AUGUST 19, 2015
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience […] The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.
— Aldous Huxley in a letter to George Orwell, California, October 1949
The free press is now controlled by companies whose primary interests are not necessarily rooted in strengthening public discourse and democracy. On the one hand, journalists can reach far greater audiences immediately than was the case in the past. On the other hand, journalists and publishers have very little control now over how information reaches the world and there is limited transparency.
— Emily Bell in “The Rise of Mobile and Social News — and What it Means for Journalism,” Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015
“PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES are basically teenagers,” National Journal recently declared. Taking their cues from the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012, no 2016 contender from either party is absent from the full range of newest generation social media, be it Vine, Instagram or Snapchat.
The press reliably deems it newsworthy when a candidate for public office campaigns via a new platform. Hillary Clinton, in case you missed it, recently joined Instagram, where she will compete with Harlow and Sage and Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund for your attention. Rand Paul has been quite active on Vine, Jeb Bush on Snapchat. Has horse-race politics transformed into platform politics? More importantly, do these social media channels actually illuminate candidates’ policy positions, or do they obscure them? So far, the latter hypothesis seems to be winning, as images of Clinton’s pantsuits or an anniversary card from Ted Cruz to Mr. and Mrs. Reagan becomes news of the day.
Journalists covering campaigns are nevertheless expected to monitor these proliferating information streams as if panning for gold. By flooding more drivel into more disparate places, the savvy campaign can substitute for engaging a serious question or a controversial position. By design, the most popular platforms seem to encourage dissimulation, and those who are using them are happy to go along for the ride.
But what about the news media and its various blends of information and sensation on offer? Most big publishers have now internalized the imperative to reach all audiences in all places at all times. A kind of digital Fordism is applied to the project of achieving intermediated social media ubiquity; entire jobs exist solely to produce content for each platform. Consider the following Vine from CNN, which renders the swearing in ceremony for Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman attorney general in history, as a goofy dad moment:
This barely qualifies as news “coverage.” Whereas traditional social media platforms rely on a symbiotic relationship with lived experience, as Nathan Jurgenson pointed out at The New Inquiry a few years ago, the media is using the latest platforms technology in a way that pulls “the news” away from the light of truth and deeper into the cave. And news publishers themselves are readily surrendering to the behavioral manipulation inherent in many an emerging platform’s core architecture.
This trend has a cultural momentum that critics won’t so easily reverse. As The Baffler’s Evgeny Morozov tells it, this is the case for many 21st-century critics of technology. “At best,” he writes, “we are just making careers; at worst, we are just useful idiots.” Criticism of social media in particular has all but critiqued its way into obsolescence. We gather that Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are cybernetic augmenters of narcissism and distraction. Enough critics have noted that they furnish a filtered, inauthentic reality, and that we happy many plug into it like the Matrix: all but homoeothermic fuel cells dishing information to be packaged and sold back to us in a charade of consumerist autonomy.
We hear all that and we don’t care — but perhaps those in media, at least, should. The perception of a shrinking critical horizon licenses those designing and using these technologies to constrict it further. In late 2010 Zadie Smith beseeched us to “step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment,” and asked, “Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” Her primary objection was to Facebook’s architecture as comprising features that all eerily resemble the person of Mark Zuckerberg:
Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind […] Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.
The newest platforms, in the meantime, have only further delimited the templates for social intercourse and substantive debate. Vine allows for videos of only six seconds or less, which then hypnotically loop forever. Instagram (and in similar ways Pinterest) hosts decontextualized one-off images, captions, and short videos.
Importantly, the interactions on these platforms aren’t particularly geared toward sharing links to actual articles elsewhere, like Twitter. They are forums for self-contained expression, which foments a kind of vapid celebrity akin to being a Pogs champion for this decade. This then draws the eyes of trend watchers and pining politicians, to say nothing of marketers.
But, as we’ve seen, this setting is not particularly conducive for fulfilling the central purpose of journalism: telling a citizenry what it needs to know. The price paid for increasingly constraining architecture is that it attenuates meaning in what should otherwise be an informed, deliberative exchange of information and ideas. The nature of online experience is subtly affecting our brains, specifically our ability to concentrate and retain information, as many critics have noted. But on popular platforms today, there is nothing subtle about it. They are knowingly designed for cognitive thrift.
Meanwhile, what about traditional investigative journalism? For all the millions of dollars being plowed into social media platforms and the development of content for each, where are the resources for training the next generation of journalists? For paying them to do more than just rummage around for trivial miscellany to fill highly templatized spaces?
Journalists are not the only key to protecting public discourse, but they’re an important one. A lifeguard shouldn’t dive into the pool to splash around with the swimmers. Yes, the current economics of digital publishing permits little else, and journalism is ceding more control to the congeries of platforms. Facebook and Facebook-owned Snapchat are arranging for select outlets like The New York Times to publish a few stories or features directly onto Facebook in full, so as to rid users of the burden of clicking a link.
But in many ways, this direct publishing proposal, with what is now a “legacy” social media platform, is an exception that proves the rule. While it’s desirable to put serious journalism in front of visitors to the world’s largest online network, there are risks, aside from the common gripes against Facebook’s algorithm. Outlets under this arrangement will have to carefully select what they publish offsite, weighing viral potential against substance, and they will be surrendering the chance for recirculation to the rest of their perhaps more serious or informative journalism.
There is also an added risk for informed society, a kind of displacement heuristic that we might deem the “Daily Show effect”: Facebook or Snapchat users who read an item or two of news in full in their feed may then consider themselves informed of everything they need to know, when in fact they will not be.
The business of journalism has long been in trouble, and the distribution advantage of emerging platforms should not be underestimated. But no one who cares about news media should allow themselves to be hypnotized into thinking the values they hold most dear are the same as those that govern any given platform — none should be “loving their servitude,” as Aldous Huxley predicted in his famous letter to George Orwell. The central challenge for the future is to negotiate a scenario where values align — where templates for digital deliberation emphasize not efficiency, but substance; not “stickiness,” but immersion.
This is a design proposition, but it is also a political one. Simply boycotting the dominant platforms isn’t an option. But a publicized unity among major news publishers could improve their negotiating position. Similar to the surge we saw around PIPA/SOPA, a vocal coalition demanding that space be made for substance could go a long way. In the end, journalists must be the ones to conduct this negotiation of values; no one else will do it on their behalf. We all have to sing for our suppers, but we shouldn’t have to do it naked.