Post-Objective and Hyper-Addictive Media09-24-2020
Two recent essays address the way that the press and social media in particular are polarizing and radicalizing our politics. First, Matt Taibbi argues that the political polarization has its source in the new way that the news is marketed to partisan audiences.
In the post-objectivity era, media companies learned there was a consistent, dependable way to make money. First, identify an audience. Then, relentlessly feed it streams of stories that validate that audience’s belief systems.
The easiest method is to publish stories that present people your audience does not like in a negative light. Fox did this with terrorists, criminals, feminists, liberals, the French, the “New Black Panthers,” and a thousand other bugbears. The more horror stories they showed, the bigger their market share.
With Trump this effect was now easily accomplished with “liberal” audiences. Media companies figured out that all they had to do to secure high ratings was wave Trump at people all day long. This has coincided with a huge surge in profitability: cable news revenues are up 38% since Trump announced his campaign in 2015.
Second, Andrew Sullivan argues that social media’s use of algorithms and alongside the power of video and online media consumption overcomes our scepticism and encourages thoughtlessness.
If you watch video after video of excessive police force against suspects, for example, and your viewing habits are then reinforced by algorithms so you see no countervailing examples, your view about the prevalence of such excessive force will change, regardless of objective reality. A new study shows how this happens. Watching the videos, even more than reading text about them, raises the percentage of white liberals who believe the cops frequently or always use excessive force by around 20 percentage points. The actual data are irrelevant. The BLM movement this summer was less a racial reckoning, as we’re constantly lectured, than a moment of web-induced mass hysteria.
This works both ways of course. I’m fully aware that my watching countless videos of BLM protestors attacking cops, or assaulting bystanders, or hurling racist abuse will equally distort my understanding of the ubiquity of such incidents, and their salience. I can easily become more upset by what is happening in my DC neighborhood when I’m over 500 miles away in Provincetown than if I were right there. And YouTube is literally and consciously designed to make sure I don’t see the other side, I don’t see the days and days of civic quiet and tedium that balance all this out. The key to web success is the extraction of context — down to shaving seconds off a video to remove crucial, complicating information. So we’re all algorithms now.
In the past, we might have turned to more reliable media for context and perspective. But the journalists and reporters and editors who are supposed to perform this function are human as well. And they are perhaps the ones most trapped in the social media hellscape. You can read them on Twitter, where they live and and posture and rank themselves, or on their Slack channels, where they gang up on and smear any waverers. They’ve created an insulated world where any small dissent from groupthink is professional death. Watch Fox, CNN or MSNBC, and it’s the same story.
Point out missing facts or context, exercise some independence of judgment, push back against the narrative — and you’ll be first subject to ostracism and denunciation by your newsroom peers, and then, if you persist, you’ll be fired. The press could have been the antidote to the social media trap. Instead they chose to become the profitable pusher of the poison. Or worse, perhaps they still haven’t realized that this is what they have become: purist, preening propagandists for their own tribe.