A Babel Fish Bookshelf

Understanding Social Facts

The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World by John Wihbey

Something important became clear after the redacted Mueller Report was made public. It turns out a lot of journalists got it right. Stories they reported have been confirmed by the investigatory work of the Special Counsel. Of course, there will still be a large percentage of Americans who believe it was all a witch hunt and now it’s time to hunt down some Democrats to even the score, but that’s the reality of the world we live in, where evidence and facts are up for debate and the very basis of determining what’s true is contested through our social networks, online and off.

The Social Fact coverI’m mulling this over while reading John Wihbey’s new book, The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World. (Full disclosure: Wihbey worked on Project Information Literacy‘s 2018 News Study and I’m working with PIL on a new project, but our involvement hasn’t overlapped.) The book is about the role of journalism in our networked world, how our current information technologies and the networks that form in and through them impact knowledge, as well as what we could do to make the sharing of knowledge healthier and less susceptible to distortion and manipulation. Wihbey does this through giving readers clear and helpful primers on things like network science and artificial intelligence as they relate to the flows of information, all anchored in the history of journalism and network technologies – especially helpful because it shows the questions we face today aren’t entirely different from ones that have been asked and answered in the past. I find that reassuring.

What does Wihbey mean by “the social fact”? It’s “media content accompanied and influenced by information indicating social attention or approval.” It’s the ways we understand the world influenced by the filters and recommendations built into our social systems – not just algorithmically but as part of how humans make sense of the world and how journalists play a role in finding and telling stories, and how those stories find an audience. A lot of attention has been paid to the ways social media and search platforms have become intermediaries that deny they have a journalistic role even as they filter and present news. A lot of attention, too, has been paid to the gutting of newsrooms and the difficulty of finding new business models as readers want news for free and advertising goes digital, with Google and Facebook sweeping up most of the profits. What I like about Wihbey’s approach is that he digs deeper into more fundamental questions: what does it mean to share information? What role does the public play in creating shared knowledge? What role should journalists play in this networked world, and what can we learn from journalism’s past? Most pressing: What do we need to do now to create better conditions for an informed democracy?

Journalism educators will be especially interested in Chapter 7, where Wihbey lays out what journalists need in their knowledge toolbox. As I read through his suggested competencies, I kept nodding because it seems exactly the toolbox librarians need, too. It even seemed incredibly applicable to what we mean by information literacy. Here’s a sample:

  • We need a “deep and flexible capacity to master core complex issues—to acquire, so to speak knowledge about how to use knowledge.”
  • We need to understand basic statistics and quantitative reasoning in order to evaluate and create information. (I need to work on this.)
  • We need “the ability to map research discourses and to discern the ‘rough state of knowledge’ within different disciplines.”
  • We need to understand how the web works – not just how to use it, but how it “operates at a technical and behavioral-social level.”
  • We need “understanding from business and cultural perspectives of how commercial, third-party online platforms operate and are governed and how form and function may affect information flows.”
  • We need “a theoretical sense of socially networked behavior, informed particularly by the quantitative social science and network science literature and including the techniques of social network analysis.”

That sounds like a tall order, but both journalists and librarians have to become at least passingly familiar with disciplines that are making sense of the way information works today, because that’s what our professions are about. Basically, it’s a call for interdisciplinary learning and knowledge-building to serve the public good. This book does a good job of making complicated things understandable (he is a journalist, after all) while also anchoring it all in network science, the social sciences, and the history of technology and journalism.

For all that mastering this new set of tools seems a huge challenge given economic and social forces, I find Wihbey’s call to action invigorating. Our work matters, and while we may have a lot to learn, a lot depends on us doing our work well.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.