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Sharing the Spectacle of the Self

Clickbait is still lightweight even when it’s shared. Ferdia Carr refuses to like the transformation of news into a friendly exercise in self-promotion via social media.

Many people hoped that the internet would mean the democratisation of information flows. Web 2.0 would finally break up the huge media organisations which so easily manipulate and direct public opinion. Observers predicted a new platform of social activism where the middle man of professional media could be cut out and members of the public would speak to each other directly rather than through clunky stereotypes and clumsy associations with political blocs.

To a large extent, the established news channels have been challenged, if not broken up, by a combination of the internet and satellite television. Channels like Al-Jazeera and Russia Today have offered an ‘alternative’ to western dominated news, with continuing success, particularly in the case of Al-Jazeera English. Online, new contenders such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post (The Whip, 2014) have targeted social media sites, especially Facebook, which has more global users than any other website.  But far from ushering in a new era of heightened political engagement, the irreversible rise of online life has been accompanied by large scale disengagement from politics, specifically among young people in the west who were social media’s early adopters. Rather than mobilising new and independent political blocs, online networked news seems to be even more individualistic and inward looking than the television news networks of old.

Accordingly, the most popular ‘news’ content shared on Facebook, e.g. items from Buzzfeed and Huffpost, is designed to be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’; ‘informative’ and ‘comprehensive’ are well down the list of criteria. Similarly, Generation Y-oriented media such as Vice News prioritise edginess before instructiveness. It is nowhere near true to say that good journalism belongs only in a bygone era. But information has become fast and loose, and rather than trying to provide for a population that needs to be informed, journalism today seems to be based on the assumption that most people can’t be bothered.

The Long View

In 1990, Washington insider Francis Fukuyama called the fall of the Berlin Wall ‘the end of history’. He observed that the grand narrative of them vs us had finally fallen apart. Communism, the great enemy the west had constructed its ideology around, had been defeated.

But such supremacy was double edged. Western powers, chiefly the USA, could no longer rationalise their role at home and abroad by reference to an ideological opponent of real historical significance. Furthermore, successive attempts to continue the coherence of the Cold War by other means – ‘war on terror’, war against ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – prompted widespread cynicism especially among the young. With no ‘vision thing’ on offer – not even the negative notion of anti-Communism – these young people were prompted to turn in on themselves even more; and this direction of travel has since been confirmed in an increasingly personalised approach to news coverage.

In the 1990s, against a backdrop of civil war in both Bosnia and Rwanda, the idea that reporters should take sides against evil and write about how good it made them feel, was badged as ‘the journalism of attachment’. In an extension of this, not only the reporter but also the people formerly known as readers, are now invited to include themselves as part of the story.

Exemplified in #jesuischarlie and #saveourgirls, the routine is as follows: in response to reports of an atrocity, upload a selfie showing your outrage, and share it with friends; share it with enough of your friends and this will be reported as the next episode in the story, soon to overtake the original atrocity.

Even if one of those submitting a selfie is no less a person than the First Lady of the United States of America, this hardly offers a solution to the problems of West Africa, nor does it constitute worthwhile reporting of the region; yet this is the level of international reporting which social media seem to have taken us to.

To account for this, it’s short sighted and somewhat lazy to suggest that the younger generation is simply narcissistic or just doesn’t care enough to engage. Hammond (2007: 63) quotes veteran investigative journalist Phillip Knightley to the effect that, ‘out there in Britain is a new, informed section of the population: young computer-literate people who are scornful of spin and the traditional media.’

Hammond goes on to identify various factors which have prompted young people to scorn spin merchants and the politicians they are selling. Chomsky (2002) among others, provides insight into the relationship between western elites and the media. The collapse of interest in the latter can be linked to the breakdown of trust in the former. Traditional news media outlets which failed to pursue a credible line of questioning with regard to Blair-Bush and Iraq, or the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ foreign policy, can hardly be surprised if younger readers are reluctant to take them seriously.

Of course, these young people still want information, and there is still a demand for journalism. But with ‘serious’ journalism having done so much to discredit itself, we have been almost propelled towards ‘churnalism’ – journalism-lite that is churned out with the sole purpose of clocking up the highest number of views; and now this, in turn, is cited by the journalism industry as reason enough for lightening up still further.

Back in 2008 Nick Davies wrote Flat Earth News. At that time, social media were on the point of acquiring a major role in global communication and commerce, so the swarm of clickbait articles that exists now hadn’t quite reached today’s levels. However, Davies’ writing on the degradation of news stories and journalistic standards is even more relevant seven years on.

Davies traces the problem back to the constant deadlines of online news: ‘It is arguable that rather than being beholden to corporate owners, online news proprietors have become beholden to advertising revenue, but not to the will of those who pay for ads, simply the need to get money.’ Thus, in the rush to get the maximum number of eyeballs, there is no time left to get the story.

