Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

When I think about the state of global politics, I often imagine how it’s going to be viewed in the future. ¬†My reflex is to think in terms of high school history textbooks, but that phrase evokes a specific type of educational setup that already feels anachronistic – that of overpriced, physical volumes written specifically for teaching teenagers a set curriculum, rather than because they represent good historical summaries in their own right. I think about our penchant for breaking the past down into neatly labelled epochs, and wonder how long it will take for some sharp-tongued future historian to look at the self-professed Information Age, as we once optimistically termed it, examine its trajectory through the first two decades of the new millennium, and conclude that it should be more fittingly known as the Disinformation Age.

With that in mind, here’s my hot take on what a sample chapter from such a historical summary might look like:

Chapter 9: Perprofial Media, Propaganda and Power

Perprofial, adj: something which is simultaneously personal, professional and political. 

When Twitter, the first widespread micro-blogging platform, was launched in 2006, no one could have predicted that, barely eleven years later, this new perprofial medium would have irrevocably changed the political landscape. Earlier social media sites, such as Facebook, were foremost a digital extension of existing personal networks, with aspirational connections an afterthought; traditional blogging, by contrast, began as a form of mass broadcast diarising which steadily Рthough not without hiccups Рosmosed the digital remnants of print-era journalism. But from the outset, Twitter was a platform whose users could both listen and be listened to, a sea of Janus-headed audience-performers whose fame might as easily precede that particular medium as be enabled by it, unless it was both or neither. The draw of enabling the unknown, the upcoming, the newly-minted and the long-established to all rub shoulders at the same party Рor at least, to shout around each other from the variegated levels of an infinite, Escheresque ballroom Рwas considered just that: a draw, instead of Рas it more properly was Рa Brownian mob-theory engine running in 24/7 real time without anything like a Chinese wall, a fact-checker or a control group to filter the variables.

The true point at which Twitter stopped being a social media outlet and became a Trojan horse at the gates of the Fifth Estate is now a Sorites paradox. We might not be able to pinpoint the exact time and date of the transition, but such coordinates are vastly less important than the fact that the switch itself happened. What we can identify, however, is the moment when the extrajudicial nature of the power wielded by perprofial platforms became clear at a global level.

Though Donald Trump’s provocative online statements long preceded his tenure as president, and while they had consistently drawn commentary from all corners, the point at which his tweets were publicly categorised as a declaration of war by North Korean authorities was a definite Rubicon crossing. As Twitter could – and did – ban users for issuing threats of violence in violation of its Terms of Service, it was argued, then why should it allow a world leader to openly threaten war? If the “draw” of the platform was truly a democratising of the powerful and the powerless, then surely powerful figures should be held to the same standards as everyone else – or even, potentially, to more rigorous ones, given the far greater scope of the consequences afforded them by their fame.

But first, some context. At a time of resurgent global fascism and with educational institutions increasingly hampered by the anti-intellectual siege begun some sixty years earlier, when the theory of “creationism” was first pitched as a scientific alternative in American public schools, the zeitgeist was saturated with the steady repositioning of expertise as toxic to democracy. Early experiments in perprofial media, then called “reality television,” had steadily acclimated the public to the idea that personal narratives, no matter how uninformed, could be a professional undertaking – provided, of course, that they fit within an accepted sociopolitical framework, such as radical weight loss or the quest for fame. At the same time, the rise of the internet as a lawless space where anyone could create and promote their own content, regardless of its quality, created an explosion of self-serving informational feedback loops which, both intentionally and by accident, preyed on the uncritical fact-absorption of generations taught to accept that anything written down in an approved book – of which the screen was seemingly just a faster, more convenient extension – was necessarily true.

The commensurate decline of print-based journalism was the final nail in the coffin. To combat the sharp loss of revenue necessitated by a jump from an industry financed by a cornered market, lavish advertising revenue and a locked-in pay-per-issue model to the still-nebulous vagaries of digital journalism, where paid professional content existent on the same apparent footing as free amateur blogging, corners were cut. Specialists and sub-editors were let go, journalists were alternately asked or forced to become jacks of all trades, and content was recycled across multiple outlets. All of these changes were drastic enough to be noticeable even to the uninitiated; even so, the situation might still have been salvageable if not for the fact that, in looking to compete in this new environment, the bulk of traditional outlets made the mistake of assuming that the many digital amateurs of the blogsphere were, in aggregate, equivalent to their old nemesis, the tabloid press.

