed in our country that a free and independent press provides the best information that people can get, so they make good decisions, like good leaders, and we have a good country. - it is the fundamental check on power. it's not enough to have a congress, a supreme court, and a president. you need someone outside of that entire structure to maintain vigilant watch over it, and that's the role of the media. - [narrator] the press also serves our lawmakers. - when i was in the cia, i relied heavily on open source information, and we were able to monitor what was being said around the world. i felt that our intelligence capabilities augmented significantly that open source information.
- i actually got to see a lot of secrets. i don't go back for briefings. i read what's available in the press. i think i know as much about what's going on in the world today as i did my last day as director of cia, based upon a careful, critical reading of publicly available sources. - i was on the intelligence committee for a while, and you do have access to lots of information out in the media. the dirty little secret, though, is journalists are pretty good. - reporters have assets that the government can't match. reporters have cameras everywhere around the globe. they can freely stand on street corners, as the media, and film. governments can't do that. the press has immense power. (somber piano music) - [narrator] it was during the vietnam war that the era of modern media came of age.
trust in the media reached new heights. - [announcer] direct from our newsroom in new york, this is the cbs evening news with walter cronkite. - the enemy in vietnam is all to often invisible, striking without warning from the shadows, but tonight, the face of the enemy, in rare films of the vietcong-- - walter cronkite, who was a kind of father figure and arbiter of what was true or not, anchoring the cbs evening news sort of turned against the war on the air and almost provided a kind of non-partisan judgment that the war was failing at a moment when americans were searching for understanding about the war's course. - [indira] the seventies was an irregular high point, and i think that's because there was this real, sort of like, afterglow effect that the press got from the coverage of vietnam, from watergate. - on the sixth floor of the building behind me,
five men with electronic gear were caught in the offices of the democratic national committee. - i shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow. vice president ford will be sworn in as president at that hour, in this office. - as well the fact that we had limited news sources that were pretty uniform and were required by law, under fcc regulations, to give a balanced picture. what happened in the 1980's? ronald reagan deregulated, through the fcc. he deregulated communication channels, and the fairness act and everything sort of went out the window. - [computer] you've got mail. - [narrator] envisioned as a means of connecting people, social media was born in the late nineties. - the buzz early on was that social media would be a democratizing force. it would be a positive for, not just the united states,
but for the globe. (chanting) - there's no question that it's given the public it's own voice. the incredible explosion of social media has put that power of mass communication into the hands of anybody. - [narrator] but as social media might describe the results, it's complicated. - it's a good tool to connect. i think it is sometimes a good tool to get information. not always. i think it is a mixed bag of goods. sometimes relying too heavily on social media for information could create a diverse effect of just being misinformed. - [susan] social media is a social good. there are those who use the channels and the platforms for malfeasance, and in some cases,
for literally doing evil. - people are a lot more clear-eyed now about the role of social media, that it, in and of itself, is not good or bad. it's those who use it. (chanting) - [narrator] dubbed by some as the facebook, or twitter, revolution, the 2011 arab spring saw widespread use of social media. - it has no power of control from anyone. there is no way to fake it, or anything like this. - the arab spring is a case study in the birth of social media as a force for change. it was something that was going to bring democracy. it was going to help inform everyone. it was part of the revolution and, therefore, part of the spread of democracy. - you also saw that a few years earlier, in iran in 2009. you saw it a little bit afterwards,
with the gezi park demonstrations in turkey. that is this is part of any public uprising. it is very powerful, and it is very hard for any state to deal with. - in tunisia, facebook played a huge role during the arab spring in getting people out onto the street and in making those protests effective. they toppled the dictator. but the followed on construction of a democratic constitution in tunisia, and the prevention of the return of dictatorship, that's much more attributed to social organizing of an old-school kind. - [narrator] social media empowered it's users to spread information and organize gatherings, in country and beyond. (chanting) - it's given more people a voice. and it's given more people a way to be heard. the voices in the aggregate have affected change and have affected what people pay attention to. - clearly, it's much easier to share information that appears digitally but this has a dark downside, as well.
