Online news, fake news, filter bubbles, and mainstream media. Or how I learnt to stop retweeting Trump. 

A report came out today from the Reuters Institute in Oxford University, published by Rasmus Neilsen, detailing where people get their news nowadays. It’s really interesting, and confirms what many researchers have suggested in the last few years, that the internet is becoming an important space for the production, consumption, and sharing of news.

The report notes that 84% of the 18-24 year old participants viewed the internet as their main source of news, though interestingly only 24% of 18-24 year olds viewed the more narrow category of ‘social media’ as their main source as news. This says a lot for a working definition of social media, for our understanding of where young people are on the internet, and for our understanding of how young people use the internet. Researchers need to continue to grapple with the shifting boundaries of social media, and clearly need to continue to broaden their scope beyond just Twitter and Facebook in order to understand the entirety of the young people’s online actions and interactions.

With only 4% of participants viewing print media as the main source of news, and 9% listing TV as the main source, it is clear that the shift towards online news consumption is not abating any time soon. However, we also need to consider another form of news consumption that we can begin to unpack through looking at Fiske’s ideas around ‘popular culture’ and ‘mass culture’.

Fiske’s writing in the 1980s attempted to problematise the narrative around how we consumed media. Rather than viewing the relationship between audience and media as a simplistic one-way street in which the media told us how to feel about an issue, Fiske argued that there was a distinction between ‘mass culture’ and ‘popular culture’ that needed to be considered. Mass culture in essence is the culture that is presented to us by the institution of the media. However, Fiske noted that we could resist, subvert, and challenge these messages, and that we could in turn create our own culture; popular culture. Popular culture, in Fiske’s words, is “made by the people, not produced by the culture industry”, and therefore contains the voices and ideas of the people. Fiske suggested therefore that we need to understand both how culture is presented to us, but equally how it is used, and what life it took on when it came in contact with a socially grounded audience. He noted that:

“…by ignoring the complexity and creativity by which the subordinate cope with the commodity system and its ideology in their everyday lives, the dominant underestimate and thus devalue the conflict and struggle entailed in constructing popular culture within a capitalist society”

This suggests therefore that news is not just what we read and consume from a popular news source, it is also our reactions to these events and issues.  We can understand news not only as a product of ‘mass culture’ passed to us by the news media, but also as ‘popular culture’ created in part through our reaction to the news. Through our responses to Trump’s Tweets, through our browsing of vitriolic comment sections, through reading our Aunt’s Facebook posts, through reading blogs, we are consuming both ‘popular culture’ and ‘mass culture’.

Interestingly, mass culture and popular culture are not separate or separable; they exist together, meaning that popular culture, though subversive, contains multiple layers and multiple voices (or what Bakhtin termed ‘Heteroglossia’). As Fiske notes:

“A text that is to be made into popular culture must, then, contain both the forces of domination and the opportunities to speak against them, the opportunities to oppose or evade them from subordinated, but not totally disempowered, positions. Popular culture is made by the people at the interface between the products of the culture industries and everyday life”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the internet, where we are surrounded by issues as they unfurl, with many layers of commentary, and many attempts to create ‘popular culture’. Thus popular culture becomes a battleground as multiple forces attempt to create the narrative of the news and shape popular culture out of the remnants of mass culture. The news then is not the battleground here, instead it is people’s reaction to the news. In otherwords, the news is arguably less important today than the reaction to the news.

This is increasingly apparent through Trump’s retweeting of News platforms such as the Drudge Report and Fox News, and his attempts to delegitimise other sources such as MSNBC and the New York Times. We can see the multiple interacting layers of popular culture in action as Trump provides his own attempt at the creation of popular culture. This is inevitably followed by other users retweeting Trump and providing their own commentary, followed by other users reacting to this…and so on… Indeed, this even becomes cyclical as Trump’s tweeting then become the news, which is then further commented upon. Thus popular culture and mass culture become largely inseparable online, and the division between what is news and what isn’t becomes hazy.

When we consider how we consume news, and where this comes from, we must not forget to also consider how we create and perpetuate news. We must consider what voices we are amplifying, what narratives we are resisting, and what sources we are challenging. We must not forget that retweeting users that we disagree with in some manner amplifies their voice through their heteroglossic presence. The internet is not a level playing ground for everyone, and as users we choose to give credence to others through following and retweeting them. We should think about who we allow to create popular culture, and also whose voices we amplify, even in protest to them. Finally, both users and researchers should understand that the news isn’t just something that comes from a newspaper or a website, but that it increasingly is a complex mix of many voices and agendas.