international analysis and commentary

News today: an existential challenge

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The days of a vertical hierarchy in news media are over, swept aside by an exciting but unquestionably chaotic breed of horizontal peer-to-peer communications – a form of journalism by smartphone where the rules governing traditional news reporting have given way. It’s a faux democracy in which news has lost its credibility. So, does this spell the end of public debate? Not if journalists endeavor to re-establish their professionalism, to help rebuild critical faculties.

The end of vertical, ordered, and hierarchically-structured communications, and the demise of the classic vehicles of social intermediation went hand-in-hand. It was a phenomenon that was at first denied, even in the face of evidence, then only partly entertained as we all latched on to a known and reassuring past. Today, at least technically, almost all of the channels of social mediation still exist – as do front-page, above-the-fold, and below-the-fold reporting, even down to the tv news, presented by some respectable-looking person with a familiar face, reading news that others have gathered and (hopefully) checked. The external trappings of the world we once knew are still there – they just no longer function.

Drawing by Pablo Amargo

FROM VERTICAL TO HORIZONTAL: HOW THE CONFORMATION OF KNOWLEDGE HAS CHANGED. The process of dismantlement was rapid and complex to decipher, especially for those of us who were more focused on examining the technological side of the revolution underway than the social facets. Perhaps it took us too long to understand that what was happening was not perfunctory but existential in nature. We spent years debating the impact, at a communications level, of the speed of information transfer, without realizing that, thanks to that speed, the very configuration of the act of communication was being challenged. It was not the number of seconds it took for a piece of news to reach the other side of the globe that was the key factor to take into consideration (although that too was extremely important); more importantly, it was the ultimate effect of that rapidity: that speed, combined with technology, enabled an exponential proliferation of instigators of debate, of newbies on the scene.

Prior to that point, news was spread vertically: from news repositories down to individuals. Horizontal discourse was confined in space and time by its very nature: spread by word of mouth, the range was short and thus ended within one’s family circle, neighborhood, or village. News professionals controlled the information gateways for general news, or for news of entire states, continents, and wider communities.

The news ecosystem was as vertical and hierarchically-structured as that of politics. Until the 1990s, even terrorism was ordered and hierarchically governed. In those days, it was people that counted, but even more so the form in which the social process played out: top-down, through gradually wider clusters of participation. So as soon as the medley chorus on the lower echelons had something new to say, they elected a spokesperson, a “voice for all”, capable of conveying the demands of the many to the upper rung of the ladder. Then, one day, the spokesperson was out of a job.

Every voice had – or at least seemed to have – found its own elbowroom, its own soapbox, its own speaker’s corner from which to be heard by many… by very many. Technology, as inflected in the world of the web, seemed to have transformed into reality the dream of horizontal communication, an equality of expression considered akin to an extreme form of democracy. At first glance, it appeared that we were witnessing an exponential enlargement of public debate, the opening up of an infinite expanse given over to the exercise of direct democracy. There appeared to be an unprecedented forum for involvement and participation. And to some extent, all this is true. However, for some years now, euphoria at this limitless vista has ended up preventing a critical analysis of the meaning and potential of the new tools. There are less evident and more insidious implications of the new, exciting possibilities of communication and knowledge offered by the world wide web.

THE LACK OF A HIERARCHY AND, PERHAPS SOON, ANY RULES. Almost without us realizing it, there has been a change in our mannerisms, our behaviors, and our interactions. Even before social media, it was the power of multimedia and hypertext that changed our relationship with reality and the way in which we interacted: it was multimedia objects that rewrote the conformations of learning and the dynamics of discourse. The “multimediality” of objects has become a key element of the reality in which we are immersed and has altered the configuration of our knowledge pathways. We are naturally more predisposed to less linear learning and we find ourselves unconsciously more intolerant of ordered and hierarchical information flows. Our finger, which slides horizontally in search of a new gateway to knowledge, and which seeks out the stimulation of a new connection via an app, makes us less inclined to read in the traditional orderly sequence of the past: the editorial, then the comment, and, finally (perhaps absentmindedly), news “in brief” and below-the-fold content. Our aimless wandering now opens our brains to all sorts of possibilities.

This is only a revelation to those who, born in another century, can still appreciate the extent of the change. For all those later arrivals, the millennials, the heightened multimedia experience and the socialization of thought and existence are the only known forms of social action.

In the digital multimedia realm, which has abandoned the numerically-ordered page flow, readers chase suggestions and prompts every which way. It is thus possible for people to be exposed to an infinite number of news stories – stories that would once have been classified as “in brief” items and hence of somewhat lesser importance – without ever (not even accidentally) stumbling upon an editorial.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE JOURNOS GONE. The hierarchical organization of news is over, but the role of the news professional also seems to have come to an end. The extreme simplicity of digital tools and the possibility of sharing just about anything on social media has given everyone the notion that they can be journalists.

