We live in an era when information on any subject imaginable is available at our fingertips. While access to information is quick and easy, how we digest, interact with, and share it should not be.

Previously, journalists and news editors were the gatekeepers of information disseminated to the general public; however, media decentralization has given rise to self-publishing platforms, and the flow of information has changed.

Social currency can buy us self-esteem, and an online tribe can help spread true or false opinions and information, and in the face of bombarding messages and overwhelming information, our ability to demonstrate discernment is critical for aligning our opinions with our values.

🌁 The Gatekeeping Theory 🌁

Every day, many events take place around the world, but only a small percentage of them make headlines. And these headlines help to move a story forward.

Historically, the media has played an important role in society by extracting and making understandable a selection of such events. And it is these media institutions' decision to decide what is newsworthy and what is not that makes them gatekeepers to our minds, as many put their own spin and perspective on an event. 

It's important to consider whether the traditional framework of the gatekeeper theory still applies to how we interact with news in the modern era.

We still have major news organizations, each with its own set of opinions and culture, but now anyone with a self-publishing platform is also a gatekeeper. This makes it possible to influence media coverage of specific events by sharing and promoting content on social media or informing our audience of a a story that is not yet known to the general public.

Axel Bruns, a professor of digital media research, observed this shift from traditional gatekeeping to what he calls Gatewatching. Gatewatching, according to Bruns, is "observing the many gates through which a steady stream of information passes from these sources, and highlighting from this stream that information which is most relevant to one's interests or the interests of one's larger community."

When information is processed and then conveyed to someone else, all gatekeepers, whether consciously or unconsciously, change the information through the various lenses they carry. With this in mind, understanding a gatekeeper's point of view allows us to find ways to question what we read and see how their point of view influences our own.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."


Public Opinion

Our opinions are vivid representations of our beliefs, morals, and, ultimately, interpretations of the information we consume.

Individuals, according to social cognitive psychologists Henri Tajfel and Shelley Taylor, create mental shortcuts, also known as heuristics, that are required to grasp the massive amount of information processed daily. These shortcuts save us time and energy when problem-solving by allowing us to reach quick and accurate conclusions. They also assist us in simplifying complex and difficult questions.

While heuristics assist us in making quick and accurate decisions in life-threatening situations, reaching a conclusion or developing an opinion without sufficient information can be harmful. Indeed, it can predispose us to relying on heuristic tools like stereotypes to determine our attitudes and responses. This failure to go beyond our quickest conclusions and deductions can be detrimental to our influence by media sources and various media agendas.

People are less likely to engage in critical thinking skills, according to research, because they regard media sources such as television, radio, and magazines as "leisure activities." This, unsurprisingly, extends to news programming.

Heuristics illustration

Over the past year, many of us have become familiar with how influential media rhetoric can be over public opinion. Affective Polarization (AP), defined as "the tendency for partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party," can result from divisive media rhetoric.

According to research, AP has such tangible consequences that it influences our social and economic lives, the amount of time we spend with our loved ones, where we work and shop, and who we date and marry.

While our opinions ensure that we live lives that are true to ourselves, it is still necessary to question them. It is critical to reflect on when and where we have gathered specific opinions and to do some spring cleaning, if you will, of those that were possibly never ours.

There is still a gap in empirical research that shows how media decentralization affects public opinion. Through the Personal Influence theory, Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz proposed in the 1950s that public opinion formation was more dependent on the influence of individuals than on the influence of individuals and mass media. Their findings suggest that we may have a greater influence on one another than we realize.

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-trust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciples.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Social Currency

The concept of Social Currency has been a prominent topic of discussion on social media platforms. It refers to a person's ability to provide information that their audience values, which they then share with others. It is based on Pierre Bourdieu's and James Coleman's concept of Social Capital.

Social capital is the benefit derived from social networks, and it is not so much about the size of the network as it is about having the position required to benefit from one's social network. We must apply the same accountability pressures that we apply to influential gatekeepers on other media platforms to mass media.

In some ways, the environment created by self-publishing news and information necessitates even more critique and critical thinking to separate fact from opinion. When we share information on social media, we assume the role of gatekeeper. This information dissemination carries a responsibility to our audience, which typically includes people we respect. Take more than a moment to consider what you post.

And why do we share the information we do with our friends and family? In order to identify behavior motivators in other peer gatekeepers across media platforms, we must investigate our own behaviors. It's a step that allows us to gain outside perspective in order to make decisions that include the "why." 

Researchers discovered that the primary reasons we share information are to positively express ourselves and strengthen our social bonds. Self-improvement is a basic human need that allows us to see ourselves positively in the eyes of others.

Social Currency Cartoon

One way to accomplish this is to share useful information that shows others that you are up to date, well-informed, and knowledgeable. Consider an individual you admire in a social media context and with whom you share common values.

How do their values manifest themselves in the information they share? How does their target audience react to their suggestions?

Can you think of a plausible reason why they share the information that they do?

These questions can help to prevent information virality, which can endanger our communities. According to information virality theory, information virality is defined as the simultaneous circulation of information over a short period of time, reaching diverse networks and resulting in a rapid acceleration of information exposure.

According to various studies, virality indicates popularity and social approval by others, which brings us back to the importance of understanding Social Capital and who has it.

We have seen the role of information virality in mobilizing people against social injustices and the spread of misinformation with negative consequences over the last year. There have also been instances where mass media outlets only covered specific events after they went viral on social media platforms.

Researchers discovered evidence that suggests influential gatekeepers with high social capital can cause sudden and significant information exposure. Such information is dependent on the content, and the intention to share can change many times as it passes from person to person.

This cognitive-behavioral foundation is critical for determining how we will move forward in the Information Age with the tools we need to activate our critical thinking skills.

Developing Critical Thinking

The following are some common ways to improve your critical thinking skills when reading:

    Investigate the author's authority and claims.
    Create your summary and analysis based on the information.
    Discuss the subject with someone who holds opposing views.
    Look up any words you don't know.
    Learn how to read a peer-reviewed (PR) article by starting with the Abstract.

    Think for yourself, or others will think for you without thinking of you.

    Henry David Thoreau


    We, the general public, the audience, are the gatekeepers.

    Assume, however, that you create content or share information on your social media platform. In that case, you stand at a gate, channeling information to your audience that they might not have discovered otherwise. The impact could be life-changing.

    Continue to question the information you encounter, be present with difficult realizations, and form opinions that take time to develop and mature.


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