[WATCH] Media experts sound warning on Facebook’s ‘echo chambers’

Facebook has allowed people to block off disagreeable news items and opinions, media exerts Gorg Mallia and Carmen Sammut warn 

Media experts Gorg Mallia and Carmen Sammut on Xtra. Photo: James Bianchi
Media experts Gorg Mallia and Carmen Sammut on Xtra. Photo: James Bianchi

Social media sites, particularly Facebook, has twisted the way people consume news, local media experts have warned.

Gorg Mallia, who heads the university’s media and communications department, argued that Facebook has essentially allowed people to shut out opinions they disagree with.

“In the past, people would read a newspaper from cover to cover, and would therefore read both stories that they like and stories they dislike,” he said. “However, Facebook has allowed people to only access the stories they agree with.”

He warned that this, and Facebook’s algorithms, can distort people’s perceptions of public opinion as it shuts them off from diverging opinions.

“If all your Facebook friends were against Donald Trump or Brexit, then you would only have seen one side of the coin and would have imagined that the majority of people were thinking the same,” he said.

Similarly, media researcher and university lecturer Carmen Sammut said that Facebook – which some 80% of Maltese people now have access to – has created echo chambers.

“Whenever controversial issues erupt, such as on divorce and spring hunting, people start insulting each other on Facebook and the temptation would be to remove people who insult you,” she said. “Even I have had to bite my tongue not to remove Facebook friends who were writing racist comments. It’s part of human nature – people use social media in the comfort of their own homes and don’t like this comfort being disrupted.”

‘Muscat never lost his one-on-one contact with people’

During the programme, host Saviour Balzan questioned his hosts whether the Maltese media is facing a crisis – given that Labour won a landslide victory, despite the fact that the media was strongly critical of it.

Carmen Sammut noted a recent Eurobarometer survey, which found that around 52% of Maltese people trust the government, compared with only 25% who trust the media. However, she noted that the trust figures in the media haven’t altered since 2008, but that the gap between trust in government and trust in media has widened.

She said that Labour’s triumph was related to Joseph Muscat’s ability to communicate with people on a direct, one-on-one basis.

“Sometimes we tend to exaggerate the role of the media during election campaigns,” she said. “The crowds had responded to Muscat’s mass meeting speeches – which were positive, passionate and provided a vision.”

Gorg Mallia also said that journalists must take on the role of gatekeepers of the truth, but warned that journalism in Malta is in a precarious situation, with many journalists choosing to change their careers because they are constantly subjected to attacks from all sides and because the wages on offer are low.

He added that they often find themselves in tricky positions – frequently compromising between their roles as fact-reporting journalists and their need to satiate the public’s constant desire for sensational stories.

Moreover, he warned that Malta’s political duopoly has led to a situation whereby journalists who are critical of one party are instantly labelled as being extensions of the second party.

More in Xtra