Am I the only one sick to death of the constant chatter about the wonders of the ‘new media?’ To listen to some of the soi-disant bloggers, tweeters, website hosts and assorted peddlers of back bedroom gossip and Facebook-sourced ‘hard news,’ you would think that they, and only they, are honest, unbiased, reliable purveyors of information.
Yet the vast majority of them simply churn out their own—often very personal—view of the world. Their sites may look very fancy and be user-friendly, but they still come with their own angle, bias, interpretation and editorial stance. In most cases they have picked up all of the bad habits of the ‘old media’ and generally speaking the main difference between old and new (apart from readership levels) is the fact that most of the new ones seem incapable of distinguishing between opinion and reporting.
Yes, newspaper sales may be collapsing, but it’s a very big mistake to assume that those departing readers are going to a new breed of news providers. They are, instead, going to the fast-food versions of the old media, where, given time, a very few providers will soon control the market. Influence and commercial viability will be, as it always been, determined by audience/readership levels: and within a decade or two precisely the same complaints now being made about mainstream newspapers and television will be made about their mainstream web/internet cousins. Then along will come some new technology promising to revolutionise the old and replace it with the new. It was ever thus.
According to an essay in the Christmas issue of The Economist “it is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed. That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.”
Across the centuries the ‘old’ has proven itself amazingly adept at adapting to and then adopting the ‘new.’ Information is not something which can be tidal-waved out by millions of individuals acting alone. All information begins with one source, or one event: and that applies to deliberately false information, too. The provision of a credible news/information service will always be reliant on good journalists with good contacts: which, in turn, requires organisation, financial support and a core, commercially viable audience. All of which means that only a handful of people will be able to afford to provide it and along the way they will either force out the independents or buy up the best of the rest. That’s how the market has always worked and it’s how it will continue to work. It’s all a bit like Dr. Who. Every few years he gets a new face and updated gadgetry, but it’s still the same old Dr. doing the same old thing.
A more interesting question, though, is the effect that Twitter, Facebook et al will have on politics. In 2011 we saw demonstrations across the Arab world, in Russia, in some Eurozone countries and even in London and a few other English cities: and in all of those cases the crowds were summoned by the ‘new’ media. They were texted, tweeted and e-mailed details of times and locations. Bloggers provided wider information and in many cases the outside world was kept informed by these bloggers.
But who was there to balance the views of these bloggers? What we got was their version of the story, their version of events on the street. Yet they were often part of the same group which was organising and orchestrating those events. In many cases the agenda of the bloggers was contradictory. They all seemed to agree that they wanted régime change, but there wasn’t so much clarity or certainty when it came to the question: what next? Which may explain the levels of confusion in the countries involved: governments have been toppled and dictators deposed, yet there is very little evidence that the countries are any more democratic or settled than they were before the revolution.
The hidden danger of the new technology approach to revolution is that while it seems capable of mobilising enormous numbers of people, I’m not so sure that it knows how to provide the follow-through. Hundreds of thousands can be tweeted a very short message about where the next anti-government protest will be, but setting out the socio/economic/constitutional/legislative/institutional changes required for the country will require millions of words and years of debate. At that point, of course, the vast majority of those anti-government protestors get back to their everyday lives, leaving matters to what often become the old parties in new guises.
So no-one should kid themselves that blogs and tweets will change the world. Ok, new technology will always change the method and speed of how things get done, but, generally speaking, political power and media power tends to stay within a small circle. Indeed, I would argue that we will actually see that circle grow smaller, because the internet and satellites will soon not recognise borders of any sort. Those who control the input key will control knowledge and propaganda and the real revolutionaries will be the hackers.
Just look at what was supposed to be the great breakthrough in broadcasting provision about twenty years ago. We were promised hundreds of channels and almost limitless choice. It never really materialised, did it? Instead, we got thousands of hours of mind-numbing crap, repeats, celebrity driven mush, mocked-up real-life documentaries, soap-operas, game-shows geared to an IQ which could be calculated on the digits of a three-toed sloth and pornography (which are still the most visited sites by internet users). And the vast majority of these channels are owned by a very small number of people.
So, whom do we trust in all of this? Government controlled sites? Party political sites? Newspapers (in their print and web versions)? Television news providers? Bloggers, who nearly always have their own slant on events? Comment sites like Slugger O’Toole (in which debate fairly quickly descends into the ya-boo-sucks variety)? The prospect of a brave new world in which almost anyone with a computer can set up their own online newspaper or single issue campaign site doesn’t answer the “whom do we trust” question, either.
The problem is this: if ordinary people (and that’s the overwhelming number who will never have their own sites to peddle their own agenda, or allow themselves to become the ‘friends’ of those who do have agenda) do not know where to turn to for information, then how do they make proper judgements on key issues? Libraries are closing, university courses are dumbed down, newspaper sales are collapsing, audience figures for political programmes are in freefall and increasing numbers of people are refusing to vote. I see little evidence that the supposed revolution in the spreading of knowledge, news, information and accuracy is doing anything at all to increase general levels of confidence or trust.
As Citizen Kane noted in 1941 “the news goes on 24 hours a day.” We now live in the world of 24 hour coverage of that news, yet we seem to have fallen into a sort of limbo land which combines Wellington’s “publish and be damned” with Maxwell Scott’s (the newspaper editor from The Man who shot Liberty Valance) dictum that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” There’s going to be a lot more news and a lot more information coming at us from every direction—unfortunately, most of it won’t be worth the screen it flashes on.