Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Echo Chamber and the Dying Press

I read Iain Martin's piece on the dying press with interest. Everyone knows the papers have been in a spiral of decline since their peak influence in the late 90s, and that there are significant challenges in monetising internet operations that keeps the cash flowing in sustainable quantities. What I'm interested in here is taking to task the idea audiences now live in a social media echo chamber, and this threatens democratic discourse. And it's worth a challenge because Iain's view is premised on misty-eyed nostalgia for a media past that never existed.

The standard media experience for a great many folk before the internet was a diet of news fed by broadcast journalism augmented by a daily newspaper. In the 1980s and 90s, both the BBC's and ITV's nightly bulletins were regularly in the top ten most-watched TV programmes, trumped only by Eastenders, Coronation Street, and the odd high-profile drama or film. Then, as now, both channels aimed for some kind of balance. Striking it is always a tough and controversial ask, but it was managed from within a range of establishment opinion. Important political controversies got air time, including esoteric issues by today's standards.

As I said, accompanying this was the newspaper. I think our house was fairly typical. We had two papers a day - The Sun and The Derby Evening Telegraph. We'd pass our old papers onto my grandparents down the road, and in return we'd get their Daily Stars and on a Monday, the previous day's News of the World. Of my mates' folks who got papers, it too was either the soaraway currant bun or The Daily Mirror. I didn't know what a broadsheet was until I got to college. And then at uni, the same tabloids frequented our kitchen area. I can't speak for Iain's household growing up. Perhaps he had The Graun on a Monday, The Times on a Tuesday, etc. and his choice of tabloid on a Friday as a treat. The point is the people of the past never lived in an Arcadia of media plurality. As audience studies in the 80s and 90s tended to find, readers' choice of title was largely determined by a congruence between it and their views (though Mum maintains she only ever got The Sun for the bingo). And let's not pretend this media diet was in anyway pluralistic. As a teenage Tory, exposure to alternative viewpoints came from the schoolyard and the broadcast news, yet it was The Sun's editorials that helped make my mind up on the issues of the day.

Fast forward to the 21st century and social media, I'm afraid to say Iain has put together a caricature and mistaken it for the real thing. The point is there is no one, no one whose sole input consists of The Canary. People now as they read what they prefer, and they might chat about current affairs with like-minded folks. But the way social media works is content from any source can flash up in your timeline. Thinking about my Twitter feed on any given day, there's a load of BBC, Graun, and Indy links with a good mix of Telegraph and occasional Mail pieces in there. This isn't the result of consciously following people with a plurality of views - my feed is as echo chambery as anyone's. Yet even that is serving up access to a greater variety of comment, analysis, and opinion than I ever got in the good old days. And, in this case, if that's true of me it's likely to be true of others.

This is the root of the appearance of groupthink. There are annoying people who say stupid things on Twitter, just as there were always annoying people saying stupid things writing in to newspapers. Then editorial control kept the discontented from getting published, but now everyone has a platform and leading journos get to see the unvarnished opinions of people they were previously shielded from. As I'm sure Iain and other hacks have noted, the opprobrium their pieces attract are from people who disagree with them. Rather than a narrow tunnel of news and views, most people are reading a wider array of media output that doesn't always conform with their opinions and are letting Iain and friends know what they think, with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication.

Yes, there is a tendency for us to select a media diet that conforms to our tastes, but it has always been thus. The difference is now it's much easier to sample morsels from outside our preferences, and people do. Regularly. None of this helps an industry suffering a crisis of revenue as advertising dries up, but solving that won't be helped by condescending to, patronising, and insulting potential audiences.


Metatone said...

Well said. My grandparents got the Express, largely (as far as I can tell) out of habit from when it was a very different paper when they were younger. We got the Sunday Times once a week. (The Andrew Neil years, shudder.) Rest of it was BBC & ITV. Plurality of views didn't come out of the media, so much as growing up in t'People's Republic of South Yorks during the miners strike.

I'll add the obligatory point whenever CapX pops up - this is an explicitly ideological project, set up by a think tank (Centre for Policy Studies) - it's grimly ironic how often Iain Martin tries to pretend he's some kind of gold-standard, BBC style media outlet.

Anonymous said...

Phil the last GE proves Iain's point according to twitter Labour were going to win the election. All the left has done is create themselves a nice little bubble to feel safe and cosy in.

Ken said...

Like most LP commentators, the analysis is Anglo-Centric. As a resident of England I amuse myself by reading Wings Over Scotland, a pro-independence website which monitors the MSM in Scotland. Today's post (Corkscrew) is a demolition of an article from the Scottish Herald which has a headline which refers to an expert legal opinion on the Scottish government's moratorium on fracking (no, I didn't know either.) In this post, the website's curator demonstrates that the headline is nonsense. The expert view seems to be precisely the same as that of the Scottish government.
The website's main point is that the MSM is hysterically unionist and thus opposes every policy of the Scottish government, for example, the Named Person legislation ( see the post about the Cons. Leader) the policy on abolishing alcohol at football matches, (opposed by Jim Murphy on class grounds) responsibility for repairing the Forth Road bridge(hmm, a decision made by Scottish Transport when Scottish Labour ran it).
This website has something like 300,000 monthly visitors and is growing while the print versions of the MSM are in decline. I think a useful analogy is that any political current see to be outside that which is regarded as respectable is fair game for this kind of idiocy. In that respect, Corbyn and the SNP have something in common.
The reach of Wings is based on two things, the use of evidence by the main contributor, (I'm not familiar enough with the political scene to know how accurate it is, but it reads as if it's pretty accurate) and enough people opposed to mainstream politics, which in Scotland means the Union. If you are a Lab supporter I would hope that some of his stuff on the ScotLab leader is exaggerated or wrong, but I fear not.

