A Problem with Democracy: Dangerous Web Tribes of Digital Media

Democracy in America is going to hell… it might already be there. The election is over, the votes are in, and effigies are being burned. What started as a circus show has become a full-on horror film. Donald J. Trump is the new president of the United States of America; we have just elected our first Twitter president. The fate of our nation now depends upon a candidate who has neither governmental experience nor a military career, a personal first for this country.

Some see this as a triumph against establishment politicians who too long have ignored the interests of the average American; they pump their fists in the air with pride at having shown Washington that they’re not going to take it anymore. Others greeted November 9th with fresh tears and heavy hearts as they imagined civil liberties being ripped away from the constitution. As a person with a B.A. in Political Science, I can assure you that both sides are being a bit over-dramatic. Yet as a concerned citizen I watch as people block friends and family on Facebook, as they attack each other on political views and I realize that, no matter what side of the election you fall on, one thing cannot be denied: It’s a new day in America – a darker day.

Everything about this election is unprecedented: from the choice of Donald Trump as a viable candidate, to the failing of polling data regarding voter turnout, and the civil unrest that has engulfed 58 cities (and the number is spreading even as I type) across the nation in protest to the election’s results. The nation is divided. Communication has completely broken down along red and blue lines, and I’m left with the overwhelming question: How did we get here?

Instead of trying to articulate their views to the other side and reach a compromise, both sides are more interested drowning out the other – believing that whoever screams the loudest wins. Now, there is a litany of reasons why democracy has dwindled down to this, but, perhaps, the biggest contributor is the media. Digital media, with its focus on the individual, reliance on headline replication, and continuous update schedule, creates web tribes of like-minded people with little to no exposure to viewpoints different than their own. These web-tribes, ultimately, harm democracy by inhibiting meaningful debate between opposing views.

What is Digital Media?

So, what exactly is digital media? Digital media includes “any media that are encoded in a machine-readable format and can be created, viewed, distributed, modified and preserved on digital electronics devices” (Drezner 141). Computer programs and software; digital imagery, digital video; video games; web pages and websites, including social media; data and databases; digital audio, such as mp3s; and ebooks are all examples of digital media. Every text message you send, every emoticon on your phone is also a form of digital media.

The love child of its television and radio predecessors, digital media has become the number one form of communication since the advent of the Internet age. Studies on emerging media and social behavior reveal that more email is sent than postal mail (14- 143); more text messages are exchanged than actual phone conversations, and online dating has risen as one the most popular ways to meet a significant other (143). From networking to looking up recipes on Pinterest, media plays a vital role in our daily lives, creating a hyper-reality where people stay connected to what they like and alienated from what they dislike.

Micro-Targeting and the Media Tribes

Digital Media is tailored to the individual; people choose what type of information they consume and ignore other information which might conflict with their beliefs. Media is designed to engage the individual in what interests them: search engines track a person’s browsing information and point people toward what they are already likely to be interested in rather than exposing them to something new; this technique is known as micro-targeting (Jenkins) and is most evident in online shopping. When browsing an online retail giant such as Amazon, the website targets a person’s history and logs it into the account memory so that shoppers can immediately see other products that relate to what they have already bought (Jenkins). Then, these products that have been viewed on online retail sites begin popping up in advertisements on other social media sites (Jenkins). And believe me, it works. After viewing a dress on Macy’s website, it proceeded to stalk me through Tumblr and Pinterest ads until I broke down and bought the damn thing – it fits nicely by the way.

This method of tracking a person’s online history is not always a bad thing; it helped me find a great pair of shoes to match that Macy’s dress. The practice of micro-targeting is also used on social media sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest; a person looks up a particular blog and other similar blogs will immediately show up on their dashboard often appearing on the side or bottom the page, stating ‘based on your viewing history’ or ‘some suggestions for you.’ This enables easier connection with other individuals that share my hobbies and obsessions.

I can glide my hands over the keyboard and with a few keystrokes, I can instantly find other film buffs and comic fans on blogs and websites devoted to facilitating conversations around our common interests, easily tuning out the rest of the world. But shopping and entertainment is one thing, creating an informed electorate is quite another. News media, unfortunately, also repeats this pattern (Carlson 39-41).

Take, for example, the Facebook news feed; the Facebook news feed uses micro-targeting when displaying what news will appear on an individual’s dashboard. Say if a person has clicked on and/or shared from the Being Liberal news blog, then this activity is logged into that person’s account memory and is then used by Facebook as means of targeting similar stories to appear on that person’s feed. Therefore, that person is only being exposed to ideas and news to which they are already predisposed, and other ideas, say conservative news, in this case, does not cross that person’s Facebook news feed, effectively keeping that person isolated in their own liberal bubble… this is how the tribes are formed.