In itself, this might be a good thing. The problem, however, lies in realizing that there are certain rules which underpin the idea of being a “journalist”. Though in their own way basic, these rules must nevertheless be adhered to: they make the difference between an impromptu story and a journalistic piece. Even the Wikipedia group (responsible for the crowdsourced encyclopedia that seems to be at the heart of the dismantlement of hierarchically-structured and ordered knowledge), when it launched its own news site (WikiTribune), felt the need to ask a journalist of the likes of Pete Young to jot down a short “how-to guide” for potential contributors. Reading through his observations is a worthwhile exercise. After explaining that journalism is not the monumental thing it’s made out to be in the movies, Young states: “Journalism is simply a method of gathering, organizing and understanding information. It is a skill that requires precision and a dedication to truth. The more you use it, the better you will get at it.”

Sure, it may not be the stuff of movie heroes, but to read these lines still makes it seem like a serious endeavor. Any keyboard junkies or manic retweeters that might bother to read these instructions must feel truly disappointed. Nothing epic here: journalism is a profession – a serious one – which requires dedication, application, study, and substantiation.

In short: there are rules. A million miles away from tweeting your idea in emphatic CAPS; nothing to do with reporting hearsay as fact. Furthermore, there is also the consideration that the thrill induced by the idea of “everyone being journalists” tends to mask some complex, almost perverse, aspects of the new relationship.

The real-time interaction between those conveying and those receiving news gives rise to a confused mechanism in which the source of the news is rather difficult to identify. Sometimes, the news itself tends to take a back seat, playing second fiddle to the reaction it provokes.

Hence, news that no one has verified at source goes “viral”, spreading widely and compellingly. Yet it is precisely these “sourceless” news stories that often become central to public debate. It is this style of unreasoning knee-jerk reaction that determines “what’s trending”, it is this new direct interaction between groups of people that shapes public debate, and – as a consequence – sways political choices, and tips the equilibria of entire nations.

ALGORITHMS: INVISIBLE BUT ALL-POWERFUL. In light of this, while the whole debate over fake news on the web is important, it remains just an infinitesimal part of the problem.

Disintermediation, abuse of data, and the creation of an impression of consensus that is totally fabricated: these are the issues we need to confront. Fake news is ultimately the simplest of things to unmask. What we don’t see is the way in which the endless mass of hyper-connected, hyper-communicating people becomes a sophisticated marketing tool for ideas and products. It seems to us that everything is open and transparent because we are now peering into the furthest corners of the lives of others (whether near or unknown to us), but what we don’t see are the powerful algorithms, the strategies of tech giants that earn billions of dollars and fuel trade volumes worthy of entire states.

What is really dangerous is hidden in the shaping, in the real-time modulation of the information flows with which we are bombarded. The algorithms feed on our past experiences to offer us new ones, even anticipating our desires, locking us ever further into a homogeneous, closed, predictable virtual world. Tons of information that we perceive as neutral is far from being so. Consensus and people’s thoughts are not only crudely shaped through fake news, they are finely sculpted through micro-targeting activities of almost incomprehensible reach. Rogers Brubaker, professor of sociology at ucla, explains it well: “Digital hyperconnectivity has created a media and information ecosystem that is distinctively vulnerable to the propagation of fake news in the service of profit or propaganda. But fake news is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. The social mediatization of politics, the intensifying web of surveillance and micro-targeting, the marginalization of institutional gatekeepers, the substitution of algorithms for professional judgment, the relentless pursuit and ubiquitous measurement of popularity, the accentuation of a populist style of communication, and the sheer superabundance of information, misinformation, and disinformation — all these developments have contributed to a crisis of public knowledge.”

Even Barack Obama, who used social media as one of his most powerful electoral weapons, said in an interview with the bbc on December 27, 2017: “One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases. The question has to do with how we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views without leading to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground. […] But then it’s important for them to get offline, meet in a pub, […] meet in a neighborhood and get to know each other. Because the truth is that on the internet, everything is simplified; when you meet people face-to-face it turns out they’re complicated.”

In its fourteenth report on communications, issued in October 2017, censis characterized this current phase as a “biomedia era”. It is transforming the collective consciousness of Italy, for sure. Our communities are fragmented, regrouping in the search for likeminded people, creating bubbles of shared opinion that then launch themselves vehemently against those that think differently. Rather than contributing to the improvement of the shared cognitive space, the wealth of data available leads to the radicalization of positions. Amid the infinite proliferation of sources, the easiest thing to find is confirmation of one’s own biases. Prejudice shouted loud and turned into a meme becomes the perfect narrative form in a cacophony of millions of voices. And in the chaos, places for reflecting, for looking at things calmly, for soaking things in, and even for reconciling different interests disappear. The democratic system, by virtue of its freedom of expression, has historically allowed for the participation of different actors in the construction of a space for discussion and deliberation: Multiple and conflicting “truths” have generally created dialogue. The “official version” of the facts has been balanced by the countervailing power of independent information.

