Weekend Reading: Izabella Kaminska: Facebook and the Manufacture of Consent

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Weekend Reading: The problem with this from the extremely smart and thoughtful Izabella Kaminska's argument here is that people pay for the New York Times--and they got Judy Miller, Whitewater!, and Emails!. People pay for the Washinton Post, and get Fred Hiatt--plus get told that Stanley Kaplan University is wonderful, and that Clarice Starling and Eliot Ness established the high reputation of the FBI. In pay-for journalism you may be the customer rather than the product, but that does not get you far enough:

Izabella Kaminska: Facebook and the manufacture of consent: "As to... what’s really wrong with the media, the simple adage that you get what you pay for and that if it’s free you are the product is... insightful...

...If you pay peanuts, you will get poorly balanced, poorly verified, poorly sourced and poorly scrutinised news. And if you condone the mass distribution of free news and normalise it by calling it a “business model” or an “eco-system” you will fan the propaganda war rather than abate it. Don’t make Facebook and Google filter fake news. If you value truly balanced and verified news; if you value comment which scrutinises vested interests, business models or government policy; or if you value being confronted by views which are different from your own but still well argued, pay for the news, don’t just get it from Facebook....

None of this is new of course. As Jurgen Habermas noted in his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society, our demand for fair and balanced news is intimately connected to merchants’ needs for accurate information about the sentiments of private individuals living in a free democracy. In that sense, Habermas’ most profound observation is that the formation of the public news arena is intimately connected to the rise of the coffee houses and stock exchanges. This is because it is only on the stock exchange that the full range of conflicting views collide to forge a clearing price. Repression or manipulation of information flow, meanwhile, only ensures that the clearing price will be off to someone’s advantage and to someone else’s disadvantage.

Interestingly, back in the 90s and noughties, when the internet was first becoming a thing, media academics would often ponder whether this new form of information exchange represented the reconstitution of a public sphere in a digital form (especially in light of Herman/Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent critique, which argued the advertising funding model had skewed the public debate and turned the industry into a corporate propaganda outlet). Mostly, they erred towards the notion it did not precisely because it captured a small slice of the population and had a tendency to compartmentalise discussion rather than broaden it.

Based on all that, if Facebook and Google moves to filter “fake news” it will only exacerbate the problem because these institutions will always be governed by commercial interest not public duty. That as a whole makes them inequipped to judge what news is fit for publication and which is not. What it does do in the long run is open the door to an even more sinister advertising propaganda model than that which inspired Herman/Chomsky’s Manufacture of Consent.

In that light, here’s some commentary from Habermas about what aspects of salon and coffee-house culture constituted a public sphere (and which I’d argue are lacking today):

However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who- insofar as they were propertied and educated — as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion. The issues discussed became “general” not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility; everyone had to be able to participate.

What of the uneducated and unpropertied or too poor to engage in the market for objects, you ask? According to Habermas, they were brought into the public sphere by way of festival gatherings, theatre performances and the music halls, all of which spurred public debate.

In a highly atomised and compartmentalised culture, however — where even workplace gatherings don’t bring people together because everyone is being encouraged to “work for himself” in the gig economy or from home — there seem to be ever fewer occurrences where we, the public, have no choice but to interact with those who disagree with us.

This in turn encourages the cultivation of safe spaces, which in turn twists our perception of reality into something it simply is not.

Disclosure: This reporter’s MA journalism dissertation looked at the inherent biases of the media in covering anti-globalist rallies. That was in 2001, since lost to the dustbin of time, but if the experience taught me anything it’s that institutional self-censorship is as big a problem as outright “fake news”.