Hate, Inc: How to be aware of media systems that profit from polarising and dividing us
We live in polarised times? No kidding. But is there actually a profit motive, as well as a power motive, in bringing about this state of affairs? Here’s three bits of commentary which lay open the systems that may be making a buck from making things worse.
This is the title of the new book from Matt Taibbi, one of the US’s most trenchant critiques of the status quo, writing for Rolling Stone magazine. On Hate, Inc.’s site at OR Books, there is a preview extract which lays out his analysis perfectly (US references explained in the text):
Now more than ever, most journalists work for giant nihilistic corporations whose editorial decisions are skewed by a toxic mix of political and financial considerations. Unless you understand how those pressures work, it’s very difficult for a casual news consumer to gain an accurate picture of the world.
This book is intended as an insider’s guide to those distortions.
The technology underpinning the modern news business is sophisticated and works according to a two-step process. First, it creates content that reinforces your pre-existing opinions, and after analysis of your consumer habits, sends it to you.
Then it matches you to advertisers who have a product they’re trying to sell to your demographic. This is how companies like Facebook and Google make their money: telling advertisers where their likely customers are on the web.
The news, basically, is bait to lure you in to a pen where you can be sold sneakers or bath soaps or prostatitis cures or whatever else studies say people of your age, gender, race, class, and political bent tend to buy.
Imagine your Internet surfing habit as being like walking down a street. A man shouts: “Did you hear what those damned liberals did today? Come down this alley.”
You hate liberals, so you go down the alley. On your way to the story, there’s a storefront selling mart carts and gold investments (there’s a crash coming – this billionaire even says so!).
Maybe you buy the gold, maybe you don’t. But at the end of the alley, there’s a red-faced screamer telling a story that may even be true, about a college in Massachusetts where administrators took down a statue of John Adams because it made a Hispanic immigrant “uncomfortable.” Boy does that make you pissed!
They picked that story just for you to hear. It is like the parable of Kafka’s gatekeeper, guarding a door to the truth that was built just for you.
Across the street, down the MSNBC alley [a liberal US news network], there’s an opposite story, and set of storefronts, built specifically for someone else to hear.
People need to start understanding the news not as “the news,” but as just such an individualized consumer experience. Anger just for you.
This is not reporting. It’s a marketing process designed to create rhetorical addictions and shut unhelpfully non-consumerist doors in your mind. This creates more than just pockets of political rancor.
It creates masses of media consumers who’ve been trained to see in only one direction, as if they had been pulled through history on a railroad track, with heads fastened in blinders, looking only one way.
As it turns out, there is a utility in keeping us divided. As people, the more separate we are, the more politically impotent we become.
This is the second stage of the mass media deception originally described in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent.
First, we’re taught to stay within certain bounds, intellectually. Then, we’re all herded into separate demographic pens, located along different patches of real estate on the spectrum of permissible thought.
Once safely captured, we’re trained to consume the news the way sports fans do. We root for our team, and hate all the rest.
Hatred is the partner of ignorance, and we in the media have become experts in selling both.
I looked back at thirty years of deceptive episodes – from Iraq to the financial crisis of 2008 to the 2016 election of Donald Trump – and found that we in the press have increasingly used intramural hatreds to obscure larger, more damning truths. Fake controversies of increasing absurdity have been deployed over and over to keep our audiences from seeing larger problems.
We manufactured fake dissent, to prevent real dissent.
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“The internet grants power to the consensus breaker than the consensus-maker”
We also noted this piece in William Davies’ essay for the London Review of Books, on new political parties:
In an age of limitless bandwidth and ubiquitous data capture, the challenge for politicians (or anyone else) is to get noticed and exert influence. This calls for a very different set of political and personal talents: confrontation, wit, defiance, spontaneity and rule-breaking.
The politician who wants to target the swing voter via television tries to seem as normal as possible. The politician who seeks to mobilise support online will do precisely the opposite.
While it’s true that Farage has made mileage out of his ‘ordinary’ cultural habits (‘a fag and a pint’), a Trumpian refusal to play by the rules is his more potent quality.
The internet is an anti-hegemonic technology - it grants far more power to the consensus-breaker than to the consensus-maker. As the data analytics industry understands, it is a brilliant machine for mapping unusual clusters of feeling and behaviour, but far less suited to establishing averages and generalities.
The internet fragments the ‘middle ground’ as a space of political argument, and grants a disproportionately loud voice to the niche and the crank.
There are illusions galore here, but no sanctuary for the crucial synecdochal one on which representative democracy depends [ED: “synechdochal” means “taking the part to represent the whole” - eg, taking an MP to represent your political world-view]. Notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘the average voter’ lose their sway.
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Saying “we’re listening” doesn’t reduce the polarities
And finally, from Unherd, this acute piece on how Nigel Farage cleverly pulls others into his orbit - and how they fall for it:
The most obvious recourse for both centre-Left and centre-Right parties is to claim ‘We’re listening’ and to start adopting – albeit in dilute form and couched in less inflammatory rhetoric – some of the diagnoses and the policy prescriptions of their more radical opponents.
The hope, of course, is that voters, realising that their concerns (many of which revolve around the sheer rapidity of cultural change that they never explicitly consented to) are now apparently being taken seriously, will end their flirtation with the extreme and gratefully return to the mainstream.
Except it doesn’t always work like that. By ‘banging on’ about the urgent need to control migration and insisting that migrants mustn’t live separate lives, as well as about (to pick two not-so-random examples) net migration targets and the big bad EU, mainstream parties only serve to up the salience of such issues.
And so, rather than undermining the populist radical Right, they actually do it a favour – not least because it can always trump any restrictive (or Eurosceptic) policy that a mainstream party can dream up with something much bigger and better.