Mass Media World, Social Media World and the Real World
When national network television news began in the 1950s, it was a money-losing part of television done as a public service in exchange for access to the public broadcast frequencies regulated by the federal government. That all ended forty years ago today, on June 1, 1980, when Ted Turner began Cable News Network. TV news was now a business. With the addition of all-news cable networks from Fox and NBC, television news became a money-maker. A big money-maker. Instead of providing news as a public trust, the news is provided to make money. The purpose of these enterprises is to attract viewers and advertisers, not present anything close to an empirical view of reality. If a storm is moving up the coast, be prepared for non-stop weather news. If armed protesters have made their way to Michigan’s capital building, be prepared for hours of video of those protesters followed by more hours of commentary on the meaning of these protests. If protesters are marching peacefully and a small group of them sets fire to a police car, the protest’s message is lost in the flames. That’s what attracts eyeballs and that is what we see. It’s as if everything else going on in the world has stopped.
This past week, the image that transfixed us was the horror of a man named George Floyd being brutally murdered by a man who used to be a police officer. Protests followed in many cities. Predictably, President Trump further ignited the fire with his tweets while the mass media and social media filled up with accounts of the action and reaction. Police and protesters clashed in New York City and cities around the nation and the persistence of American racism competed with COVID-19 and 40 million unemployed workers for attention on the mass and social media. While mass media adheres to some standards of truth, social media has no such constraint. Social media is designed to attract attention through expressions of personal opinion and thrives on extreme views and images, especially if they are capable of going viral. The goal of Twitter and Facebook is to host tweets and posts that attract clicks and the clicks, in turn, attract advertising dollars. The only value that matters to these corporations is profit.
Somehow through these mass and social images of chaos and catastrophe, the real world also continued. I saw a blind white man helped across the street by an African American teenage boy. I saw a policewoman handing out masks in Morningside Park. I saw a young child in a mask learning to ride a bicycle. I heard Alicia Keys’ voice from someone’s apartment singing her new song “Good Job”: ‘The mothers, the fathers –The teachers that reach us –Strangers to friends — That show up in the end — From the bottom to the top — The listeners that hear us — This is for you — You make me fearless — You’re doing a good job, a good job…”
Which is real? The real world inside my experience, or the media world that brings me the events that attract eyes to cable news and social media posts? In lockdown, we have plenty of time to contemplate the nature of reality. The millions of people out of work are more than a statistic. I’ve seen the lines at food pantries. I know people who have lost their jobs and businesses. And American racism is something I’ve seen and resisted since I was a teenager in Brooklyn. But is it worse today than it was back then? It’s different, and since I don’t experience racism personally, I don’t think I’m able to know for sure. But I am an optimist and like President Obama, one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King was when Dr. King said: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” George Floyd’s accused killer is out of a job and headed toward jail. That’s different than in the old days — but what if we hadn’t all seen that video? And what about the brutality that is not recorded and posted? Is there some way for these technologies to clarify rather than distort reality?
There is an empirical, knowable world of data and information that we can measure and understand. There is an emotional life of perceptions, feelings and values that we can experience and also understand. These facts and values intersect and shape how we experience our world. This way of understanding our world has been around at least as long as we’ve had civilization. But what’s new today is the magnification and manipulation of reality by mass and social media. In order to make money and achieve political power, many people work 24-7 to influence our understanding of how the world works. This is not a new idea. The Nazis understood how to manipulate reality and create propaganda nearly a century ago, and George Orwell wrote about it in his classic 1984: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” What is the American reality today? Millions under lockdown, millions out of work, over one hundred thousand dead from COVID-19, thousands on peaceful marches, hundreds turning to violence. The dramatic images of violence dominate. We are living in a world where images of disaster and disorder are so constant that it is difficult to know what is real. Media used to “fact check.” Some still do, most do not. Twitter finally started to fact check Trump last week.
Some people deny it, but COVID-19 and climate change are real. In the case of the pandemic, I know it’s real because my government has told me to stay home and my employer directed me to work from home. I know it’s real because I live a few blocks from a hospital and for about two months, the sound of ambulances was constant 24 hours a day. In the case of climate change, I’ve seen the data and projections and I personally know and trust the people who have produced those assessments. Moreover, I have directly read and analyzed some of the data myself.
But I can understand why people are confused about reality and dispute facts as presented by experts. Public health experts urged our elected leaders to shut down the economy to slow the spread of the virus. Since mid-March, we’ve done that. Most everyone in my family remains employed and remains at home. But many people have lost their livelihoods. Amidst this confusion, it’s easy to see why people who are out of work might mistrust the view of reality that’s presented to them in the mass and social media. And in any case, the reality of Fox News and MSNBC are two different realities. People can now pick the one they are most comfortable with. The social media posts fed to us serve to reinforce the worldview we like best. For example, the face mask has somehow become a symbol of one’s value system, rather than a way to prevent the spread of a disease.
People have always had different world views and value systems and even viewed facts in different ways. But the relentlessness of the images we are fed makes it difficult to step back and try to come up with a balanced view of reality. What I find characteristic of the real world, is that the images and facts I see sometimes contradict each other. And people debate about what is more important. Is the danger of the pandemic worse than the danger of millions of people out of work? What happens if the shutdown results in food riots and civic disorder? In the world outside of the mass and social media, we can have a reasoned, and even emotional argument about what we should do about the situation we are in. In the real world, we are uncertain about what to do. We allow experts to compete with each other and we listen carefully to the logic of their arguments. In the mass media and social media world, we sometimes see opinions disguised as facts, and uncertainty is seen as bad for business.
Democracy and the maintenance of civil society require that our disagreements be based on some agreement on how the world works and should work. We may disagree on how to feed children, but we can agree that they should not suffer. If data on child hunger is fraudulent, the basic problem being addressed can’t be seen. When media images are real and stark, it is difficult for the fake to replace what’s real. The image of George Floyd’s last moments provides a moment when media reality and actual reality tragically merged.