Friday, March 29, 2013

Web Journalism and How a Democratic Media at once Confounds and Saves Us

I confess: looking at Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model for Wednesday’s post depressed me. The attached video, which inspired me to dedicate this week to media issues, cinched my melancholy. While I had been familiar with the Herman and Chomsky model since taking media studies in community college, and indeed recognized the role it played in our society, seeing the Fox journalists tell their story drove the point home. For the first time, the propaganda model was completely real to me. I had seen the evidence with my own eyes. It was a sobering experience.

Of course, as I have said many times and as others have said, the Internet is changing the world. Independent, citizen journalists can shift the balance of power away from traditional outlets, and so there may be reason to hope. However, the old powers-that-be have the same ability to participate that we do, and grassroots journalism has its own hurdles to overcome.

A 2007 AlterNet article by Sheldon Rampton demonstrates that Internet confounds the five filters of ownership, funding, reliance on official sources, flak and anti-communism/nationalism. The ease of entry into the market and the relative lack of reliance on advertisements eliminates two of the largest filters, and the remainder unravel from there. However, Rampton asserts that the Internet model may create its own filters. As an example he cites how a PR firm is “responsible for the coinage of a new term: ‘flog’ for ‘fake blog.’ ” He elaborates:
On behalf of Wal-Mart Stores, their employees have posed as "grassroots" bloggers on two Wal-Mart-sponsored websites, "Working Families for Wal-Mart" and "," which -- rather ironically -- slams the "paid critics [who are] smearing Wal-Mart." Here we see a long-standing propaganda tactic -- the creation of front groups -- being retooled for the internet.
Rampton mentions no possible filters other than this one, but I can: personal ideology.

There is no guarantee that a grassroots blogger will be more objective than a professional journalist, or that an independent news source will spin less than a mainstream one. Indie blogs often flaunt their ideology and perspective: it’s part of their appeal. The Daily Kos is an indie news blog I’ve been linked to several times. While I cannot speak for or against their accuracy, they are anything but objective. Their articles assume a clear stance, and are riddled with sarcasm. They speak of things which outrage them, and, in their eyes, need to be corrected.

But an ideological stance does not invalidate a source. A far left-wing blog can be just as honest, or dishonest, as a hyper-conservative blog. Furthermore, this tendency of bloggers to telegraph their perspective may be beneficial. When a reader senses a bias, they will be on their guard and will examine the author’s claims more critically. The mainstream media may use the veneer of objectivity to assert their authority, but an independent blogger has no such recourse. This can only encourage readers to question what they read, and this can only be beneficial.

Furthermore, the lack of consolidated ownership grants a larger variety of voices a space to be heard. A shrewd reader of blogs might contrast several sources to arrive at a more complete picture of the situation, and to greater effect than with mainstream media. While two newspapers owned by large companies may largely agree (as their interests resonate), two news bloggers may disagree completely. The disparity between their perspectives may hint at the actual shape of the truth.

Moreover, much information that newspapers or anchors may gloss over can find a home online. I have linked to ScienceBlogs and BadAstronomy several times. Bad Astronomy is the blog of Phil Plait, an astronomer and science writer, and ScienceBlogs is a vast network of blogs by scientists. Reading scientists write about science is a fascinating experience because they will speak on subjects that would never make it into a newspaper. The New York Times will never break down a peer-reviewed dissertation in a detailed summary that still describes the work in plain language. The denizens of ScienceBlogs will. They are also quick to correct public misconceptions about science, scientific theories, and political matters relating to science. The Internet is clearly a boon for science journalism.

Nonetheless, the filter of personal ideology can still have a broad and deleterious effect. For personal ideology does not only affect blog writers: it affects blog readers as well. By default, we all have our biases. Not just a tendency towards this or that political party, or towards a particular religion, or towards a certain genre of movie: we tend towards fundamental cognitive distortions that keep us from reasoning properly. An example is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to weigh evidence in favor of what we believe as more persuasive than evidence in favor of what we don’t. Depending upon the belief, the relative security which confirmation bias grants us can be incredibly tempting, even for those with honed critical thinking skills.

The Internet is a playground for confirmation bias. While in the real world, we have to interact with a variety of people and get along with them despite differences in opinion, that does not hold true on the Internet. Online, we can find communities of startlingly like-minded people. Indeed, we can associate only with those communities if we so choose. These communities may then self-regulate by ostracizing dissenters with far greater prejudice than one would see in real life. In person, when we meet someone with vastly different ideas, we still have to get along with them. That may lead us to consider those ideas, or at least reconsider our own position on some level. Online, as the general cruelty of commenters indicates, we are far less inclined to retreat.

On a broad scale, while the Internet creates difficulties for social elites and traditional authorities to control the opinions of the public, it opens the door for individuals to self-indoctrinate. By regulating one’s online peers to others who share an ideology, people can reduce the pressure to alter or reconsider their opinions. They can read only the sources they know that they are likely to agree with. Confirmation bias can become a lifestyle, with its adherents structuring their existence around reinforcing a few cherished beliefs.

I suspect that we have already seen the effects of this kind of behavior. The increasing political polarization of America has become a commonplace observation. We have the Tea Party on the right, and the Occupy movement on the left. I have seen many cite it as the reason our Congress remains in deadlock on every important issue: the body politic is so staunch in their opposite belies they refuse to compromise. The Internet may well have a role in this. Before the Web, reliance on the mainstream media meant a wider acceptance of the popular framing of the issues. In general, people would possess a more similar understanding of the matter at hand, and would be forced to deal with people who disagreed on a more regular basis. Not only that, they would have to deal with those with opposing views in contexts where they couldn’t just walk away. Compromise was a fact of life.

But in the Internet age, as I described, confirmation bias can become a way of life. It is a simple matter to find like-minded people. It is a simpler matter to avoid or ignore unlike-minded people. On an individual level, people are both more likely to become dyed in the wool of their preference. They are also less likely to accept compromise, because they are learning that compromise isn’t something they don’t have to accept. So they elect or become politicians who are just as uncompromising. In the end, we each retire to our own pigeon-holes, and we all go to hell together.

Despite this unintended consequence of a democratized medium, I would much rather live in this world than in one where a few elites dominate public discourse unquestioned. While the culture of confirmation bias presents us with a difficulty, it is not, I suspect, intractable. The very ease of entry and freedom of choice which creates this problem also permits a solution, if we so choose.

And that solution? I believe it starts with each one of us. We are each responsible for challenging our assumptions, taking care to respect those who disagree, and seeking to live free of our preconceptions. If the Internet is a place where like-minded people can gather from all over, let the open-minded form their own communities. Let them establish there a culture which embraces what we would like to see in the world at large. And then maybe—just maybe—the idea will catch on.

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