Although the democratisation of information is a net positive, it is worth examining the negative consequences. The media is possibly the industry which has been most substantially changed by a disruptive technology – the internet. Those changes are still unfolding. But since the press has specific duties in the context of a democracy, it follows that politics, for better or worse, has been disrupted too.
The main structural change in the way information is presented to us is the availability of large swaths of information for free. This is a fantastic thing, but many of the advantages create problems. For example, ‘information gatekeepers’ are diminished. This simultaneously means that Rupert Murdoch cannot wield the same amount of power as he has previously; and it means that the fact-checking editorial standard imposed by The Times is not enforced on the blogs which have become widely read as alternatives.
It also means that newspapers do not have the money to undertake valuable investigative journalism – for example, there are plenty of highly visible blogs about Syria, but many of these will have been written from a London flat. These muddy the water, along with sophisticated misinformation campaigns from players like the Kremlin, which hires ‘shills’ to accuse commentators of being liars and to spread rumours. They don’t have to convince people; only to create equivalence between the truth and lies so that people are uncertain and de-energised.
This is part of the strategy Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s senior advisors, described as 'non-linear war.' The idea is interesting, and touches one of the major fault-lines in the present-day philosophy of the press. Whereas Western commentators imagine that lots of ‘takes’ and separate arguments, all presenting different information, will leave readers more ‘sceptical,’ better informed, and therefore better equipped to discern truth from lies; Russian strategists seem to believe the opposite – that hundreds of bamboozling takes from all directions, including sand thrown on the basic facts of an argument, will create uncertainty, and ultimately undermine Western self-confidence. Russia Today’s slogan is, ‘Question More’, and like any good Western press it wants to leave its readers questioning Western authority – for different reasons.
This shift seems to intuitively match the changing tone of discourse. We have moved to a more Russian-style view, whereby “the media” is perceived as different outlets pushing different “narratives” as a means of attempting to influence power, rather than philosophically-different parties reporting things as they see it. Criticism of the BBC sometimes has a conspiratorial bent – with it being accused of representing an entire class trying to push an “agenda.”
The accusations of bias by some newspapers are doubtless true, either because they have carved a brand position from a consistent angle, which they will repeat regardless of the facts; or because they aim to please their proprietors. But by far the biggest incentives for outright bias for the newspapers today are economic. (Economic for the paper’s survival, more than attempts to influence the tax laws that affect their proprietors as individuals.)
This leads us to the main disruption in the field, emanating from the much larger Western media complex of Britain and America. Especially in the U.S., some would argue that the existential threat posed by the internet has prompted the traditional news to pivot away from the dissemination of facts and towards opinion, and entertainment.
Bias, including provocative, incendiary bias, is the best way to get clicks. This is probably why LBC radio signed Katie Hopkins, only to fire her after she tweeted that she wanted a ‘final solution’ in response to the Manchester terror attack (she changed the tweet to a ‘true solution’ afterwards). Combined with the constant bombardment of conflicting opinion on all sides, users are less likely to digest and carefully unpick expertise, and more likely to distract themselves with entertainment figures.
But related to bias, the most dangerous change is the one that has begun to shift readers’ sense of normality (i.e. what does an ‘unbiased’ report look like in the first place?). The change is that democratisation means personalisation. Like any other product, the news can be tailored specifically to me. Users’ experiences of information have become more diffuse.
A low ebb of interactiveness and personalisation has been creeping into our media for a long time. Documentaries used to feature an expert talking about a subject; now the viewer is expected to go on a journey of discovery with somebody who starts out knowing as little as they do. Vox Pops are an inexpert early attempt of the news asking what you think. In a truly competitive media landscape, the consumer will surely be king – even when it comes to truth.
This has been hyper-charged by the internet. It happens in two ways: one is algorithmic, that Facebook suggests links it believes a user is likely to click. The artificial intelligence and big data combination has the capacity to make this much more accurate in the future. The second is personal; users augment Facebook’s efforts by navigating to news sources they are likely to agree with. These sources are usually interactive – more frequently messageboards to share opinions, than a centralised news source which dictates fact. And they tend to radicalise. If the culture of a country becomes extreme, a small number of dissenters remain because they live there. If the culture of a website becomes extreme, the same dissenters migrate. This means that people challenging the dominant narrative of the website quickly disappear. As a consequence, some users are likely to only ever read opinions with which they already agree.
This is most transformative for people with fringe opinions. In a world of 8 billion people, should my view be one that only 0.001% of people share, I can find 80,000 people who share it. So too, masked by the anonymity of the internet, can I espouse views which would be met with social stigma in the physical world.
There are hateful messageboards for anything you could imagine. The misogyny experienced on Twitter by female public figures is very likely to be related to the presence of messageboards which act as radicalisation grounds for extreme misogynists.
This effect, multplied, can produce bizarre internet subcultures. Many of these are not hateful, just stupid. Worse than somebody producing 'fake news' about Hillary Clinton, or spreading rumours about vaccines, is the existence of large credulous subcultures of people prepared to believe nonsense. Paradoxically, these subcultures exist in the age of the internet - the most powerful educational and fact-sharing tool the world has ever seen.
These can get much worse than anything we see in Europe or America. Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian-born journalist, has written persuasively about resurgent nationalism in Russia related to minor ethnic groups, facilitated by online messageboards which link nationalist elements within a minority to each other and to a central reserve of propaganda (including previously-unpublished alternative facts). It has also, he argues, exacerbated mainstream Russian nationalism. This is how the internet can lubricate conflicting nationalisms in a multi-ethnic dictatorship – surely the most dangerous way this can manifest. One hopes these messageboards never come to play the role similar to Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (sometimes called 'Hutu Power Radio' by Western Press) in Rwanda.
How does all this affect me?
It probably doesn’t, other than sharing a body politic with people who are increasingly uninformed. Access to more and better information has made smart people smarter. There are questions which relate to government and culture generally – to do with counter-radicalisation strategy, and with facing up to ugly insurrections from the far right – but it is unlikely to affect you specifically.
It may mean something for marketing strategy. Previously, globalisation has meant that, while the overall diversity of cultures has fallen, individual access to diverse cultures has grown; I would expect more diverse subcultures to develop. Most of these will not be malign as described above, and could present interesting challenges for presenting personalised products, or for tailored marketing.
It also means exercising vigilance about where ads end up in the digital age. With more user-generated content on websites, your ads could end up next to a piece of distasteful content - this happened with YouTube earlier this year. (The ads were being piped to all quarters, including a pro-ISIS section whose content YouTube had failed to identify and remove.)
In politics, the U.S. has been the most visibly affected by the change, of all the Western nations: Mr Trump has successfully, and perhaps consciously, blended entertainment and politics. The The New York Times may dislike his policies, but he has been extremely good for business. How government media strategy will develop to appeal to a more diffuse base is an interesting question.
In August, the far-right rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. For the most part this was not due to technological change. However, insofar as the march relied on identity and communication, the internet is extremely relevant. Answers will have to be found.
If you're interested in learning more about the disruption of politics, or perhaps something which more directly pertains to your business, check out our forthcoming events or give us a call to speak to our Partnerships Team to organise an event with us.