Against The Grain: Media And The Shaping Of The Political Mindscape

It was only a couple of weeks ago, that I found myself on the athenian subway, after a long day of blissfully strolling around the city looking for pink, cute, useless stuff to buy for my baby niece. A middle aged gentleman was sat next to me, reading his mainstream newspaper, and audibly disapproving of the front page news. I sneaked a peak, ever curious as I am; Apparently, a new wave of cruel cuts was afoot for the greek national pension scheme, and apparently it was all Angela Merkel´s fault, directly and personally. “Unbelievable”, he turned to me and said, “You know, this whole crisis is part of the plan to stop the Left from spreading throughout Europe, it’s those german elites and the big companies that have taken our government hostage.”

I should have resisted, by now I know a lost battle when I see one, but I thought “hey, why not, let’s see what happens”. Thus, I replied with all the casual urban politeness I could muster: “So… How do you suppose the government would save us then? If, you know, they hadn’t been taken hostage by the elites”.

He gave me a blank look, dumbfounded and perplexed, and simply said “Why, they would give us what they promised, of course! €750 minimum wage, more jobs for the people in the public sector, increases in our pensions, the lot! If they were allowed to leave the euro and to print their own money, like they planned to, and to just tax the rich, the rest of us wouldn’t have to starve as we do today”.

I nodded and instinctively knew it was time to give up. I knew better than to try and challenge the mainstream media indoctrination of any good citizen. It’s a gruelling task, it is a priori doomed to failure and mostly Sisyphean in nature. And yet, it was that brief, subterranean exchange that got me thinking about chickens and eggs: Did that man chose his news source because it confirms his pre-existing beliefs, or were those beliefs created and sustained by the newspaper itself? Would he still defend the Fides Defuncti of the old Red Guard if he had a chance to widen his news consumption habits to include conflicting ideas?

Mainstream Media vs New Media

It is the old adage, about the journalist’s duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable that has been brought to a whole new level these days. It’s been twisted and denatured and forcefully morphed into a kind of monomania, an obsession really, that overshadows any attempt to actually report the news. There always has to be an angle: a victim and a perpetrator, an oversimplified version of events that must always fit some primordial narrative of a battle between good and evil.

The afflicted must be comforted at all costs. Any and all responsibility or involvement they might have had in the making of their affliction must be scrubbed clean from the record, for it doesn’t fit the absolutist narrative. And as for the comfortable, oh well, they are guilty by default, of being comfortable, if nothing else, while others remain afflicted.

Evidence, facts, numbers and statistics are also superfluous, indigestible and downright distracting from the news experience and therefore thoughtfully dispensed with. What is left, is a convenient, smooth version of events that offends no sensibilities, hurts no feelings and rocks no boats. Of course, the final printed story encourages no practical or realistic action to ever change anything nor does it provoke any sort of critical thought on the reader’s part, lukewarm and passive as it usually is; but it does reaffirm their belief that they are still right about everything. Thus, the afflicted are indeed comforted, in a patronising and exclusively theoretical kind of way, while nothing is actually done to address whatever is afflicting them, and the comfortable are publicly named, shamed and chastised, which is all that really matters anyway these days. And then with fiery purgatory gusto, the guilty and the innocent alike are summarily thrown together in the arena with the lions as the crowd cheers. And… Well, and justice for all.

Social media on the other hand seemingly have the clear advantage of polyphony and variety of viewpoints. Everyone gets his own soapbox and matching loudspeaker, and they can blog and tweet and post and preach their personal truths to their heart’s content. We get to choose the voices we want to hear from an endless range of different sources. In theory, it’s a free thinking man’s dream. No external checks and balances, no limits, no regulations, no censorship. Just a truly free marketplace of ideas. Reliability and reputation are fought for, lost or won, and the champions proclaimed directly by the people for the people; success or failure comes about by popular demand or lack there of, by the choices and preferences of the news consumers.

And therein lies the problem. We are only human. Ergo we are cognitively flawed: we like herds, we love to be proven right and we feel all warm and fuzzy inside when we find likeminded people to exchange mutual compliments with and to admire each other’s intellectual prowess. No one likes to have his worldview challenged by ideologically contrary news sources first thing in morning, much like nobody sane actively seeks out confrontation and social friction, not while simply trying to get today’s news anyway.

Thusly, sooner or later, we gravitate back to our respective herds. We read what pleases us, what makes us feel empowered and in the end, the voices we like best are the ones that sing in sync with the ones in our own head. That’s why our Facebook timelines all read like our own political and ideological manifestos, ghostwritten by the friends and acquaintances that naturally mirror our views. Every now and then, some stray, subversive post will escape and slip past the algorithm that guards the borders between “us and them”. But it will be such an isolated and weak outlier, instantly scoffed at and dismissed, without even a second of critical evaluation on our part. If anything, seeing how asthmatic the opposition looks, how hopelessly outnumbered, outwitted and undone, drowning in a timeline flooded with confirmatory evidence of our ideas, will only serve to further reinforce and thicken the walls that divide us from what we, by now, perceive as our enemies.

As we become more isolated in our cozy online bubbles of self confirmation and mutual reaffirmation, interacting only with our pre-vetted and cleared intellectual “peers”, any notion of objective analysis or critical thinking seems surplus to requirements. The moat we dig to keep our worldview safe from those who would do it harm grows ever wider, and the outside world looks ever more hostile and dangerous. Any contact with the outsiders is more and more likely to end in rancorous resentment and childish, ad hominem attacks, merely raw juvenile abuse, instead of a civil exchange of ideas, or a mature debate, like it once used to be.

The lesser of two evils

On the surface, it would appear that mainstream media might very well be the safer path. After all, their scripted narratives might merely entertain and dull rather than inform, but at least they do it uniformly. They don’t threaten social cohesion or civility, for they present us with no real dilemmas, they give us no alternatives to disagree or fight over: they remain “on message”, and there always is but one, consistent, finely tuned message.

There is however the small matter of choice. Even if we habitually tend to ignore it, even if we never actually exercise it, it is important that the right to choose is remains inalienable. New media, even through all its cacophony and noise (or perhaps because of it), guarantees and safeguards our right to pick our own information sources. It gives us the chance to reevaluate our own positions, it provides us with ammunition to shoot down our own ideas and most of all, it allows us to doubt: our leaders, our environments, our herds, and perhaps most importantly, our very selves.

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