This development has been the root of clickbait churnalism. Editors commission ‘stories’ designed to allow people on social media either to affirm their preferences to their friends or to say something about their own lives. But it can’t be clickbait if users share it, according to Buzzfeed UK editor Luke Lewis. Call it sharebait, then. Traditionally clickbait meant something that has little substance beyond the eye catching title. The same can be said for the overwhelming majority of Buzzfeed and similar social media-oriented news sites. They have found a way to increase clicks and ad revenue by appealing to an ostentatiously vacuous combination of narrow self-interest and nostalgia. All those items referring to ‘Fresh Prince Of Bel Air’, for example, are simply an invitation to share a tiny sliver of your own self-obsession among your similarly selfie-ish friends.

Of course such articles are mainly shared on Facebook, which is for friends. This kind of non-specific navel gazing is something most young people take part in now, in one way or another. On Twitter traditional news is far more shared than sharebait churnalism, owing to the platform’s use as a collective voice and mass communication tool rather than a friendly circle. But sharebait’s success in hooking in lucrative advertising is having considerable impact on cash-strapped newsrooms. The right hand column of the Mail Online website is perhaps the most obvious example; but a glance at the Facebook feed of The Independent shows that this approach is now being applied across the spectrum. Top of the list: ‘the wedding certificate that shows the disturbing demand of one Jihadi bride.’ Next story down: ‘the one simple test to see if you have a healthy brain’ (Independent, 2015). Not exactly the new standard of journalism which Andreas Whittam Smith aspired to when he started the paper 30 years ago.

It’s not only that lightweight stories float to the top; the underlying effect is that stories requiring serious consideration are configured to provoke the short-lived sharing of outrage, amusement or bewilderment. Consumers are encouraged to come this way for a moment of titillation, then pass it on before moving on towards the next, shareable titbit.

This is the pattern for stories such as ISIS throwing gay men from rooftops in Syria (Austin and Wyke, 2014), which generate plenty of outrage but little discussion or attention once they’re put down again. Meanwhile problematic complexities such as the politics of the Middle East are prioritised only when they have first been reduced to simple episodes, preferably attached to a victimised group which is trending at the time.

Meanwhile those disaffected from traditional media may gravitate towards Russia Today and Vice News, where propaganda and sensationalism (respectively) are confused with a tradition of information gathering that strives to be impartial and thorough. In fashionable circles conspiracy theories like the White House funding ISIS are now as sought after as metal filing cabinets. And if you turn to Vice to learn about the world today, what you get is the world as told to a hapless hipster in a conflict zone. Via the hipster-ish reporter, the intended, hipster-ish audience is asked to enter into a vicarious experience of West Africa or Libya, in what amounts to a Shoreditch-style version of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

It ain’t all bad. Plenty of good journalism is produced on these new platforms. Vice’s Russian Roulette, presented by Simon Ostrovsky, stands out as some of the best coverage of the Ukrainian conflict so far. But the trend for self-satisfying stories such as ‘I fraught in a war’ (Morton, Vice, 2014), cannot be discounted. And traditional outlets are picking up on this, too. The BBC has its young documentary makers such as Stacey Dooley and Reggie Yates. Once again, half of the documentary is taken up by reports of the external world, while the other half is concerned with how this situation has affected their internal make-up.  In defence of this style, you might point out that these shows appear in the BBC’s youth oriented section. But the journalism we offer young people is what they carry forward, so surely it’s even more important to get this right.

Good journalism is far from dead, but the scramble for sustaining revenue by appealing to a disengaged audience is undermining the value of news. The core issue is: to appeal to people who don’t care, news is fast becoming a personal spectacle, not, as it once was, the largely impersonal attempt to capture external events. The key question is: can the next generation be persuaded to engage with anything that isn’t so strictly personalised?.

It’s difficult to implement a rational response to changes driven by the irrationality of market forces. But reaching for the lowest common denominator will only drag things lower, inevitably. For journalism to resist the trend towards personalism, it will need to learn self-criticism. For this reason I am advocating a new kind of quality control. Not the sort of regulation recommended by Lord Leveson; something more like peer review among a college of journalists and their public(s).

If a dialogue is created on journalism and its standards, younger people might actually step back from the deluge of hipster war reports and spectacularly share-able emotions, and start to discern the good from the bad.

Bibliography

Austen, H. and Wyke, T. (2014) ‘ISIS throws man off roof to his death for being gay – and strings up ‘rapists’ in the streets’ [online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2868419/Thrown-roof-gay-ISIS-release-chilling-new-images-brutal-execution-man-guilty-sodomy.html Accessed 1 May. 2015

Davies, N. (2008) Flat Earth News London: Chatto and Windus

Hammond, P. (2007) Media, War & Postmodernity London. Routledge

Independent (2015) One simple test to see if you have a healthy brain[online] Available at: http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/the-one-simple-test-to-see-if-you-have-a-healthy-brain–xyWZLaPmZb Accessed 1 May. 2015

Morton, T. (2014) Vice. [online] Available at:  https://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/i-fraught-in-a-war Accessed 1 May 2015

The Whip (2014) ‘The Biggest Facebook Publishers of March 2014 [online] Available at: http://blog.newswhip.com/index.php/2014/04/biggest-facebook-publishers-march-2014. Accessed 1 May 2015

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