Who's the Gatekeeper?

In the face of bombarding messages and overwhelming information, our ability to illustrate discernment is critical for aligning our opinions with our values.

We live in a time where information on any topic we could think of rests at our fingertips. The ease that realization brings can be empowering or enabling. Access to information is quick and effortless, but how we digest it, interact with and share it shouldn’t be.

Decentralization of the media has indirectly placed a level of responsibility on those who utilize self-publishing platforms, such as social media. In previous times, journalists and news editors were the gatekeepers of information streamed to the public. 

Today, their roles as gatekeepers are still relevant in tangent to the influence of disseminating information and public opinions through social media. The directional flow of information is no longer as clear or linear. 

We live in a world where social currency buys us self-esteem, and an online tribe helps spread opinions and information, factual or not, virally. In the face of bombarding messages and overwhelming information, our ability to illustrate discernment is critical for aligning our opinions with our values.

🌁 The Gatekeeping Theory 🌁

Many events happen across the world every day and only a few of those become news. The media’s central role in society had been to extract and present a selection of such events in a digestible manner to the public. 

What media institutions decide to be newsworthy or not makes them gatekeepers to information and perspectives on particular events. Kurt Lewin initially presented the traditional gatekeeper theory in his 1945 publication, “Forces Behind Food Habits and Methods of Change,” where the journalists and news editors were considered gatekeepers.

We have to ask ourselves, does the traditional framework of the gatekeeper theory still apply to the way we interact with news today? In some ways, yes and in some ways no. We still have major news institutions, which all harbor their own opinions and culture. Events are still sorted through and selected by individuals with their own biases. The difference now lies in the opportunity for anyone with a self-publishing platform to be a gatekeeper.

As audience members of the news, we can influence media coverage on particular events through pressures made on social media or inform our followers of an event that is yet known to mass media. In addition, the interaction between mass media and the audience allows for discussion and accountability to neutrality and unbias reporting.

Axel Bruns, professor of digital media research, noted this shift from more traditional gatekeeping to something he refers to as Gatewatching. Bruns defines Gatewatching as “observing the many gates through which a steady stream of information passes from these sources, and of highlighting from this stream that information which is of most relevance to one’s interests or the interests of one’s wider community.”

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

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

Aristotle

Public Opinion

The opinions we each hold are colorful representations of our beliefs, morals, and ultimately, interpretations of information we consume. 

According to social cognitive psychologists Henri Tajfel and Shelley Taylor, individuals create mental shortcuts, also known as heuristics, which are needed to grasp the immense amount of information processed daily. These shortcuts save us energy and effort when problem-solving, coming to conclusions quickly and accurately. They also help us simplify complex and challenging questions.

While heuristics help us make quick and accurate decisions within life-threatening circumstances, sometimes, coming to a conclusion or developing an opinion without enough information can be harmful. In fact, it can deem us susceptible to relying on heuristic tools such as stereotypes to determine our attitudes and responses. This lack of effort to move beyond our quickest conclusions and deductions can be detrimental to our influence by media sources and various media agendas. 

Research has shown that people are less likely to engage in critical thinking skills because they find media sources such as television, radio, and magazines as “leisure activities.” Unsurprisingly, this also 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. Divisive media rhetoric can lead to Affective Polarization (AP) summarized as, “the tendency for partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party.” 

Research has shown that AP has such tangible implications that it affects our social and economic lives, the amount of time spent with our loved ones, where we work and shop, and whom we date and marry.

While our opinions ensure that we create a life that is authentic to ourselves, it’s still important to question it. It is essential to reflect on when and where we have collected particular opinions and to do some spring cleaning, if you will, of the ones that perhaps were never ours.

There is still a gap in empirical research that illustrates how the decentralization of media sources affects public opinion. In the 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz theorized that public opinion formation depended more on the influence between individuals than the individual and mass media through the Personal Influence theory. Their findings tell us that we may influence one another more 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 & Information Virality

The concept of Social Currency has been a prominent topic of discussion on social media platforms. It refers to an individual’s potential to provide information that their audience values, which they then share with more people. It draws upon the concept of Social Capital as presented by Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman. 

Social Capital is the benefit gathered from social networks, and it’s not so much about the size of the network but instead having the position needed to take advantage of one’s social network. We must uphold the same pressures of accountability that we place on mass media to influential gatekeepers on other media platforms.

In some respects, the environment that self-publishing news and information provides require even more critique and critical thinking to check fact from opinion. When we share information on our social platforms, we take on the role of the gatekeeper. This passing of information bears a responsibility to our audience, which usually includes people we respect. Take longer than a moment to reflect on what you post.

And why do we share the information we do with our circles? Investigation into our behaviors is essential in identifying behavior motivators in other peer gatekeepers across media platforms. It’s a step that allows us to gain external perspective to make decisions that incorporate the “why.” Researchers have found that the core reasons we share information are to express ourselves positively and enhance our social bonds. Self-enhancement is a basic human need to perceive ourselves positively in the eyes of others. 

Social Currency Cartoon

One example of achieving this would be to share valuable information signaling to others one is au courant, well-informed and knowledgeable. Take a moment to reflect on an individual you admire, in a social media context, with whom you share common values. 

How do their values come across through the information they share? How does their audience respond to their input? 

Can you think of a hypothetical reason as to why they share the information that they do?

These questions can assist in preventing information virality that may come at a risk to our communities. Information virality theory is described as a simultaneous circulation of information over a short period, reaching diverse networks and producing a rapid acceleration of information exposure.


Studies have shown that virality signals popularity and social approval by others which links us back to the importance of understanding Social Capital, who has it, and who doesn’t. 

Over the past year, we bore witness to information virality’s role in mobilizing people against social injustices and the spread of misinformation with adverse consequences. There have also been instances where mass media sources covered particular events only after they went viral across social media platforms.

Researchers have found evidence that suggests influential gatekeepers with high Social Capital can trigger sudden and significant exposure to information. Such information depends on the content, while the intention for sharing can change many times as it passes between each person. 

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

Developing Critical Thinking

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

  • Research the authority of the author and their claims
  • Create your summary and analysis from the information
  • Formulate your opinion (Do you agree with what the author says? Why or why not?)
  • Discuss the topic with someone who believes in different ideologies
  • Look up any words you don’t understand

In addition to practicing our critical thinking skills, learning how to read a peer-reviewed (PR) article is also helpful in basing our opinions. A quick way to grasp the overall question and findings of a PR article is to read the Abstract. Found at the top of the article, here, you will find a concise summary highlighting the focus, study results, and conclusions.

Assessing Information

Below are further tips on how to read through a peer-reviewed article:

  • Have a question you wish to answer in your head while reading
  • Skim the report for information relevant to your question
  • Question what you read since all studies bear their flaws
  • Feel free to read out of order
  • Use keywords or concepts from the article to dive further into a topic

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

Henry David Thoreau

Conclusion

We, the public, the audience, are gatekeepers. 

But suppose 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 may have never come across if it hadn't been for your share. The impact could be defining. 

Continue to question what information you come across, stay present with difficult realizations, and forge opinions that take time to develop and mature.

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