Totalizing Corporate Media Bubble

How do media bubbles work? We often think of this phenomenon in simplistc ways. A media bubble is perceived as a person hearing certain sources of info while not hearing others. It’s an echo chamber where a particular slant and bias gets repeated, a self-imposed state of indoctrination. The clueless victim is so trapped that they never see anything else, don’t realize there is anything else to see.

But I’ve had the thought that this rarely operates through the overt censorship and silencing of total blackouts. It’s not only whether or not something gets reported but also how it is reported, how it is framed and narratized, how it is made to stand out or be obscured, how it is repeated ad nauseum or quickly disappears. Furthermore, it involves which details get included and ignored, who gets interviewed and not.

So often news reporting happens without any context, neither present context of larger events and societal shifts nor the extended context over years and decades of prior news reporting. Typically, so much gets reported in isolation and is only reported briefly, so as to be quickly forgotten again as intended, whereas other issues are blown out of proportion in being repeated constantly over time as an ongoing rhetorical narrative (e.g., culture wars).

An example of this was the federal agents used in the protests in Oregon and elsewhere. It was one of the biggest news stories of the year. The local government opposed their presence and many questioned the legality and constitutionality of the federal government cracking down on civil liberties so wantonly, from kidnapping protesters to harassing journalists. It isn’t the type of story that isn’t going to get reported and it drew plenty of attention in social media.

It was a major point of conflict at the time with Donald Trump defending his use of the imperial presidency. There wasn’t silence about these federal agents and their actions, not even in ‘conservative’ media. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News each had dozens of articles and videos about it. But one suspects they did not receive a prominent position in the reporting of such news outlets.

This reporting, instead, was probably placed in the back pages of the newspaper or website, assuming an article was printed in the physical newspaper at all. And the video pieces on it probably weren’t played on primetime and maybe only ever were made available online. This reporting was most likely used as filler and, even then, most of it would have downplayed its relevance while ignoring and dismissing critical views. After a brief moment, the news reporting disappeared entirely from casual view.

This occurred to me because of conversations with my father, a highly intelligent and informed citizen, someone whose opinion is respected by others and so carries great influence in positions of leadership he often holds. When asked about it, he said he had never heard about these federal agents dispatched to suppress legal protest. So, it wasn’t that he had a biased and misinformed view of the issue but simply did not know about it. He spends hours every day reading The Wall Street Journal, along with a local newspaper, and often will watch Fox News in the evening. He is in a media bubble like most others, and yet theoretically the media buble he is in has included a decent amount of reporting on this news story, however unfairly slanted it might’ve been.

So, how could he not know about it at all? Well, dozens of articles and videos may sound like a lot. But compare it to the total production of material that comes out. These major corporate news outlets pump out hundreds of articles and videos on a daily basis. The smaller stories get buried before they even get seen. It’s highly probable that my father never saw any of this reporting. Even reading and watching the news all day long will leave the individual at the mercy of the news sources being followed. Mostly, they repeat the same news stories, whereas other equally or more important news stories barely get any attention at all.

We are surrounded by more news reporting than ever before and have access to such a seeming diversity of news sources. Yet the average American still only hears those same few news stories repeated over and over again, spun to fit the dominant view or rationalized away with the same set of rhetorical frames and narratives. On the other hand, all of the alternative media combined that would better inform Americans barely has much of an audience at all. It’s not only what Amercan viewers have access to but who controls the main platforms of media that have access to the Amercan mind.

Even constantly channel surfing between every corproate news channel available will mostly give you variations on the same set of themes. Old school censorship is not required, as long as there is the illusion of free choice, like standing before a grocery store shelf full of hundreds of cereal brands that all are owned by a few corporations. That said, there are better sources of info and one can find truly great news reporting. Consider the investigative journalism that Buzzfeed puts out. The problem is one has to actively seek out these obscure alternative news sites. One won’t likely come across it by picking up the newspaper or clickng on the tv news.

There isn’t something so simple as a right-wing media bubble versus a left-wing media bubble. It’s much worse than that. The entire corporate news is part of the same media bubble. There is some variation within the options of this corporate news source or another, but the similarities are greater than the differences. No matter which side of a rhetorical frame is taken, the point is that the frame is basically the same across all corporate media. The failure of a free press is not in quantity of reporting but quality.

For most Americans, far from being limited to conservatives, the reporting on those federal agents will be lost to memory before long. As such, the slow erosion of what little democracy is left will continue apace with little notice. The next incident of civil rights abuse by authoritarian power or other govermental overreach will be reported without reference to the ongoing pattern of thousands of prior incidents across the decades of administrations, no matter which party was in control.

Now we are entering a new four-year news cyclce. Democratic Joe Biden is the next incoming president. The political theater surrounding the Trump administration has already erased what Biden did as vice president not that long ago (e.g., further militarizing the police), much less his decades-long political record. Now that the campaign season is over, the corporate media won’t be reminding you. Enforced amnesia will quickly set in. Whatever incidents of concern in the coming years will likely be reported in the corporate media as if having little or no relationship to anything that has happened before.

