By Chris Matthews
“Journalists are like dogs, whenever anything moves they begin to bark.” Arthur Schopenhauer
I imagine that some of you will see the above quote as a crass generalisation. Journalism, at its best, is a vital component of a healthy democracy, right? It can expose lies, speak truth to power. Without a free press, tyranny can prevail and reality becomes an ideological fabrication woven by the instruments of power. I’d agree with those sentiments, but with some caveats. The idea of journalism certainly places it centrally within any decent (or aspiring to be decent) society. But the reality is all too often closer to the type of frenetic, hysterical, excessively reactive surface movement that Schopenhauer decries.
Have you ever met someone who obsessively follows the news, in an endless stream coarsing in through multiple sources? Have you ever noticed that these people tend to catastrophise endlessly, speaking of transient, soon-to-be-forgotten events in almost eschatological(1) terms? Have you observed that they often failed to see the bigger picture, to perceive the metapatterns, the longer-range currents underpinning the movement of history? Perhaps you are, or have been one such person at some point? It’s far from unusual, especially in the always-on contemporary media environment we inhabit, with incessant social media feeds and news apps pumping headlines onto our lock screens.
There’s an easy extrapolation that we ought to avoid here, so I’ll clarify: An overabundance of facts doesn’t, in itself, cause people to be myopic or uncritical. There are some further ingredients at work, all of which can be easily identified.
Facts, in any quantity, without sufficient critical thinking skills, naturally coalesce into values or frameworks of understanding. The human mind is hard-wired to narrow, simplify and reduce vast amounts of information to a set of (usually, evolutionarily) good-enough working assumptions. With some notable exceptions, critical thinking isn’t taught well in the modern education system, and the prevailing mass culture further exacerbates this lack of critical acumen.(2) Without these skills, this mental reduction mechanism remains unconscious. Even among those with more finely-tuned critical faculties, we tend to construct rationalisations of ideological assumptions that originally stem from emotion.
Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has demonstrated that people have underlying values that can be represented in six sets of dichotomies: Care/harm, fairness (proportionality)/cheating, loyalty (in-group)/betrayal, authority (respect)/subversion, sanctity(purity)/degradation and liberty/oppression. This theory of moral foundations posits that the presence or lack of these traits, in varying combinations, is evolutionarily derived. And, importantly, our politics, religious views and general ideological positions stem from these moral foundations.
His research has shown that people who lean centre-left, for example, have higher than average prevalence of the care and fairness traits. We can further extrapolate that authoritarian socialists and left-libertarians or certain kinds of social democrats may share a preponderance of care and fairness, but may differ markedly on the foundation of liberty. An authoritarian may rationalise, after the fact, that vast concentrations of state power are needed to ensure a more meaningful kind of liberty down the line. But, according to this social intuitionist view, their proclivity towards authority is evolutionarily inbuilt and precedes conscious thought and action – they simply construct an elaborate theoretical framework to satisfy the intuitions they already possess. Right-libertarians will value liberty highly, but their worldviews will not be significantly informed by fairness or care. They may argue that unrestricted free markets produce the best utilitarian results, or ensure a level playing field without ‘crony-capitalism’, but, again, moral foundations come first and rationalisations follow. Conservatives, as you might have guessed, tend to score highly in the areas of loyalty, authority and sanctity.
The implications can be unsettling: If our worldviews are the product of varying distributions of inherited traits, and the reasons we put forward are merely defences of these prior intuitions, can we be objective at all? Perhaps we should dispense with the myth of the impartial, detached rational subject once and for all.(3)
Although it may seem naive in light of the above, I firmly assert that objectivity is possible. We need to be aware of our biases, and come to terms with how deeply entrenched they are. Our reasoning, however firm it may appear, may not be as watertight as we would like to believe. This should encourage a greater need for critical reflection, and higher standards of logical consistency. And, most significantly, it should cause us to view the effects of the contemporary media landscape with more suspicion than we already do.
A Room Without a View
I’m sure you’ve encountered phrases like ‘echo chamber’ and ‘confirmation bias’ more and more in recent years. To some extent, these phenomena have always been around. A century ago, people would buy newspapers that resonate with their worldview or social class, and, then as now, it’s hard to deduce whether the newspaper instills the worldview, or the preexisting worldview influences one’s choice of news outlet. The same is true now, with social media feeds and subscriptions tailored to the preexisting worldview of the user – the possibility, however nondisprovable, that initial exposure at a critical moment to media of one or another ideological persuasion lead to the creation of a self-imposed echo chamber, is certainly worthy of our attention. People like to be around those who think and speak like them. It provides validation. Being exposed to arguments that attack the foundations of one’s worldview is uncomfortable – we need a firm structure to filter and narrow the messy, information-heavy reality we inhabit.
