evolving ecological media culture(s)

The pre-election media vortex


I haven’t followed up on the last post here on e2mc for the simple reason that the blog has hardly any followers right now (it’s been largely inactive since I used it alongside my film/media course in 2013). But since the course I mentioned in that post, Media Ecologies and Cultural Politics, is now in full swing, and since we’re dealing with all manner of exciting topics — including media coverage of the election, the pandemic, racial justice protests, and big tech lawsuits and controversies — it’s a good time to share some of my thinking more publicly (and that of the students’ if they care to join in).

Here’s something that combines a couple of posts I shared with the class over the last week or so.

Our topic these two weeks has been media disinformation and polarization, with a nod toward conspiracy theories. Among other things, we have been reading the Pew Research Center’s report on “U. S. Media Polarization & the 2020 Election,” Claire Wardle’s/First Draft’s “Essential Guide to Understanding Information Disorder” (which is a distillation of the much more detailed Information Disorder report), and Adrienne LaFrance’s “The prophecies of Q” from the Atlantic monthly’s “Shadowland” series on conspiracy theories in the United States. This follows our reading of parts of the book Network Propaganda (which we are finishing up this coming week).

As we were doing that, the New York Times Magazine published a piece that could hardly have been less appropriate for us: Emily Bazelon’s “Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy (Disputed by 3rd-Party Fact-Checkers): The First Amendment in the age of disinformation” covered most of what we have been talking about in class, even including a multi-paragraph synopsis of Network Propaganda and references to a number of other theorists and media analysts we had been reading.

Then there was the debate over the New York Post article ostensibly sharing e-mails from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which encapsulates many of the questions assessed in Network Propaganda and thereby provides an ideal case study for us to confirm or disconfirm its thesis. The presidential debate made clear how much President Trump is drawing on the right-wing media “ecosystem” — and puzzling those who aren’t in it. Network Propaganda demonstrated through its extensive research that the right-wing media ecosystem has left behind its connections to the basic journalistic standards (fact-checking being one of them) that still inform the center-left ecosystem. (That there are two such ecosystems, with a significant gap between them, is one of the points of the book.)

The difference between the two can be seen through a Google News search for the terms “hunter biden” “new york post” when:10d, with the last term limiting the results to the last ten days’ worth of articles. (Change the number to change the restriction.) Examining the coverage shows pretty plainly which side of the media spectrum — right versus center-left — a source is on. For instance, compare the Rupert Murdoch aligned press — the New York Post, Fox News, Sky News, et al (all owned or controlled by Murdoch) alongside the Washington Times and Breitbart (let’s leave out the Wall Street Journal, which is also owned by Murdoch, but which despite its editorial conservatism aims for “respectable” news coverage) — with the coverage by the New York Times, CNN, Bloomberg, and most other mainstream news sources.         

The secondary story that has grown around this story is the response by Twitter and Facebook to public sharing of the New York Post report (and associated Hunter Biden laptop stories) on those media platforms. In both cases, the conservative press has been mainly portraying the Hunter Biden story as a “bombshell revelation” and the social media companies’ responses as anti-conservative bias. By contrast, the center-left press has depicted the story as an unverified political move by a questionable source (Rudy Giuliani) that could be based on Russian disinformation (as some intelligence sources have suggested) and that Post reporters themselves have questioned even as its editors went ahead and published it. The tech company responses are treated by them simply as news; they are diverse, and perhaps confused and ambivalent, efforts to respond to public concerns.

NPR’s review of the reasons why they and other major news media have largely ignored the story is worth reading. And Politico has a good backgrounder on the whole story. Meanwhile, Vice has a report on Facebook’s seeming unsuccessful efforts to “demote” the unproven laptop story.   

While all this has been going on, the recently released Netflix film The Social Dilemma has been racking up viewers. I’ve just watched it and agree that it’s a powerful film, covering many people and perspectives that we’ve either read or touched on in our class. (For those who don’t subscribe to Netflix, it’s worth getting a free trial or even subscribing for a month, watching some other films, and then canceling before the month is up.)

Here’s a small sample of quotes from it that are worth sharing and discussing. You can guess which is about Facebook, which is about (Google owned) YouTube, and which about all of the big social media companies. (And then go read Zephyr Teachout on breaking up Big Tech, Big Ag, and Big Money. Or at least listen to her discussing the current DOJ lawsuit against Google on Democracy Now. That’s another relevant topic!)

  • “2.7 billion Truman Shows. Each person has their own reality with their own facts.”
  • “The algorithm is… trying to find which rabbit-hole is the closest to your interests.”
  • “It’s not about technology being [an] existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the existential threat. If technology creates mass chaos, outrage, incivility, lack of trust in each other, loneliness, alienation, more polarization, more election hacking, more populism, more distraction and inability to focus on the real issues, that’s just society… and now society is… just devolving into a kind of chaos.”
  • “It’s okay for companies to focus on making money. What’s not okay is when there’s no regulations, no rules, and no competition, and the companies are acting as de facto governments, and they’re saying that ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ That’s just ridiculous.”

Facebook has provided an official response to the film here (which tells us something, no?). 

Finally, in other election coverage news: Fact-checking web site Snopes has announced that it has found a campaign called “Operation Snopes-Peircer” on anonymous chat forum 4Chan, whose users fabricate Snopes pages on various topics including the Hunter Biden story and the upcoming election. One of these, a purported “fact check” of next month’s election results, is called “Did Trump ‘win’ the 2020 presidential election?” And for anyone worried about the possibilities of disinformation affecting the results of the upcoming election, the Poynter Institute has a page entitled How to approach the disinformation, misinformation, and uncertainty around election night 2020.

The vortex continues to wind itself up.

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