What goes without saying is that I’m part of this same system of mass ignorance enforced by a self-serving ruling elite. I have no special insight that extends beyond the muddied water of perception management as social control. I realize that I will remain ignorant as long as I don’t carefully and deeply research these issues for myself. But to be honest, I don’t feel motivated to do so, as I find the entire situation too depressing. The truth, even if discovered, seems impotent under these conditions.

So, who am I to judge anyone else? All I feel that is worth my time and effort is to make note of this collective failure that implicates me as with everyone else. As for a solution, I’m not sure there is a good answer. Maybe, instead of drowning oneself in endless sources, learn to be discerning with a focus on what is most important and trustworthy. Sometimes less is more — so, ignore the quantity and look for the quality. It can be found. Remember that most news is not of any genuine value. There are better and happier ways to spend your time.

“…we can’t pretend they don’t exist anymore.”

James Bridle (from YouTube transcript):

But the other thing, the thing that really gets to me about this, is that I’m not sure we even really understand how we got to this point. We’ve taken all of this influence, all of these things, and munged them together in a way that no one really intended. And yet, this is also the way that we’re building the entire world.

We’re taking all of this data, a lot of it bad data, a lot of historical data full of prejudice, full of all of our worst impulses of history, and we’re building that into huge data sets and then we’re automating it. And we’re munging it together into things like credit reports, into insurance premiums, into things like predictive policing systems, into sentencing guidelines. This is the way we’re actually constructing the world today out of this data.

And I don’t know what’s worse, that we built a system that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects of human behavior, or that we seem to have done it by accident, without even realizing that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand how to do anything differently with it.

There’s a couple of things I think that really seem to be driving this most fully on YouTube, and the first of those is advertising, which is the monetization of attention without any real other variables at work, any care for the people who are actually developing this content, the centralization of the power, the separation of those things. And I think however you feel about the use of advertising to kind of support stuff, the sight of grown men in diapers rolling around in the sand in the hope that an algorithm that they don’t really understand will give them money for it suggests that this probably isn’t the thing that we should be basing our society and culture upon, and the way in which we should be funding it.

And the other thing that’s kind of the major driver of this is automation, which is the deployment of all of this technology as soon as it arrives, without any kind of oversight, and then once it’s out there, kind of throwing up our hands and going, “Hey, it’s not us, it’s the technology.” Like, “We’re not involved in it.” That’s not really good enough, because this stuff isn’t just algorithmically governed, it’s also algorithmically policed. When YouTube first started to pay attention to this, the first thing they said they’d do about it was that they’d deploy better machine learning algorithms to moderate the content.

Well, machine learning, as any expert in it will tell you, is basically what we’ve started to call software that we don’t really understand how it works. And I think we have enough of that already. We shouldn’t be leaving this stuff up to AI to decide what’s appropriate or not, because we know what happens. It’ll start censoring other things. It’ll start censoring queer content. It’ll start censoring legitimate public speech. What’s allowed in these discourses, it shouldn’t be something that’s left up to unaccountable systems. It’s part of a discussion all of us should be having.

But I’d leave a reminder that the alternative isn’t very pleasant, either. YouTube also announced recently that they’re going to release a version of their kids’ app that would be entirely moderated by humans. Facebook — Zuckerberg said much the same thing at Congress, when pressed about how they were going to moderate their stuff. He said they’d have humans doing it. And what that really means is, instead of having toddlers being the first person to see this stuff, you’re going to have underpaid, precarious contract workers without proper mental health support being damaged by it as well. And I think we can all do quite a lot better than that.

The thought, I think, that brings those two things together, really, for me, is agency. It’s like, how much do we really understand — by agency, I mean: how we know how to act in our own best interests. Which — it’s almost impossible to do in these systems that we don’t really fully understand. Inequality of power always leads to violence. And we can see inside these systems that inequality of understanding does the same thing. If there’s one thing that we can do to start to improve these systems, it’s to make them more legible to the people who use them, so that all of us have a common understanding of what’s actually going on here.

The thing, though, I think most about these systems is that this isn’t, as I hope I’ve explained, really about YouTube. It’s about everything. These issues of accountability and agency, of opacity and complexity, of the violence and exploitation that inherently results from the concentration of power in a few hands — these are much, much larger issues. And they’re issues not just of YouTube and not just of technology in general, and they’re not even new. They’ve been with us for ages.

But we finally built this system, this global system, the internet, that’s actually showing them to us in this extraordinary way, making them undeniable. Technology has this extraordinary capacity to both instantiate and continue all of our most extraordinary, often hidden desires and biases and encoding them into the world, but it also writes them down so that we can see them, so that we can’t pretend they don’t exist anymore.

We need to stop thinking about technology as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking about them properly and start to address them.