A person might be reading this and ask: so, what? It’s only Facebook after all. Well, it matters because recent Gallup polls have determined that 78 % of Americans get their news from social media, and of that percentage, more than 60% confessed that they primarily get their news from Facebook alone (Drezner 149). Now, as with all polling, it must be stated that these numbers are only an approximation; some participants might exaggerate their claims and under-reporting is always a problem in polls.

But, the fact that many people pull their news from social media is deeply troubling because social media largely functions on what has been termed the ‘Google News Algorithm,’ targeting what is popular and not necessarily what is accurate (Drezner 150). The more hits a given story receives, the more likely is going to show up in a person’s news feed; combine this algorithm with the process of micro-targeting, and the result is creation echo-chambers where people consume the information that they want to consume (Drezner 153-157) and ignore the rest.

If we are playing the blame game, then it must be said that Facebook not alone; all social media reinforces these echo- chambers. Just look at hashtagging on Twitter; it’s designed to block out tweets that are not part of a certain phrase. This phenomenon keeps people stuck in their own interests and mindsets – forming digital communities of like-minded people and making it harder for people to connect to those who are different than themselves.

Prepacked Dribble: The Legacy of TV

The web-tribes of digital media is harmless when it comes to uniting individuals with common interests such books, film, literature etc., but they are dangerous when it comes to building an informed electorate simply because the information offered by the media is often lacking in diversity and quality. Be it a tweet, a blog or news clip, digital media focuses more heavily on easily reproduced headlines and images rather than presenting unbiased information. This, in turn, hinders individuals from seeing all sides of an argument and ensures that sound-bites, taken out of context, are all that people remember.

Whether it is broadcasted from your Facebook news feed or delivered as a blurb from your Google news app, news events are broken down into easily digestible segments, with little attention paid to placing the stories in historical context since, at the most, all the reader is getting is a summation of the news event in question. These segments are presentational in nature (Lewis), meaning they feature the same techniques that can be found in children’s television to maintain the interest of a perpetually distracted audience: repetition, large images, and fonts, sound bites that play on a loop and sometimes even music (Harrison; Lewis). Basically, think Sesame Street only with news and no big bird.

Despite the illusion that media outlets are reporting the events as they are happening, the fact remains that news is carefully planned, edited, and delivered in the best manner as to highlight their proverbial punch line (Harrison). News events are sensationalized to both keep the audience’s attention, culminating in headlines that grab the reader and stories that can be read, or viewed, easily on a thirty-minute lunch break. Stories of violence and other forms of ‘hard news’ are generally given the most weight and, by extension, the bigger font (Pavlik 75-77). The media, then, delivers news to the reader via media personalities and/or publications that adhere to a certain brand; these brands engender trust through the types of stories they prioritize – namely, the stories that their desired audience wants to hear. News media no longer needs to have universal appeal in the digital age (78).

Now, it is easy to make the case, and many have, that easily digestible information allows more users to stay connected with current events; while this point is true, it also allows for political pundits to control the national conversation and removes objectivity. Pundits refer to news hosts, and now bloggers, who are more interested in creating a brand and generating revenue for the networks a rather than informing the public (Harrison). News networks discovered that viewer ratings increased when the news became easily digestible, culminating in information that is dumb-downed, generalized, and opinion based (Carlson 34). News personalities became more interested in creating ‘talk show personas’ and appeasing their target audience rather than growing the information of the electorate; they pander to either the liberal or conservative branch of the media.

For instance, a liberal host such as Rachel Maddow on MSNBC only disseminated liberal viewpoints and villainized the other side. Yes -I’m picking on liberals, but since I am a liberal, it’s only fair I take a few shots at my side as this problem is not limited to one political ideology. Anyway, these types of new shows blur the lines between television news, comedy, and talk shows but they generate large amounts of revenue (Hartley). Meaningful debate suffered as a result (Lewis); news media became dominated by the desire to entertain their viewing audience instead of reporting the facts, hence the now lucrative and highly popular position of political commentator – otherwise known as the only reason Ann Coulter is still relevant.

The Internet age grew this ‘infotainment’ phenomenon exponentially with one notable exception: pundits have now been replaced by everyday media consumers who like their pundit counterparts are more interested in gaining followers and creating witty punchlines. Consider this: An in-depth article about police corruption doesn’t stand a chance at gaining viewers when Trump’s tweet about law enforcement goes viral – it has 4.1k views and was talked about on every news station. If an aspiring network wants to compete, then its news anchors must also talk about the tweet; the tweet must be featured both on screen and on its corresponding website or else that anchor will seem “out of touch with what matters” (Carlson 41) and their ratings will drop.

