Governing Magazine recently ran a report on the emergence of several politically-tied websites in Michigan. Designed to look like “real” news organizations, the sites– linked to a variety of partisan political groups– are expanding across the state in preparation for the 2020 election.
At about the same time, The Intellectualist reported on yet another study of Fox News; to the surprise of no one other than the network’s devoted audience (who will dismiss it as “fake news”), the study found that nearly 60% of statements made on Fox were either partially or entirely false–and that as a result, Fox News viewers are more likely to believe repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories.
I could add dozens of other examples of our current media environment–an environment characterized by the loss of what we once called “mass media” and its replacement by a digital universe of “news” sites spanning the spectrum from objective reporting to partisan spin to propaganda.
Regular readers of this blog–not to mention my students–are well aware of my near-obsession with the effects of this current media environment on governance. I’ve become increasingly convinced that America’s tribalism and dysfunction are directly linked to the fragmentation of our information landscape, but I have struggled to come up with a clear explanation of that link.
Wheeler was the head of the FCC in the Obama Administration, and is a knowledgable and thoughtful observer of today’s media environment. I really, really encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety.
The most incisive observation Wheeler makes is that the American media has gone from broadcasting to targetcasting.
Since the time of the early advertising-supported newspapers, economic incentive has worked to bring people together around a common set of shared information. Maximizing ad revenue meant offending as few readers as possible by at least attempting a balanced presentation of the facts. The search for balance began to retreat with the arrival of cable television, but the economic model of maximizing revenue by maximizing reach still governed. The targeting capability of social media algorithms, however, has extinguished the traditional economic model. Now profit comes not through the broad delivery of common information, but the targeted delivery of selected information. The result is an attack on the model of shared information that is necessary for a democracy to function.
Radio and television are “broadcasting”: from a single source they deliver to the widest possible audience. Broadcasting changed the nature of communications from after-the-fact newspapers to the wide distribution of real time information. The image of a family huddling around the radio to hear one of FDR’s fireside chats comes to mind; a common set of inputs available to all upon which to base collective decisions.
Cable television is “narrowcasting.” Cable is like a video newsstand with many titles from which to choose. To differentiate themselves on this newsstand cable news channels developed “an attitude” espousing different political viewpoints. While narrowcasting was driven by conflict and disagreement, the revenue-maximizing goal was still the same as broadcasters’: reach the largest audience possible.
Social media is “targetcasting.” Software algorithms owned by the social media platforms watch how users behave online and use that data to categorize them into specific groups. They then sell advertisers the ability to reach those groups. Targetcasting companies make money the opposite way from broadcasters and narrowcasters. Instead of selling reach to a wide audience, they charge a premium to target a small but specifically defined group.
An even greater differentiator between traditional media and social media is how targetcasting is available only to a specific audience. Such secret targeting tears at the fabric of democracy. The Founding Fathers made E Pluribus Unum (out of many one) the national motto. They began the Constitution with the collective “We the people.” Such a coming together, the Founders realized, was essential for their experiment in democracy to function.
To become “We” requires a suspension of human nature’s tribal instincts in favor of a shared future. Such a belief is predicated in part on shared information.
I have taken the liberty of quoting Wheeler at length, because I think this description is at the very heart of what ails our politics. It is the crux of the problem. We really don’t occupy the same reality, because we don’t have a “common set of inputs upon which to base collective action.”
As Wheeler writes,
Coming together in an environment of shared information—an information commons—is a key component of moving from tribes to the larger Unum. When the algorithms of social media follow the money, they discourage the search for Unum and undermine the communal “We.” By delivering different information to each tribe—in secret—the algorithms keep users online for as long as possible, maximizing ad sales. In doing so, they gnaw away at the heart of “We the people.”
And as always, we are left with the question: what can we do about this? How do we re-establish an information commons? Because if we don’t, the future looks very, very grim.