Zuckerman calls for a broader study of the media 'ecosystem' to battle mis- and disinformation

As academics continue to study the ways mis- and disinformation enter conversations on social media, one member of the UMass Amherst faculty suggests they step back and observe the issue as part of a complete media “ecosystem” – one which includes the relationships between both user-generated social media and professionally-created news media.

Ethan Zuckerman
Ethan Zuckerman

“Could understanding media ecosystems be a fundamental shift in how we understand our complex media environments?” Ethan Zuckerman, public policy, information and communication, asks in a new paper published in the journal Information, Communication & Society. “We need such a shift if we want to understand pressing topics, like the harnessing of conspiratorial thinking for political gain, as we are seeing in the United States. So long as those who govern are powerful media manipulators, understanding the complex dynamics of media ecosystems will be fundamental to understanding our political, social and economic systems as well as our communications.”

Zuckerman, the director of the UMass Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, details not just the shift in power through the last century, from print publishers, to radio and television broadcasters and to digital and social media, but how each media format has operated in symbiosis with the legacy media it replaced. He explains that understanding media as an ecosystem allows us to see how often the reporting conducted by “elite” media outlets becomes the topic of social media discussions, and how powerful those digital discussions can be in cueing offline journalists towards what topics deserve their attention. This approach, he writes, lets us look beyond flows of attention between different media types and towards larger-scale shifts: from fixed-time media (the morning newspaper, the evening news) to asynchronous media (streaming video, text posted on the web); from professional content creators to amateurs; from a text-centric media to a videocentric one.

He also explains the importance of algorithms, artificial intelligence and discovery engines – the tools that help us discover interesting and relevant content, either through choices we make or through carefully engineered serendipity –as well as the growing impact of bots and brigades, and the roles all of these factors play in determining what we see when we are online.

“We need a shift in attitudes and approaches,” he writes. “For media ecosystem studies to gain prominence, we need an increased understanding from the field that data that comes only from one platform, or even just from social media, has limitations. Yet, this work is also foundational. The deep understanding of a single platform, or of the use of multiple platforms by a single subculture or community, developed through quantitative or qualitative methods, provides a basis for understanding global cross-platform flows. But this valuable work should be complemented with tools and techniques that seek to analyze flows of attention across many platforms and communities.

“My hope is that we can build on the discoveries made of particular linguistic or national media ecosystems and start to better understand fundamental dynamics and patterns that recur in different contexts.”

The complete article, “Why Study Media Ecosystems?” is available for purchase via Taylor & Francis Online.