Scandal-sheets are a tradition as old as print journalism, with plenty of historical overlap between the one and the other. At some time or another, even the most reputable papers had all resorted to sensationalism – or at least, to real journalism layered with editorial steering – in an effort to wrest their readerships back from the tabloids, but always on the understanding that their legacy, their trustworthiness as institutions, was established enough to take the moral hit. But when this same tactic was tried again in digital environs, the effect was vastly different. Still struggling with web layouts and paywalls, most traditional papers were demonstrably harder and less intuitive to navigate than upstart blogs, and with not much more to boast in the way of originality (since they’d sacked so many writers) or technical accuracy (since they’d sacked so many editors), the decision to switch to tabloid, clickbait content – often by hiring from the same pool of amateur bloggers they were ultimately competing with, leveraging their decaying reputations as compensation for no or meagre pay in a job market newly seething with desperate, unemployed writers – backfired badly. Rather than reclaimed readerships, the effect was to cement the idea that the only real difference between professional news and amateur opinion wasn’t facts, or training, or integrity, but a simple matter of where you preferred to shop.

The internet had become an information marketplace – quite literally, in the case of Russia bulk-purchasing ads on Facebook in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. In Britain, the success of the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum¬†was attributed in part to voters having “had enough of experts” – the implication being that, contrary to the famous assertion of Isaac Asimov, many people really did think their ignorance was just as good as someone else’s knowledge. Though Asimov was speaking specifically of American anti-intellectualism and a false perception of democracy in the 1980s, his fears were just as applicable some forty years later, and arguably moreso, given the rise of perprofial media.

In the months prior to his careless declaration of war, then-president Trump made a point of lambasting what he called the “fake news media”, which label eventually came to encompass every and any publication, whether traditional or digital, which dared to criticise him; even his former ally, Fox News, was not exempt. In the immediate, messy aftermath of the collapse of print journalism, this claim rang just nebulously true enough to many that, with so many trusted papers having perjured themselves with tabloid tactics, Trump was able to situate himself as the One True Authority his followers could trust.

It’s important to note, however, that not just any politician, no matter how sociopathic or self-serving, could have pulled off the same trick. The ace in Trump’s sleeve was his pre-existing status as a king in the perprofial arena of reality television, which had already helped to re-contextualise democracy – or the baseline concept of a democratic institution, rather – as something in which expertise was only to be trusted if supported by success, where “success” meant “celebrity”. Under this doctrine, those who preached expertise, but whom the listener had never heard of, were considered suspect: true success meant fame, and if you weren’t famous for what you knew, then you must not really be knowledgeable. By the same token, celebrities who claimed expertise in fields beyond those for which they were famous were also criticised: it was fine to play football or act, for instance, but as neither skill was seen to have anything to do with politics, the act of speaking “out of turn” on such topics was dismissed as mere self-aggrandising. Actual facts had nothing to do with the matter, because “actual facts” as a concept was rendered temporarily liminal by the struggle between amateur and professional media.

With such “logic” to support him, Trump couldn’t lose. What did his lack of political qualifications matter? He’d still succeeded at getting into politics, which meant he must have learned by doing, which meant in turn that his fame, unlike that of other celebrities, made him an inviolate authority on political matters. Despite how fiercely he was opposed and resisted, his repeated, defensive cries of “fake news!” rang just true enough to sow doubt among those who might otherwise have opposed him.

And so to Twitter, and a declaration of war. By historical assumption, Trump as president ought to have been the most powerful man in the world, but by investing so much of that power in a perprofial platform Рone to whose rules of conduct he was personally bound, without any exemption or extenuation on account of his office Рhe had, quite unthinkingly, agreed to let an international corporation place extrajudicial sanctions, not only on the office of the presidency, but through Trump as an individual and his investiture as the head of state, on a declaration of war.

In the next chapter: racism, dogwhistles and spinning the Final Solution.

*

History is, of course, what we make of it. Right now, I just wish we weren’t making quite so much.

 

   

 

 

 

First, some links:

Clay Shirky on the collapse of traditional newspapers and the need to find alternative means of journalism;

Natalia Morar, who organised an anti-government flashmob on Twitter and is now hiding from arrest;

Oprah and other celebrities battling to be the first on Twitter with a million followers; and

SR7,  a company for hire that specialises in digging up dirt on employees for other companies.