Metatone said...

Anonymous must read a different Twitter to me - before the election I saw a lot of worry, a lot of hope that the polls were right, but that was about it. Given the state of the polling, it's hard to see how this was unreasonable.

David Timoney said...

Iain Martin is simply trying to convince his peers that Murdoch is right: the broadsheets must become elite projects behind paywalls while the tabloids must parasitise social media (if you can't Bebo 'em, join 'em). It's worth remembering that the traditional news outlet that has done best in adapting to new media has been the BBC.

@Anonymous, Depending on who you followed last May, you might have got the impression that the LibDems, the Greens and UKIP were each going to post massive seat gains in the general election. There is no authoritative voice - no "according to" - in the way there is with newspaper editorials. As Phil notes, this is actual plurality, not the pretend sort of Fleet Street.

Anonymous said...

Wings Over Scotland is a very unreliable source run by a dubious so called reverend with some deeply unpleasant see Hillsborough.

Ken said...

I have no knowledge of the status of his claim to be a Rev. If you think this is fake, provide the evidence. I haven't read his views on Hillsborough, but the "deeply unpleasant" views but his views are not the point.
An example which demonstrates his modus operandi is the claim by Kezia Dugdale that 50% of poor Scottish children leave school unable to read or write, and that this was a scandal. A constituent asked where this information came from and a source was cited. The source showed the results of testing as children left primary for secondary schooling. There were 4 levels, the first two were able to write well or very well, the last level was those who struggled. The first point is that nowhere on this table is class being measured. You might infer that there was a link between unable to read easily and class. You might infer this, however it is not something that you can claim is shown by this evidence. As for 50%, the only place where you can find anything near that is if you add the top two categories together, which show that 50% read well or very well. The bottom category accounts for 18%. Now, it seems a stretch to blame a relatively recent SNP government for these results as we all know that Labour ran the government for most of its existence. If you do though, you might take note that the same category in England is 21% who leave primary school unable to read.
1) The status of Rev. is irrelevant to this argument.
2) His views on Hillsborough are irrelevant to this argument.
3) What is relevant is that the Labour leader made this claim.
4) She cited an official report to support her argument.
5) The report does not support her claim.
6) Her claim was uncritically reported by the MSM.
7) The MSM in Scotland is declining.
And I would add,
8) "Holding the government to account" is not going to dent SNP hegemony if this is the standard of ammunition being used.

BCFG said...

People do not like to admit that they are effectively brainwashed from birth, where they become subjects of the society they live and behave accordingly. Capitalist society is particularly good at reproducing the social roles it needs with the accompanying set of beliefs to boot. Historically the media has been particularly effective in shaping this set of beliefs and also reflecting them.

The reason we have an unfree media is not only because of who owns them but because those that consume the media have already been conditioned to consume a certain message. So the media that flatter and pander to their viewers will get the largest market share. All the internet does is reinforce this conditioning much more effectively, because the already conditioned people talk on the terms determined by their conditioning.

So the internet does not seem much of a threat to me to the reproduction of capitalist social relations and roles. On the contrary, it could have the opposite affect.

The long held hope on the left is that people coming together to share their experiences would be the motor for overthrowing the system. History has proved this analysis wrong.

Some leftists believe that the working class should create its own media landscape, this ignores the problem that the working class do not think in such collective ways. So the ifrst problem is not to create a working class media but to get the working class to believe they are part of a working class! Only at that point can the internet have any potential whatsoever.

Lidl Janus said...

The manufactured-consent model of media has the same core problem as the concept of false consciousness, or all-pervasive patriarchy (as opposed to milder conceptions of social inertia) or every conspiracy theory ever: if this is true, why are you so clever?

After all, we don't live in some mirror version of North Korea. You can read all of Das Kapital, for free, from exactly the places you'd expect to find it.

BCFG said...

"why are you so clever"

It is a fair question to ask. But I was lucky or unlucky depending on how you see things. Most of the families where I live have parents who are under educated and tend to spend their evenings getting pissed out of their minds. My mates therefore have a different world outlook to me. I on the other hand had a parent who was a trade union organiser and his role meant he had to study economics etc, and from there he read books on politics and philosophy. among other things. So I had a different outlook to my mates.

This doesn't tell us who is right or wrong but what it says to me is that to break from the systematic brainwashing you need to be snapped out of it one way or another, and statistically most people are not snapped out of it. of course, this could just be because on balance the system delivers enough wealth to enough people in order that the boat does not get rocked too much. But the consequence of this is ignorance combined with apathy and all the dangers that comes with ignorance and apathy.

But whoever is right or wrong, I am pretty adamant that the system creates the subjects it needs, and the fact that peoples outlook on life fits so neatly in the the requirements of the system is no accident but a product of brainwashing over a very long time.

We are told that ISIS represent everything that is abhorrent, that their values are beyond the pale. We could ask the question, well what makes us so much more insightful? or what makes us so much more clever?

And let us look at our values, we think nothing of migrants dying in the sea, other than will it spoil my holiday. We think nothing of who produces our goods and in what conditions. We take it as being perfectly normal that we should be able to choose between 20 different teabag manufacturers where the only difference is the colour of the box the teabags come in. This absurdity seems like the most normal thing in the world to us, the high point of sophisticated values. this insanity seems normal to us because we have been brainwashed to believe that it is normal.

And most of the time I take it for granted, some in my sub-conscious state i am as brainwashed as the next person. But for whatever reason I am able to see it now and again. Most people do not see it.