it caused a lot of violence. big social upheaval. it's a mixed picture. - in pakistan or bangladesh or egypt or any number of emerging societies, social media platforms are integrated with social, sectarian political conflicts. they're part of the fabric of the country now. they're forms of supra-community that are also forums for conflict. - social media corporations seized on the arab spring to push the idea that these profound changes were good. that they were gonna lead to the blossoming of democracy and human rights around the world. in fact, what it's done for the most part is to actually muddle what's true and what's not true. in both countries, like egypt and turkey, but also in the united states, as well. - [journalist] do you think people should be concerned that the president posted somewhat of an incoherent tweet last night?
- [sean spicer] uh, no. - [journalist] why did it stay up so long? is no one watching this? - [sean] (stumbles over words) the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant. - [narrator] unlike news organizations, social media has no editors, and limited internal means of judging the integrity of the information that it spreads. it is simply a digital platform. - the fundamental difference of editing is playing out in the way traditional media and social media are interacting with one another. for example, facebook launched an entity called facebook live, which allowed any individual, essentially, to become a television producer. - [mark] we've seen social media taken over by groups like isis, and who use it quite effectively. we've seen authoritarian regimes take social media and use it to great effect to spread false information. - [narrator] social media platforms seek to maximize the amount of time users are engaged. people tend to spend more time
consuming information they agree with. - social media is more vulnerable to what we call cognitive bias. we know that part of human evolution, the way our brains are wired, includes an emotional preference to receive information that confirms beliefs we already hold. we're inclined to filter out information that's disagreeable, or facts that contradict the beliefs we already hold. - they want people to stay on social media platform, and so it behooves people to keep seeing that their friends say things that they like, and they click on it, they like it, and they stay on longer and longer. - [narrator] time spent on a platform translates to ad-drive revenue for the company, a core component of what has been called "the attention economy". - ultimately, it's about money, and money typically translates into viewership. viewership matters, but at a certain level, we don't matter.
we, the people, don't matter. we're just consumers to be sold to someone else. - social media companies were initially way too cavalier about the role they played. they created an incentive for people to fabricate news, and then spread it by providing them with advertising revenue for pieces that had the most clicks. - maybe people like mark zuckerberg and others share blame, maybe a lot of blame, for tweaking the algorithms in such a way that their stock prices go up and my ability to see a diverse representation of information has flat lined. it's not all facebook's fault, it's my fault, too. - [narrator] social media users are more likely to linger when they see items that echo their own tastes, interests, and political points of view.
- where the media once thought they were in business to challenge people's prejudices, to give them independent information that made them question what they thought, people seem to want to be reinforced in their beliefs. they want you to say on msnbc or fox news, what you think about the world is right. the people you think are good guys, they are really good, and the people you think are terrible, they're really terrible. - what starts out as just being a familiar, comfortable set of articles that you think that you'll enjoy reading becomes the places that you never leave, and so i think social media has made it easier for us to be in that echo chamber. (explosions) - [narrator] in the u.s., some blame social media for the increasingly polarized political atmosphere felt throughout the country. - according to the pew research study
that looked at the 2016 election, 60% of us believe that the primary way we're getting our news is through our facebook feed. - social media shares some of the blame for polarization in the country but there are other factors. american's have been sorting themselves into like-minded communities for decades now. in the last 20 years, the number of counties in the united states where the presidential election is decided in a landslide, whether for the republicans or the democrats, has doubled. - people on social media who are neutral, who are willing to criticize both sides, who try to tell it like it is, there are, of course, people on social media who has the right to be ultra-partisan. it's not a question of the technology, or the media. it's a question of the person. whether that person was in charge of a pamphlet, a radio station, a t.v. station, a twitter account, or nbc news, it still is the person. it's not the technology. - [narrator] there are also those who spread intentionally false information, or fake news.