Drawing by Pablo Amargo

 

THE FAUX DEMOCRACY OF SMARTPHONE JOURNALISM. Today, however, disintermediation seems to have the upper hand. It is easy to embrace, as it is made up exclusively of point-blank, incontrovertible, and incontestable retorts.

“Steeped as we are in answers, we’ve lost the art of the question,” is the enlightening perspective put forward by Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit, great scholar, and regular habitué of the digital communications realm. Dominated by algorithms that respond to questions we have yet to ask, we lose our ability to reflect and come up with our own queries.

While the internet promises to ensure maximum participation, it also risks making it difficult to arrive at one’s own convictions; it tends to lend validity to all positions. In a domain where communications flow free of any hierarchy of authoritativeness or credibility, devoid of any kind of mediation, where all voices count equally, there is a risk of almost unwittingly bringing about the demise of public debate.

The de-professionalization of every field of endeavor (whether journalism, academia, or even science) leads to a false democracy of everyone being able to understand everything, everyone being in a position to know everything, and everyone being capable of doing everything. But this is plainly not the case.

“Info dump” and “smartphone journalism” should be overseen; they should not lead to the relinquishing of responsibility by those who were once recognized as the fulcra of the transmission of knowledge. These arguments have already swept across the world and tend to resurface in times of great crisis, reappraisal, and revolution. In one of his Moniti all’Europa (or “Warnings to Europe”: an Italian-language compilation of texts written by Thomas Mann between 1922 and 1945) – after justifying the need to adhere to democratic thought – Mann explains the significance of his being conservative, not in the service of the past but of the future. He does so by drawing on an idea from Novalis: “It may be at certain times needful that everything should fall into a fluid state, to bring about new and necessary mixtures and produce a fresh and purer crystallization. But it is just as indispensable to moderate the crisis and prevent total liquefaction. A stock must remain, a kernel for the new mass to gather round and shape itself into new and beautiful forms.”

A kernel to gather round, amid total liquefaction, has become a stark reality. It still makes sense to presume the existence of certain touchstones, however. After all, it is the conformation of our knowledge that has changed, not our need to know. There has been an exponential explosion in sources of information that has blurred the boundaries between falsity and truth. Yet it is still possible to picture oneself, there in the midst of this new logic, reaffirming truth and verified fact, along with considered and complex analysis. After all, even WikiTribune gives rules for writing a journalistic piece; ultimately, this confirms that the rules of the game may have changed, but that the need for a set of rules remains. Perhaps, indeed, “rules” is no longer even the right word, but “kernels”, “marker buoys” and “anchors” are.

(RE)BUILDING CRITICAL FACULTIES. We need to redraw the map of the production, dissemination, and sharing of news. After a vertical phase dominated by a few and after the chaos of a horizontal binge, we need to find a way to navigate through an orderly expanse, however random its trajectories and infinite its possibilities. We need a map in which credible and necessary gateways (the role played by newspapers in the twentieth century) can surface; we need a network of noteworthy fixed markers, whose value as touchstones does not stem from some “inherited prestige” but from verifiability, demonstrated professionalism, and chosen integrity. It is on these very bedrocks that the difficult work of rebuilding critical faculties could rest. “We need to invent and invest in new forms of civic education that seek to cultivate the new forms of literacy, numeracy, and critical intelligence that are needed for democratic citizenship in an age of digital hyperconnectivity,” as Brubaker puts it. It will not be enough simply to declare ourselves journalists. Rather, we must once again put ourselves on the line; we need to re-establish our credibility in this new world. Communication is now multidirectional, and that is not going to change. The exponential growth in the avenues of knowledge and ideas that ply uncharted waters are a great boon, not something to be viewed with fear.

There were geniuses who saw the revolution coming, though they failed to gauge its scale. Imposing figures like Edwin Herbert Land, who, on February 5, 1960, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, in front of all the employees of Polaroid (a company he had founded) declared: “The world is a scene changing so rapidly that it takes every bit of intuitive ability you have, every brain cell each one of you has, to make the sensible decision about what to do next. You cannot rely upon what you have been taught. All you have learned from history is old ways of making mistakes. There is nothing that history can tell you about what we must do tomorrow. Only what we must not do.”

The challenge is existential in nature; at stake is the very transformation of our social being. As for the status of journalists and traditional news sources, we can only move beyond all this if we review how we acquire information, what critical analysis we are capable of, how we manage to form opinions, and, hence, how we act on the basis of those opinions. We must be persuaded, in short, that what is at stake is the very body of things that make us what we are.

 

 

 

*This article is taken from Aspenia International, n.80-81