So, taking into account this historical continuity and seemingly intrinsic tendency to seek out that which we are already predisposed to agree with, perhaps the difference between then and now is a difference of degree, rather than type. Today, companies like Google amass huge swathes of personal data that can predict human behaviour. The main purpose of this data driven prediction is economic – to provide models to predict consumer patterns and to deliver targeted advertising to people based on their affinities and browsing habits. Our biases and irrational tendencies are exploited to hit us with – what is referred to in marketing jargon as – a ‘call to action’, at just the right moment (calculated by applying machine learning to our browsing and shopping patterns), so that we are most susceptible and likely to be driven towards a purchase. The implications, however, are highly political.
As Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power explains, Google, the main contributor to this commodification of personal information, started out quite opposed to the idea of harnessing user data towards predictive marketing. After the dotcom bubble burst at the turn of the millennium, surviving tech companies struggled to find new and more sustainable sources of revenue. Their access to previously unimaginable pools of data gave them a highly saleable resource, and things grew exponentially from there. Google and other tech giants sought out ways to increase the amount of data they had access to, and today, the owners of your social media, shopping and reading habits know you, and can predict your actions, better than you know yourself in many ways.
This model of revenue through data surplus has become the norm. In an interview with The Guardian’s John Naughton, Zuboff claims that “It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app.” Our behavior patterns are resold to us in the form of products that are marketed as ‘cutting-edge’:
“Nearly every product or service that begins with the word ‘smart’ or ‘personalised’, every internet-enabled device, every ‘digital assistant’, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.” Shoshana Zuboff to The Guardian
So many of these ‘smart’ products are cleverly marketed to speak to our ‘pain points’ (more advertising jargon) – essentially things that marketers, through analysis of our data, believe cause us the most strife. Many of these ‘pain points’, and the productivity and organisation solutions that are marketed as their solutions, are byproducts of living under neoliberalism – a world in which everything is for sale, no aspect of our life and experience is above commodification, everyone is constantly forced to ‘sell themselves’ and ‘network’, and the idea of stability is little more than a relic for most.
Politics Is Not Immune
This large-scale use of data as commodity has more explicitly political effects as well. The Russian government has funded over 3500 Facebook ads in the run up to the 2016 election, targeting US voters in a bid to sow division among the populace.(4) They would often target particular demographics with ideologically charged content. The Vote Leave campaign group spent over £2.7 million on Facebook ads to promote the Brexit cause, again using Facebook’s algorithms to target specific groups of voters.(5) The tone of these ads was often highly xenophobic and exploited insecurities within working class communities. Cambridge Analytica used similar technologies to ‘micro-target’ voters on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to ensure a Trump victory in 2016.(6) This was not a mass political advertising campaign of the kind we’re used to seeing. Around 10,000 different ads were carefully aimed, using data analysis and algorithms, at a large number of diverse and specific groups of people. We often take for granted that a free press is a vital ingredient of a free society. It can give a voice to people of all social positions and perspectives. The reality is far from this ideal. Personal data is a valuable commodity with unprecedented predictive power. Those who can afford access to it, as well as those who can buy advertising space and control the flow of information through publications and websites, have immeasurably more ideological power than any individual or grassroots organisation could ever hope to hope to achieve. We can see again that vested power structures and anti-democratic entities utilise this vast amount of data, freely available for the right price, to undermine democracy and civil society from within. People’s insecurities and biases, behaviour patterns and desires are exploited to sell them ideologies as well as products.
The news people receive, often curated by wealthy backers with questionable ideological interests, is just as determined by these algorithms. The spread of ‘fake news’ across social media platforms is common knowledge. With adequate education, critical thinking skills and exposure to a wide range of alternative views, we might, even with our innate biases, have a chance of coming to well-reasoned conclusions. But, when our news, often of doubtful veracity to begin with, is shown to people who are, through their online footprint, known to already have certain biases, fears and habits, the critical thinking process can be circumvented almost entirely for millions. Sure, the conclusions people arrive at may feel like the product of their own introspection and experience, but they are often controlled by forces that operate with such a subtle understanding of their preferences and blind spots, that they appear to not exist at all.(7)
We could say that the role of the journalist is needed now more than ever, speaking the truth in any way possible through the vast fog of algorithms, money and vested interests. It is a job that is more necessary, and more impossible, to conduct with integrity in this climate. Consider, for instance, the rise of automated journalism. Machine learning algorithms are put to work on data and statistics to deliver news. No need for the human intellect or human values. In what kind of world could this come about, and work successfully for an increasing number of online news outlets?(8) The answer is simple: The kind of world where what matters, above all else, is generating clicks. A world where journalists, or computer programs, generate ‘content’ designed to grab people’s attention, to funnel revenue to the host website through advertisements embedded alongside, or within, the article.