Thus, the article probably won’t get mentioned and, that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the so-called fourth estate (Carlson 42 -43). Condensing information to a gif, video clip, emoticon, or a Tumblr post means that people only catch glimpses of the issues at hand and must investigate more thoroughly to understand all sides of an issue. Therefore, decisions made by the electorate are not informed at all but instead are based upon an incomplete understanding of the issues at hand, and worse, these issues are designed to be consumed quickly (Hartley).

Media 24/7: Everything is News

Digital media operates on a 24/7 schedule (Lotz 126); the news streams are never-ending, and the information is always being added or modified. This should also make the media a great resource for individuals to learn new information, but the information is meant to be scanned (126-128). The headlines and main points of an article must stand out so that an individual can easily digest all the main talking points from the convenience of a digital app on their tablet or smartphone.

Worse, the information that is constantly being added lacks objectivity and more closely resembles gossip rather than issues of national importance. There is no longer a consensus regarding what is and what is not news. Once upon a time, news was defined as “everything which impacts a given populace” (Lewis), and, although this definition seems vague, there were common sense restrictions. For instance, the infamous Vietnam reporter, Walter Cronkite (Harrison) would never waste time telling his viewers that President Nixon ‘has used the bathroom.’ Sadly, these restrictions no longer apply. In an age where media updates itself by the hour, everything becomes newsworthy.

This trend also dates back to television news and its spawn, the 24-hour news cycle, changed the life of media users more than Netflix, the iPad, and the drive-thru lane at Starbucks combined (Pavlik 84). Pressured to compete with cable television shows and premium channels, the 24-hour news cycle marked a radical shift in how news is constructed and received amongst viewers; it cemented the trend the need for media to update itself. In order to keep up with current events that were constantly changing, the news became pre-packed dribble designed to provide the viewer with the bare minimum of information (Harrison). Yet, the biggest contribution to the state of media today to come out of the 24-hour news cycle is the Breaking News Headline (Lotz 127) or as I like to call it, the prototype for the Google News Algorithm.

What began as a means of providing the public with instant access to news of national importance transformed into a method of fabricating a sense of urgency to keep viewers glued to their televisions (126). How did this transformation happen? Simple: the networks ran out of national news to cover and, thus, began to sensationalize trivial events (127). I experienced a perfect example of this the other day when I was flipping through the news channels and saw “Breaking News: Donald Trump goes out to Dinner.” I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: how on earth is this news? I, mean if the headline said ‘Donald Trump Goes to Out to Dinner and the Restaurant Exploded’ – that would be news. But the fact that the man eats and decided to go out to get food is neither shocking nor urgent. Essentially, it is not news. Unfortunately, I saw the same headline staring back at me on the computer screen on various news blogs and other sites because the Internet took television’s 24-hour news cycle and kicked it up a few notches.

The Task of the Individual

Now, I’ve heard it said that it is on the individual to use digital media to seek viewpoints that are different than their own. New advancements in technology have allowed the electorate an unprecedented amount of access to information; information that is constantly changing and updating. People can use digital media for the great resource that it is, or they can choose to ignore information that conflicts with them. I personally agree with this viewpoint; ultimately, it is up to the individual to use digital media to expose themselves to opposing viewpoints and interests. Individuals should take the initiative and investigate all sides of an issue.

People should subscribe to an accredited news journal such as the New York Times, should check the sources of anything they read online, and should just stop using social media as a source for news altogether. However, if polls are to be believed, many individuals lack this initiative or worse, simply don’t know where to start, resulting in the now prevalent mentality that the media is simply full of crap. The soundbite culture created by the media makes it near impossible for people to sift through all noise and find anything substantive. That is not to say that the information is not out there; it is – but good luck finding it.

With a click of a mouse or a tap on a screen, a single person can engage in discussions about entertainment, politics, current events, and every other subject known. Digital media connects people across the globe, breaking down the traditional barrier of geography and allowing people of different cultures to interact with one another; this ideally creates a constant flow of ideas, beliefs, and information that can be exchanged (Hartley). However, communication between individuals with different beliefs has broken down; this is because digital media makes it possible to stay in constant communication with people who think like you while allowing you to completely avoid people who do not.

Democracy can only flourish when people of opposing views come together and learn how to compromise for the good of the nation; this can only be possible through informed debate. Unfortunately, people have used digital media self-segregate themselves into tribes: Democrat versus Republican, Liberal versus Conservative. If the election results, and the chaos that followed, serve as any indication, these tribes have no desire to talk to one another. Facts and actual discussion have become white noise against an endless screaming match. The media which was once thought to be inherently democratic has now, ironically, become democracy’s greatest enemy.

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