Technology and Society
November 16, 2016
I’m worried about the news. Not what’s in the news, though that’s troubling enough. No, I’m wondering what will happen to the news for a number of reasons.
First, the president-elect is unusually hostile to the press. He has banned reporters from major news outlets from covering election events and from his first meeting at the white house, he’s incited anger and even violence against members of the press during events (in my own state, a man responded by wearing a T-shirt to a Trump event promoting the lynching of journalists), and he has sued newspapers for doing their job. Even when lawsuits are groundless, they are costly to defend, something Trump knows from experience. Given his appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, he’s weaponizing his contempt for the press by elevating to a position of influence the executive chairman of a sneering, for-the-lulz, insult-saturated white nationalist website that bears as much resemblance to news as the National Enquirer does. No wonder “post-truth” has been declared the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.
Second, money is a problem for news organizations. Not only do news outlets lack cash to spare on SLAPP suits, they don’t even have enough for newsgathering. We’ve lost nearly 40 percent our working journalists from newsrooms since 1996 and there’s word of more cuts to come now that the election furor is dying down and miserable earnings reports arrive. Consolidation continues apace, but it’s not doing anything good for news.
Finally – and this is especially troubling – as ad revenue has gone digital, with our attention and personal information being auctioned off to third parties by the millisecond, and as massive internet platforms become the window through which we watch the world stream by, news organizations have had to concede that they are no longer our news source. Oh, we do read their stories, but the clicks go through Google and Facebook, the two giant anchor stores of the commercialized Internet, to borrow Maciej Cegłowski’s evocative image.
Newspapers have always depended at least in part on advertising, but they are first news organizations. Google and Facebook are ad companies first, and they are far, far bigger than any advertising operation ever invented. They have perfected the art of capturing our attention through sheer audience size (the network effect) and by shaping what we see so that we see more of what (presumably) we want to see or what will engage us through adrenaline-spiking outrage, and so will click and share more and more. Kaching.
This election has dramatized the problem this causes. We not only miss information that might challenge our prejudices or inform us about the attitudes of people we don’t routinely socialize with, we have a harder time knowing whether news is true, because we’re counting on personal connections and black-box algorithms to be our news editors. When Facebook was criticized for suppressing conservative sites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report from its so-called news feed, it decided to let friends, family, and algorithms take over – which didn’t exactly work out. Then we learned that fake news was so popular, creating it became a business model for East European entrepreneurs, trading on a mix of distrust of institutions, gullibility, and contagious anger. Facebook and Google have announced measures to make creating fake news less profitable, but the fact remains, polarization is a feature rather than a bug when it comes to our present-day news environment. I’m not sure what to do, apart from subscribing to news sources that I value and doing what I can to include discussions of how to critically approach news sources in my classroom instruction.
Mark Zuckerberg reportedly said several years ago that a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to you than people dying in Africa – and by relevance he meant “good for business.” What he didn’t know then was that a squirrel being murdered in your front yard by a sinister cabal of animal-sacrificing enemies of all that your friends and family hold dear in a secretive conspiracy to rule the world was even better for business. The hell with those irrelevant Africans. Click, click, click.