The Precarious Place of the Journalist
So many of the articles we read were written by freelancers, on behalf of ‘content mills’ competing in a precarious gig economy to land low-paying jobs churning out easily-digestible posts. Some are easily detected: “Top 5 Things to do in Prague”; “Ten Ways to Lose Belly Fat”; “Top Secret Way to Earn Passive Income Online”. Although those titles were made up, I would put money on such articles existing, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of the many thousands that follow the exact same format.(9) They all use ‘SEO’ (search engine optimisation) techniques to rank highly on Google’s keyword search, and are designed to maximise clicks. Others appear to be more genuine works of journalism, but turn out to contain ‘affiliate links’ – the writer appears to be informing the public but is, in reality, leading them towards purchasing something, often many things, through links in the article. Even the more established mainstream and independent media sites are not immune to this cheapening of the writing profession. Some online publications charge a subscription fee, but a majority rely on advertising revenue, which is based on the number of clicks. Under such conditions, publications need to appeal to the lowest common denominator with ‘clickbait’ titles, hyperbole and shock tactics. The long-form, reflective article doesn’t fare well in this market.
Let’s go back to the Schopenhauer quote we opened with. If we take a look at the state of new media and online news sources, Schopenhauer’s assertion seems quite prescient. If we look at why this is so, we can see that the reasons are systemic. Salaries, measured against rising living costs, have dropped consistently for journalists for several years.(10) Many print publications have resorted to the damaging practices of the online writing market in order to stay afloat. A lot of ‘content’ writers are either working for advertising agencies or competing in the unstable ‘gig’ economy. It is not atypical for a writer to be producing ten or more blog posts per day, just to pay their rent. It goes without saying that there is no time to process new information and give real insights. For too many writers, a long, reflective piece just isn’t going to pay them. The imperative is to get the article done, give it a catchy title and make sure it’s designed to rank highly on web searches. Bonus points if it courts controversy – ideologically contentious material, or material that appeals to people’s fears and baser instincts, tends to get shared quickly on social media. This is journalism under neoliberalism: Quantity over quality, surface over depth, sales over truth.
So, yes, journalists are like dogs. But we are all, regardless of our occupation, forced to behave like desperate, eager-to-please animals when the logic of the market seeps into every aspect of our lives.
One last point: Apologies to all of the cool and friendly dogs out there for the unfavourable comparison.
- Eschatological/eschatology: Religious discourses on the fate of humanity, the end of the world, etc.
- Some of these “notable exceptions” include various Nordic education systems, which teach critical thinking, debating and identifying ‘fake news’ with a thoroughness that is very much lacking in most of the world.
- Although certain poststructuralist thinkers such as Michel Foucault have cast serious doubt on the detached, impartial subject of Enlightenment rationality, the idea still persists to this day. Electoral and judicial systems, fiscal policy and much of contemporary moral philosophy rely heavily on this assumption. Interestingly, aside from some advances in behavioral economics, advertising seems to be the only major field that really places human irrationality and the role of unconscious impulses at the foreground.
- See TechCrunch.com: What we can learn from the 3,500 Russian Facebook ads meant to stir up U.S. politics
- See BBC News: Vote Leave’s targeted Brexit ads released by Facebook
- See The Guardian: Leaked – Cambridge Analytica’s blueprint for Trump victory
- For many people, the process of ideological influence can be almost automatic, as is often the case historically in societies in which people are indoctrinated into one belief system or another. A pertinent recent example is of those who, for example, start out apolitical and begin to consume moderately conservative or libertarian capitalist content, and then find themselves – often due to YouTube recommendation algorithms and the like – going down the ‘alt-right pipeline’ and developing far more extreme views. This article describes the process in detail: First Monday, Volume 24: Alt-right pipeline – Individual journeys to extremism online by Luke Munn.
The degree of ideological indoctrination varies according to the individual, but absolute moral agency, emotional detachment and ability to critically dissect all media should not be assumed. The history of propaganda, and the appeal to emotion rather than reason employed in much online media, supports this view.
- It may be useful to think about how the idea of ‘gatekeeping’ has evolved in recent years. In print journalism, the editors would select (and modify) content to ensure that it is consistent with the overall worldview of the publication. The ‘gatekeeper’ has become a ‘gatewatcher’ as journalism began to move to the internet. Writers submit content to blogging platforms, and content curators select articles that are ‘featured’ and promoted. The selection criteria will vary depending on the website, with it being more or less weighted towards the curator’s preferences versus the website’s overall goals and values. Automated journalism effectively makes online publishing into an issue of curation – content can be curated before it exists. Credit to Anand Badola for raising this issue.
- The ‘listicle’ format I described above has become one of the most common styles of online content. Although there is nothing wrong with the format in itself – it can concisely introduce new information and serve as a springboard for further research – its prevalence does say a lot about the effects of digital media on attention spans and the quality of written discourse.
- See Press Gazette: ‘Real terms’ wage drop for journalists as average salary in 2018 same as six years ago, new NCTJ survey finds
Illustration by Brigita C.
About the Author
Chris Matthews is a writer with an interest in politics and culture. He has an MA in Literature, Culture and Modernity and lives in Manchester.