T-Minus 0 Days : Misinformation Age

In the fallout all of the scapegoats for Trumpaggedon are taking turns in the spotlight. Lately, “fake news” has been getting the finger. The historical importance of this moment is that social media being requested by government and society to mitigate fake news, effectively being held to higher journalistic standards than entities that actually call themselves news sources. I was particularly inspired by an interview between Anderson Cooper and fake news writer, Paul Horner, which made me wonder exactly what is journalism and what is satire and how they may relate to news media and “the information age.”

In the 5 minute plus interview, Cooper tries to pinpoint Horner as deliberately “spreading false information.” It’s a witch hunt. Cooper is trying to discredit the Horner, but really Horner is exempt from the truth/false axis because he’s a writing fiction. Cooper then tries to further discredit Horner by saying that Horner’s motivation is to make money, and Horner replies by saying what news media won’t admit, which is that they spread false (or one sided) information for revenue. Touché. It’s true in the case of CNN, DemocracyNow, Fox News, The Daily Show, Brietbart; it’s true based on the cartographic limits of what can actually be covered in any day’s coverage; it’s true based on the funding structure of news media; it’s true in the context of how Horner makes money via pay per clicks, just as news sites host advertisements for money, ads of which have information that aren’t fact checked, many of which are totally false; it’s true by all levels–theoretical, local, specific, dire–that news media spreads misinformation, half truths, mediated and intended. Anderson Cooper refutes that, not just because he can’t agree, but because he doesn’t want to have a conversation, in spite of the format of the program, which is two people’s heads being placed next to each other and the appearance of a dialogue, i.e. one person speaks and another addresses the information enclosed in that speech. (Pause for a moment on the fact that Cooper has no idea what an Internet Troll is, 7:15) Horner says something and Cooper moves on to the next point (gotta get that next point in for the silent audience) before the commercial break. This is satire masquerading as news. 

The two men spar at what is true and what is factual for far too short of a minute, but really the point is that news media is in a crisis, not only financially but its mode of dissemination and territory. (Just the fact that “real” news has to address “fake” news, i.e. Internet news, shows there’s a crisis. Anyone remember Tosh.0? , the show where a guy on cable TV talks about what’s interesting on the Internet until you, the viewer, turn your head 13 degrees to the right to see your dusty old Dell desktop, portal to the Internet with that and other hilarious videos, awaiting and then that 13 degrees is reversed and you say, 'to hell with this guy,' turn off the TV, waddle over to the Dell, fire it up and cruise through Internet Explorer like a real Viking. Yeah, that 13 degrees killed TV and news media is trying to cut the umbilical cord it has to the broadcast mama whose in even more trouble than they are.)

Writers like Horner are using the appeal and aesthetics of journalism to propagate misinformation. And it’s too easy. The fact that journalism has a “voice” makes it a target for being mocked and impersonated, lifted and utilized for whatever purpose the writer wants. News media want you to believe that their journalists and information is better, but what’s really at stake is the power of news media, and its subsequent monetary gains and people who invested time, money and talent to get into an industry only to learn that their voice is weighed against an impersonator. 

Journalism is in a crisis as well and has been for decades. It’s in crisis in how it has to deal with alternative information sources (be they fake news or wholehearted conspiracy theories [my favorite is Richard C. Hoagland]); just look at how the journalists deals with Horner: every reference to him is a link to another news media source. They can’t even link to an actual article he wrote. We can’t fact check these journalists (a conspiracy theorist may think he is even an invention of news media), but also his writings and ideas are also in forums or sites that propagate information differently than the more static news media sites; this is an intrinsic difference not only between print and online media, but between forms of information sharing online. How can we compare a news "feed" with a news site? One can be deleted or edited while the other apologies for mistakes in the footer of the article...should you return to that article after the information is corrected.

