MetaNews: An Introduction

In the 21st century, we spend our lives bombarded by news. There is an extraordinary and unprecedented range of news sources, many of which offer 24/7 coverage. Large media corporations, social media, and citizen journalists all compete in a race for attention. Within this new media landscape, we must also contend with growing junk news, disinformation, and narrative warfare. The news itself has become a part of the problem; a staggering range of voices and narratives means it is hard to reach an understanding of base reality and make sense of the world.

We need a new way to process the news in response to this chaotic and polarized media landscape. The Consilience Project’s MetaNews uses analytical and computational tools to clarify what happens when news breaks. It analyzes thousands of stories in order to understand important moments in recent news cycles, producing a detailed analysis of representative stories from across the political spectrum.

MetaNews is the third and final article type within the open body of knowledge that is The Consilience Papers. Our analysis aims to make sense of polarized topics explored in our Situational Assessments, which cover consequential current events occurring around the world. Situational Assessments link directly to related Foundations pieces, which themselves provide a grounding in the social theory and essential history that is necessary to understand and address the unique problems of today. This sequence guides a flow of knowledge from underlying theory, through current events to the issues that have become highly polarized and drive social conflict. This is how The Consilience Project structures the contemporary knowledge required to help inspire a new movement towards a necessary cultural enlightenment.

Below, we use the recent example of TikTok to demonstrate how MetaNews addresses consequential and polarizing issues and equips readers with practical insights into the overall media landscape. Each feature outlines patterns and principles that can be applied beyond the scope of a single topic.

Any news cycle now involves multiple reports, interpretations, analyses and reactions, often including audio and video, and frequently edited or presented in biased or confusing ways. This relatively new development in news media defies our old approach of using limited news sources and believing what we see. MetaNews gives readers methods, structures and templates to help them evaluate the news. It identifies important dynamics within digital media to expose underlying principles for the reader. These include search engine optimization, tweaks to algorithms, and other often fast-changing factors. Understanding these tools helps the reader to improve their insight into the realities of news as an enterprise and a constructor of narratives. It helps to clarify what is really happening in the world, while at the same time uncovering the methods and motives of the media itself.

Of course, when engaging with news, people try to do this themselves automatically. As we read, or choose what we read, we mentally evaluate the sources, taking into account our personal sense of the past reliability of information from that source. MetaNews aims to do this increasingly difficult job for the reader, but at the same time helps to build their ability to recognise bias, manipulation and polarized narratives. It approaches the problems of 21st-century news methodically and comprehensively, exposing the fundamental reality of the media landscape. MetaNews features will deepen individuals’ understanding of what they see or read, and make them feel comfortable undertaking their own assessment of the news.

Which topics are appropriate for a MetaNews feature? This question is not just a matter of the topic or “story” that should be covered; it is also a matter of specifying the manner of questioning and the range of dates that demarcate the duration of the news cycle in focus. Any topic that is selected must fit the following criteria. It must be:
  • Polarized, and/or creating a great deal of embodied energy, often in the form of public emotion;
  • Trending, in the sense of continuing to be a focus of attention for a period of time;
  • Consequential, in that the topic is important or foundational for understanding and explaining the world;
  • Beneficial, in that it is useful to readers to address.
When a topic meets the above criteria, we make a set of queries to a range of comprehensive databases of news coverage. This gathers thousands of relevant articles for five main forms of analysis:
  • We begin with a thematic narrative landscape analysis, which answers questions about the distribution of attention across various new outlets for a complex and polarized story.
  • A detailed argument analysis follows, which asks questions about the specific kinds of arguments and evidence being used in the articles. We look at exemplary stories in great detail, mapping the arguments within them to reveal the types of claims, assumptions, and logical structures they contain.
  • Where necessary, there is an adjacent analysis of information weapons. These may include overt narrative manipulations and various disinformation tactics. These are often found in opinion or news analysis pieces. Multiple approaches can be used to expose these information weapons, including case studies and object lessons that select one or two articles as examples. “Landscape analysis” is also beneficial, as it can determine the total numbers of cases and outlets where such “weaponry” is deployed.
  • Then we examine “landscape dynamics.” This focuses on why certain consequential stories might not be widely covered, or why an issue is so polarized when there may be little cause for such division. It may also explore why the best coverage for certain stories can be found only on blogs and web channels.
  • Finally, we synthesize the information on all the above forms of MetaNews analysis and ask open questions to guide future understanding. The results of MetaNews analytics may allow us to draw conclusions about base realities in the world beyond the media, as well as the interests driving media coverage. These results can provide general lessons about the state of public understanding and how it might be improved.
Let’s take as an example the news cycle surrounding then-President Donald Trump's announcement that the U.S. government would be banning the social media platform TikTok. We focused on the dates between August 1 and August 7, 2020. We collected hundreds of stories that covered Trump's proposed ban from across the political spectrum.
Our thematic analysis revealed a pattern of excess focus in the digital media on a narrow set of themes:
  • Geopolitics: U.S. and China as Trade Rivals;
  • Domestic politics: the sale of TikTok as theater for the upcoming U.S. election;
  • Economics: tech markets and (inter)national jurisdictions;
  • Security: TikTok as a potential security threat.

New media focused almost exclusively on the role of large technology companies in national and international jurisprudence and markets, as well as on themes surrounding U.S. election theater. However, three additional themes were present across the media landscape, all of which were only minimally discussed:
  • Social addiction and its effects on mental health, especially among younger people;
  • Governance of emergent technologies, particularly those with a persuasive influence or an impact on human behaviors;
  • Social media as an aspect of unconventional warfare.

We found that reporting focused on the increasing geopolitical importance of social media companies, such as TikTok and Facebook. Yet less attention was given to the reasons for this narrative: that social media companies enjoy unprecedented capacities for behavioral modification, addiction, surveillance, and economic extraction.

Argument analysis of specific stories revealed that economic and political biases influenced much of the reporting. While unsurprising, this reveals that the TikTok story – and technology reporting in general – has become politicized, generating misinformation and biased narratives. This sense was confirmed by detection of numerous forms of information weaponry, including attention disruption and capture through “click-baiting” and the ubiquitous use of strong rhetoric involving emotion-laden stereotypes, especially of the Chinese. Taken together, these factors present a challenge for any citizen seeking to make sense of this complex and consequential topic.

Finally, we found explanations and synthesizing questions which clarify broader changes in the media. There are, for example, pressing questions about the speed at which good understanding can take place, and about the nature of how in-group and out-group dynamics impact what is believed to be true.