Now, some thoughts, in no particular order:

¬†1. Journalism is essential. People both like and need to know what’s going on. However, journalism is not a naturally occuring resource. People must go out, obtain information, then analyse, write and relay it, a time-consuming process traditionally¬†deemed¬†deserving of monetary compensation. No matter how easy it is to copy an existing source online, that source first needs to come from somewhere; and before that, someone must decide that the source itself is newsworthy.

2. As has always been true of all creative endeavours (singing, painting, dancing), there are vastly more people who participate in these activities than are paid to do so. Largely, this is a question of enjoyment, creative expression and ease. Blogs have tapped into this in a big way. Most bloggers make no money. Many blogs are read by only a tiny handful of people known to the writer, or not at all. And yet, they are prolific, because even without monetary compensation, the vast majority of people simply enjoy writing them. Many readers employ a similar logic.

3. Despite having been around for a number of years, Twitter has only just hit the collective journalistic hivemind. Recent weeks have seen an explosion of articles on how it is being used, why it is damaging people, whether the concept is utterly pointless, and the implications of its ongoing development. Diverse examples of all these include:

– the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath;

the Times bemoaning Twitter as a ‘rolling news service of the ego’ and then promptly signing up;

a warning that social networking sites are damaging kids’ brains¬†at the same time¬†Twitter is being added to the Brittish school curriculum; and

Рthe use of Twitter in both the Mumbai bombings and hyperlocal news sites.

4. Writing on the collapse of newspapers as we know them, Clay Shirky sums up the process of social revolutions thusly: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn‚Äôt apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can‚Äôt predict what will happen.” He concludes by saying that what we need is a “collection of new experiments” to help us figure out how journalism – as distinct from newspapers – can keep working.

5. TV news isn’t going anywhere. Neither is radio, which has survived bigger technological upheavals. Print journalism is failing because the internet has ruined its monopoly on exclusive media. Unlike free-to-air radio and television, which have always had to contend with the notion that a¬†majority of listeners won’t be paying directly for their content, newspapers have thrived as a one-to-one exchange: a set amount of money per customer per paper, with very few exceptions. It’s not that the internet devalues the written word, or that¬†making journalism¬†freely available is inimical to notions of profit: it’s that, without being able to charge on that one-to-one basis, newspapers cannot command anything like their previous volume of revenue.¬†They’ve simply never had to compete with a medium that could do the same thing, better, for a fraction of the cost. And now they’re floundering.

6.¬†¬†Spare a moment to consider the notion of Digital Rights Management – DRM – and its relationship to the newspaper fiasco. Although concerned parimarily with digital music copyright, the ongoing debate about encryption for games and, with¬†the advent of the Kindle and other such devices, the pirateability of digital books and audiobook rights, the¬†underlying problem is the same in both instances:¬†defining notions of ownership for both¬†users and creators in an era¬†where digital copies are readily available. Books in particular have always been subject to the whims of borrowing and lending without falling apart, but might their new digital formats change that? Or are they an exception to the rule? For long stints of time, it’s nicer to read on a page than a screen, but¬†what if screens are improved, or some other technology developed that is just as comfortable to use as paper? Will we still crave tactile connections?¬†

7. People might not like to pay for content, but¬†as Wikipedia,¬†YouTube¬†and Linus Torvalds¬†have already¬†proven, many are¬†ready, willing and able to create content for free. Open source principles clearly predate the current revolution, and consciously or not, they’re informing it.¬†Remove money from the equation (or at least, give it a drastically reduced emphasis) and¬†gaze anew at the crisis of print journalism. Blogs, tweets, viral news: many of the new news staples are ungoverned, unruly, disparate products of the hivemind – flashmobs, crowdsourcing – but that doesn’t mean they go utterly unpoliced or work without change or criticism. Hey, it’s a revolution, folks. We’re breaking and making at the speed of thought. Give us time to learn the ropes.

8. Way back in 1995, ¬†Major Motoko Kusanagi once¬†mused, “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.” In 2006, she reaffirmed the sentiment. We’re not yet ghosts in the shell, but let’s keep an open mind. The future rests in us.