While topics surrounding mass communication are en vogue today (think fake news, debates over social media, etc.), the study of mass communication has been ongoing for decades. While early mass media researchers could little predict the invention of such a disruptive influence as the Internet, let alone the ensuing phenomenon of social media, some of these scholars were able to supersede the technical constraints of their time in order to tap into lasting insights about society.
One such theory that yields interesting insights into today’s media environment is “agenda setting.” The term was born out of a study of the US Presidential Election of 1968. The theory was developed with the intention of solving at least a part of the mystery surrounding the precise effects of the media upon the public. How do journalists influence the public? What role do they play?
At that time, this theory emerged to explain how editors, newsroom staff and broadcasters play a role in shaping political reality by how they choose and display news. They control not only what we learn about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. The mass media determines the important issues, that is, the media sets the “agenda” of the campaign.
Back in 1968, people were consuming mostly the same media. They were watching the same news shows. They were reading the same local paper as their neighbors. Large swaths of people shared the same ‘agenda.’ For better or for worse, they had a commonality with one another in terms of what they deemed important in terms of issues.
Today, however, this theory is turned on its head – but not quite in the way you might think. Let’s look at Facebook. Clinically speaking, Facebook is a free social networking site and service where users can post comments, share photographs and links to news or other interesting content on the Web, play games, chat live and stream video. It has a community of 2 billion users, making Facebook the largest social app in terms of logged-in users.
When passively seeking content on Facebook, people (probably you) will scroll through their (or your) news feed. The news feed is a constantly updating list of stories. Yet Facebook’s news feed does not show a chronological list of a user’s friends’ posts. Facebook deploys complex, proprietary algorithms that select what will appear in each user’s news feed. To do this, the news feed ranking team at Facebook devises a system capable of assigning any given Facebook post a “relevancy score” specific to any given Facebook user. For the relevancy score, Facebook uses a different kind of algorithm, called a prediction algorithm, so that content is uniquely tailored to each individual user. Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t only predict whether you’ll actually hit the like button on a post based on your past behavior, it also predicts whether you’ll click, comment, share, or hide it, or even mark it as spam. Facebook can and does alter the algorithms that control what items appear in a users’ news feed without informing users. (Learn more here if curious.)
What insights does agenda setting cast on this new reality?
Well, Facebook serves as many people’s news source. And we are still as susceptible to our agenda being ‘set’ as we ever were. Time has not changed that. What has changed is who is setting the agenda and the difference between everyone’s agendas. The original “agenda setters” referred to the traditional drivers of mass media. These were constituted by news room staff, editors, journalists etc. In many instances today, this has changed. The “agenda setters” themselves may be the human beings who work on the news feed team at the corporation of Facebook (or other social media that use this strategy) and write the algorithms. The algorithms themselves, the lines of code that dictate what appears on any given user’s news feed, become a synergized part of the “agenda setters” group. It is both human and machine.
Another important insight is this: we don’t share the same agenda. Content is tailored to each unique user. It is selected on what a user has indicated is relevant to him or her in the past and can mirrors his or her political/social/cultural outlook in order to optimize the user’s engagement. Traditional mass media (newspaper, radio, television, movies) broadcasts its content to a large group of people. While people can select the particular medium they choose to consume, the same content is still received by a large group of individuals. With a tailored newsfeed, there is no general audience. Each receiver is an individual who is receiving individual content.
To summarize, where we historically saw the same news stories, we do no longer. And where historically journalists set the agenda on what we saw, they no longer exclusively do.
Does this matter? Is this good? Is it bad? Does it allow us more diversity? Or does it insulate us from one another, pushing us further apart rather than closer together?
I doubt there are easy answers. There seldom are on complex social issues. However, it is well worth thinking about and examining individually and collectively. The more we understand the tools we use on a daily basis – and the more we understand their influence on us individually and socially – the better equipped we are to discerning and savvy members of our modern society.
Sources and for further reading:
Balakrishnan, A. (2017, June 27). 2 billion people now use Facebook each month, CEO Mark Zuckerberg says. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/27/how-many-users-does-facebook-have-2-billion-a-month-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-says.html
Constine, J. (2017, June 27). Facebook now has 2 billion monthly users… and responsibility. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/27/facebook-2-billion-users/
King, P. (1997). The press, candidate images, and voter perceptions. In M. McCombs, D. L. Shaw, & D. Weaver (Eds.), Communication and democ- racy (pp. 29-40). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kiousis, S., & McCombs, M. (2004). Agenda-Setting Effects and Attitude Strength. Communication Research, 31(1), 36-57.
McCombs, M. E. (2014). Setting the agenda: the mass media and public opinion. Cambridge: Polity.
McCombs, M. E., & Estrada, G. (1997). The news media and the pictures in our heads. In S. Iyengar & R. Reeves (Eds.), Do the media govern? (pp. 237- 247). London: Sage.
McCombs, M. E., Llamas, J. P., Lopez-Escobar, E., & Rey, F. (1997). Candidate images in Spanish elections: Second-level agenda-setting effects. Journal- ism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 74(4), 703-717.
McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.
Oremus, W. (2016, January 03). Who Really Controls What You See in Your Facebook Feed and Why They Keep Changing It. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/cover_story/2016/01/how_facebook_s_news_feed_algorithm_works.html
Weaver, D. H., Graber, D. A., McCombs, M. E., & Eyal, C. H. (1981). Media agenda-setting in a presidential election. New York: Praeger.