- fake news, the enemy of the people, and they are. they are the enemy of the people. - the term "fake news" originated with articles that made no attempt to be accurate. so you get a guy in macedonia who's posting pieces on facebook and is simply trying to see what is going to get the most clicks, and will fabricate news items that people will respond to. - it has been exploited by a variety of manufacturers of false information, and it's generally not tagged or presented or shared in a way that allows the user to quickly determine where it came from, and what the motivations of the publisher might be. this has contributed to the confusion that we have seen on social media over the last couple of years. it is a manufactured form of pollution. - [narrator] some analysts believe fake news played a role in two of the most pivotal events of the decade.
in the 2016 u.s. presidential election and the british vote to leave the european union. - fake news initially emerged as a way of describing russian covert actions, so-called active measures program, designed to meddle in the u.s. election and, generally, to condition the global opinion to help russia and hurt its adversaries. donald trump was in part the beneficiary, it's alleged by our intelligence agencies, of that russian campaign, then took to using the term "fake news" to describe what we think of, in my business, as mainstream, independent news media. calling their reports when they were critical of trump "fake news". - they have no sources. they just make 'em up. - [ari] after the second day's briefing, infamous saturday night with sean came out and attacked the press for the crowd size of the inaugural. - i don't think there's any question that it was the largest watched inauguration ever.
- and then on monday, he conducted the first normal briefing and it was a good briefing. i was on nightline and i got asked about it that monday, and i said, "if sean fumbled the ball on saturday, he picked it up and ran for a first down on monday." all they aired was "sean fumbled the ball on saturday". is that fake news? is that people reacting to fake news? the press is too often, too many times, lost it's interest in fully informing people, and instead it's replaced by them stirring the pot more than providing the facts, and that's a problem. - [narrator] as the veracity of the news media is increasingly called into question, those in power can more easily dismiss press reports with which they disagree. - not you. - can you give us a chance? - your organization's terrible. - you are attacking our news organization. - your organization. - can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir? - go ahead. - obviously, i don't like to see my colleagues attacked for what often is aggressive, accurate reporting. what i really don't like to see is this russian propaganda theme.
that we're surrounded by fake news. it's an attempt to dilute the influence of the american press and promote russian propaganda instruments like rt, like sputnik. - the press is biased in a liberal direction. they're biased in favor of conflict. but i don't use the words "fake media". i think that the media can make mistakes, and they do make mistakes, and when they make a mistake, it should be pointed out. but i disagree with the notion that that means that they are "fake". - this term has been commandeered by the trump administration and trump supporters to describe anything the new york times, the washington post, mainstream media does. so they've kind of quite effectively hijacked the term "fake news" for their own purposes. - the term has become meaningless now. it has no kinda analytical purchase. it's basically an all-purpose word for news that you don't like. - [narrator] some traditional news outlets are now struggling to stay afloat as they face new competition with different journalistic standards.
- what's frustrating the american people today, and this is the question i get asked more than any other question is, where do we go just to get the facts? where do we go to get the truth? there's no good answer anymore. - a headline that says "pope francis endorses donald trump". fake. "fbi agent who was reporting on hilary clinton dead in murder-suicide." these kinds of stories, which were all fake, but the 20 most shared fake news stories about the 2016 election had 1.3 million more pieces of engagement, that means shares, likes, than the 20 most popular real news stories about the election. - the rise of facebook, google, amazon, and other very powerful consolidating companies, are disrupting the advertising market, and depriving traditional media of revenue, so they're in a struggle to try and get back
the kind of revenue they had 20 or 30 years ago. (somber piano music) - [narrator] traditional journalism is costly, and it remains to be seen just how many are willing to continue to cover those costs. - if you think about what it takes to pay just a reporter, much less the newsroom who supports her, to spend months in the field, learning what's happening. cultivating sources, digging into documents, and research. it's expensive, but that's the kind of reporting and information that we need, because there are so few other sources to get those perspectives. - over the last 20 to 30 years, and really intensifying over the last decade, there've been massive closings of foreign bureaus. there's only actually about five newspapers left that have multiple foreign bureaus. - we have a young, we call 'em millennials, beginning to kinda grow up on free content.
