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Will social media become the fourth estate of power?

As we ascend to digital first, the world’s power is shifting.

We used to have three estates of power; the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. In today’s terms, this might translate to the politicians, the capitalists, and the people.

In addition to this model of power distribution, the news media has sometimes been counted as the fourth estate of power.

And social media is continuing to tip the scales for this balance of power — but not in an obvious way, it seems.

Why popularity and power aren’t mutually exclusive

In terms of social media visibility, the US President Donald Trump isn’t exactly a best practice case study for students of media and communications.

However, Trump demonstrates several distinguishing behaviours largely unseen in public affairs. Several of these behaviours relate to news media management:

Trump’s unorthodox policies, media management style, and intermittent tweeting has come at cost; he’s getting no respect from the mainstream news media and he’s characterised in pop culture as dimwitted, incompetent, and childish.

Still, popularity and power aren’t the same thing. One might argue that using Twitter several times a day actually increases Trump’s influence. Despite all the flack and ridicule.

POTUS likes to play golf.

The tectonic shift of societal powers

As the media landscape shifts, what is happening to the power distribution? Are politicians getting mightier and the news media getting weaker?

There are two Swedish stories that I’d like to highlight as precursors for such an analysis:

Story 1: For decades, the Swedish Social Democrats dominated the political landscape in Sweden and arguably, they had some of the best strategic communicators on staff. There’s this long-lived rumour in the communication industry that they applied a triangulation method for managing the news agenda:

If the news agenda was focusing on a discussion that weren’t strategically beneficial or the party, they were ready with a battery of negative stories to leak.

If they had been positive stories, they wouldn’t have the newsworthiness to push the top stories out of the front pages1. But they were negative in a strategically better manner for the Social Democrats allowing them a much easier transition into their own preferred talking points.

Story 2: The other story is of the former leader of the Moderate Party in Sweden, Carl Bildt. Intellectual and quick on his feet, he’s known for managing the media well. However, he was also an early adopter in using social media to correct the news media.

I’ve spoken to several journalists who openly confessed to being much more careful when citing him because they knew that if they got anything wrong, Bildt would set the story (and the reporter) straight via his own direct channels.

For Swedish journalists, this was a new type of public humiliation were the subject could highlight that a specific piece of journalism was based on inaccuracies.

Social media (including blogs) can have a positive impact on journalism — like having an army of media watchdogs working around the clock to keep investigative reporting honest and self-regulating. But there are two sides to this coin:

Powerful policymakers like Trump now have the divisive power of the mass media in the palm of their hands — quite literally.

The power law distribution: Few are chosen by the many

Is the internet being transformed into an amplification chamber for the rich?

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky pointed out just how unprepared we were as a society for the sudden possibilities for everyone to voice, and more importantly share, personal messages.

I would argue that we’re equally unprepared for people of power having unrestricted access to mass mediums without any restrictions of editorial space whatsoever. And traditional media have no choice but to cover these announcements, thus amplifying the power of the already powerful.

This rather predictable behaviour isn’t due to any moral shortcomings amongst the audience. It’s the statistical power law distribution; in systems where many are given many choices, a few will be chosen by the great many, while most of get to reside in the long tail of the curve.

season 1 texas GIF by SpongeBob SquarePants
Life advice for sociopaths.

The Tycoons of Mass Reach and the Silent Miners

The power law distribution allows single powerful individuals, like Trump, to triangulate and bypass.

Or, in the words of Julius Caesar, to divide and conquer.

In the wake of the techlash, this is an issue of separation of powers with serious implications. The people is one power, the legislators another, and the media a third. Is social media, then, a fourth separate estate?

You could argue that people are giving away their power to corporations in exchange for networking services, politicians team up with influencers to become influencers themselves, and the traditional news media just can’t figure out how to use social media to save themselves.

Instead of three or four estates of power, we’re left with two; the “Tycoons of Mass Reach”, power-law distributed celebrities, alongside with the “Silent Miners”, a dozen multinational corporations mining for data and tweaking algorithms at their pleasure.

Personally, I think the internet could do better than this.

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash.

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  1. There’s an old and somewhat morbid journalism adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”