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‘Facts’ are free, but ads are sacred

18 November 2016


Scrolling: Facebook encourages users to select news that gratifies their prejudices

Scrolling: Facebook encourages users to select news that gratifies their prejudices

DID you know that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President? If not, you’re right out of the loop: nearly 900,000 people shared the news on Facebook in the days before the US election (News, 11 November).

It was, of course, entirely false; but it was interesting, and pleasurable, to believe.

Of all the stories that illustrate the influence of Facebook on the election result and the preceding campaign, this is one of the most instructive, because it would have been so very hard to kill, while remaining trivial to disprove.

Anyone who knows about the real Pope Francis would know that he came very close last year to saying that Mr Trump could not be a real Christian, since Christians were people who built bridges and not walls. Anyone who has actually read his encyclicals knows that he loathes American capitalism, and is unconditionally on the side of the millions whom Mr Trump has promised to deport.

But, really, these are boring, mainstream-media facts. Who cares about them? If the actor playing the Pope this season really is some kind of lefty environmentalist, then he is just playing the part badly. The real Pope would hate Hillary Clinton; so, of course, he would endorse Mr Trump.


SPECIALIST journalists know that most people do not want to know what Pope Francis, or any other religious leader, really thinks. This is true of all specialisms, and for all foreign correspondents. But everyone also believes that their subject is treated with unique disdain by the readers and editors. Most readers on any subject want to be entertained, and to be reassured that the characters they believe in are playing to type.

There is always a tiny minority who want accurate information and deep understanding on any subject, and some who want it on every subject.

But there are not enough of these to support mass media as we have known them. That scale of enterprise relies on advertising. Since it is the business of ad-supported journalism to give the reader what they want, and quickly, before some rival can do it better, there is a constant pressure to refract the news into soap operas, and to establish which part in these soaps any public figure is playing.

Success produces what is known as having a strong editorial personality. It rarely happens because of a single illuminating story; it requires a long period of rigorous and consistent selection of stories that fill out a character’s part. So, for example, Breitbart News, a successful far-right site whose owner is now chief strategist for the Trump White House, has a story category for “black crime”.

The treatment by the left-wing papers of the Roman Catholic Church conforms entirely to this pattern. I do not want to suggest that it is only the papers of the Right that do this — but the Right has been much more ruthless and energetic in its pursuit of opportunities.

Facebook and Twitter have magnified this effect. They encourage their users to select the news that gratifies their prejudice, and never to see any other sort. In fact, they encourage this behaviour, since that is what keeps people reading, and, in turn, makes them available to advertisers.

The more Facebook knows about what you want, like, and believe, the better the proposition it can offer its advertisers: the last time I looked, the audience was sliced up in 92 different ways. And political interests are, of course, a huge part of how some people define themselves; cultural affinities still more. This means that messages spread on trusted networks in ways that the traditional media cannot hope to rival.


THE charge against the big social-media networks is that Facebook has been the disseminator of lies, and Twitter the disseminator of hatred. The problem with invective on Twitter is well known, but millions of people in the US now get their news from Facebook. One recent survey found that 38 per cent of the stories on the three top right-wing sites on Facebook were untrue — as were 20 per cent of the stories on the top left-wing pages.

But, of course, this survey might itself be using a tendentious definition of “fact”. The story that the Pope endorses Trump is clearly untrue, but the underlying claim that makes it credible — that Hillary Clinton represents an existential threat to traditional Christianity — is a matter on which reasonable people will differ. They will tend to differ in ways that do not unduly emphasise reason; but, however full of fear and invective the actual debate becomes, it is still theoretically possible to make a thoughtful case on either side.

I suppose it may be slightly cheering that, while Facebook is incredibly profitable, Twitter, although used by hundreds of millions of people, is losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The appetite for hatred appears much smaller than the appetite for comforting and interesting lies.

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