free apps. free news sites. downloading free movies, free music. the idea that i have to pay for content, whether it's news or entertainment content, is slowly kinda coming back but ten years, 15 years of that is really hard to wean out of the behavior of consumers. - that attitude towards allowing everything to be automated allowed fake news to really take on a life of it's own and i'm not sure that we can put the genie back in the bottle. this is going to take a lot of effort, and understanding by americans that they should want real news and they should want balanced news. and that takes education. - [narrator] like traditional media, social media is controlled by private companies, many of which are taking steps to end the abuse of their platforms. - we've seen very dark acts arise on facebook live, which is a challenge the company to ask itself, are they responsible for preventing violence,
or suicide on their own platform? and they've answered, well, we gotta do better. and they've hired people, and they're trying to write algorithms to detect problems before they occur, but the underlying question is, are they a neutral platform? or are they an editorial platform? - there's a lot of soul searching going on in silicon valley about the role that platforms like facebook and twitter played in the dissemination of false information. there is a responsibility that these companies have to at least be cognizant of what is being spread on their platforms. - social media titans are coming to understand they have been enabling those people yelling, "fire!" in a crowded theater. - if you asked facebook, are you responsible for your content, they'd do their best to get off the hook. even if they were able to hire a lot of people to do that, would we trust those people they'd hired? wouldn't we immediately accuse them of bias?
wouldn't there be polarization? - [narrator] crossing the line between publisher and platform poses challenges, but it may be in the interest of social media companies to get out ahead of the problem. - i'm trying to get us down from la-la land here. the truth of the matter is you have five million advertisers that change every month. every minute, probably every second. you don't have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do ya? - i care deeply about the democratic process, and protecting it's integrity. facebook's mission is all about giving people a voice, and bringing people closer together. those are democratic values and we're proud of them. i don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. that's not what we stand for. - it's gonna be expensive to have moderation, but that's what news organizations wrestled with for a long time, and if internet companies are gonna get effectively into the news business and
into the information business, they also have to accept some of that responsibility, as well, and indeed to their credit, since the election, they have taken some big ol' steps in that direction. - the most important thing to understand about the social media revolution, as it relates to journalism, is that for the first time in 60 years, broadcasters and publishers have lost control of their distribution. they can no longer be in business unless they take on facebook, or snap, as a partner. that's where the audiences are. - it's incumbent on news organizations to make sure that they maintain standards of the flow of information as they make a transition from traditional print media to digital to social media, and spreading news and information more quickly, more widely. if we don't maintain our own standards of how we deliver the information, then we're part of the problem. - [narrator] the turbulence now underway marks a transition between old business models
governing news and information and the dawn of a new digital era. ultimately, it is the consumers of information who will need to decide what kind of media they want. - [announcer] great decisions is america's largest discussion program on global affairs. discussion groups meet in community centers, libraries, places of worship, and homes across the country to discuss global issues with their community. participants read the eight-topic briefing book, meet to discuss each topic, and complete a ballot, which shares their views with congress. to start or join a discussion group in your community, visit greatdecisions.org, or call 1-800-477-5836. great decisions is produced by the foreign policy association, in association with thomson reuters.
funding for great decisions is provided by price waterhouse coopers, llp. - [announcer] next time on great decisions. once seen as a model of democracy, the tide seems to be turning in turkey. critics charge that president recep tayyip erdogan used a failed coup d'etat in 2016 as a means of consolidating his own power. great decisions' producers traveled to turkey to examine the relationship with this key u.s. ally. turkey, a partner in crisis, next time on great decisions. (dramatic drums) (soft music)