The format of the discipline is only part of the problem with journalism. The educational structure of journalism has been in crisis for over four decades. Journalists often study “journalism,” which covers what one would expect from a functionary in any industry: ethics, style, what's relevant...spell checking. But why are they reporting on anything other than journalism? My stab is directed at a well know discursive turn in the formation of journalists: Prior to that transition in the 1970s to j-school, a journalist would be an expert on a topic and then do a post-graduate program for the skills of journalism. A classic critique of j-school is Michael Lewis’s “J-school At My Brain,” (1993). But not only does Lewis mention the formation of journalism school which had been in a  response to the "'black sheep' of the profession," i.e. those who weren't professional enough, those we may align with mis-informers in today's age, he talks about how much of a farce j-school really is. It's to be balked in what it teaches, instills and doesn't connect with what is considered "industry success" afterward. Advancement, he claims, is not due to what one garners in a masters of science in journalism, but in the connections one has...how does Anderson Coopper son of Gloria Vanderbilt look now? 

News media is in crisis. You can look at the last three years at its disbanding print publication tactics, but also its invasion into social media, like Twitter. At first, news moving to social platforms really helped it, even providing an advantage that its previous forms lacked, such as new reaches to audiences around the world (e.g. Al Jazeera having a North American viewership). It has become the platform that it now decries; it's competition for audience and truth has become its sole life saver. And in recent years the platform has been turned against not only news media as a check on executive power but on liberation movements previously propelled by facts; instead they’re being employed and curtailed by surveillance and oppressive regimes. Evgeny Morozov writes about this in The Net Delusion (ironic, I know, that I link to a news site). Social media and potentially the Internet more generally can be used for emancipating people’s oppression but it’s also able to be even more oppressive because it can be applied in mass, owned by few and disseminated quickly. And the information may be, uh, misinformation. Even on journalists' accounts.

News media was in crisis before the digital migration to websites and social media; we were worried about the monopolistic nature of companies like News Corp. Whatever happened to making fun of Fox News? Wasn’t ostracizing viewers for being misinformed useful? Remember the comparison of how many Fox News viewers still believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction compared to NPR listeners? NewsCorp’s overtly political and social agenda seemed to contrast independent news sources to such an extent that even satire like John Stewart’s The Daily Show were juxtaposed as beacons of truth and hope in an otherwise dark period called the Bush Junior era. Wait, satire? John Stewart is going around giving talks like an expert on American Democracy, for being a satirist, while Cooper is trying to lynch Horner. Is the messenger or message being hung here? Is the medium the message?

Why are we even watching news at all? Well, if trends toward wanting to know what’s “really” going on in the world rather than just what you already agree with, i.e. echo chambers (a recent distinction between pre- and current social media eras for information acquisition) suggest anything it's that at least at one point it was presumed we watched it for true knowledge. But I’m not so sure. If news media is expanded from the topic of politics that I've implied throughout this article to say, a nice neutral topic like news, it doesn’t get any clearer, but more confusing. Why is there a weather channel ? Is that news? Why does my uncle in San Diego watch the weather channel when the weather is basically the same year round, save a few fires? Why does he care if the Northeast is having some weather event? Does news really just want you to keep watching the news? Is that too easy of a diagnosis? Do they ever say: “Look, this horrible thing is going on and your citizen duty is to get out there and stop it.” No. It’s always, “Stay tuned in,” to various degrees. Keep watching. Subscribe. Stay updated.  

This short article makes the argument that there has always been some form of transferring knowledge of events from one point on Earth to another where a human wanted the information. If we concede that that’s really what news is, i.e. a phenomenon and not an industry, then it seems the Internet bares a closer resemblance to Julius Caeser getting news of what’s hip in Greece than Anderson Cooper 360 (degrees). Personally, I’d guess that the form of news media, how it’s instrumentalized both by stakeholders and by forming beliefs of a literate public, has its origins in the colonial era, in which one part of the world needed to know about certain parts of the world and didn’t care about the rest of the world, which may explain why, aside from the occasional natural disaster, different countries get different news, differently even today. Now quit reading this and go save the world. But this is only a conjecture, not a truth statement or real news.