Independent media, or media independent of alternatives?

We live in an era that seems to be defined by perpetual crisis,
be it global warming, refugees, or the next financial crisis. At
the same time, we are in the midst of new technological
developments that are going to fundamentally change our way
of living (social media and artificial intelligence just to mention
a few). Considering the severity of these issues, it is quite
astonishing to see how governments and mainstream media
fail to offer any meaningful political solutions or even analysis
that reach beyond relying on further technological
development, financial incentives (like a carbon tax) and
consumer responsibility, so that the market will eventually
solve these problems itself. 

What is never provided is an
analysis of how we got here in the first place. After all, our
lord and saviour the market economy has been around for
more or less 200 years, yet it seems we have never been
closer to human extinction. And a cynic might even think that
instead of generating profit for the sake of promoting human
welfare, our market economy is really just about generating
profit for the sake of profit. To understand why we are in this
ideological deadlock, we have to look how political discourse is
formed, through media.

There are two components necessary for engaging someone in
political discourse, firstly there has to be awareness of a
problem and secondly there must be availability of information
regarding this problem. In the age of digitalization and the
internet, access to information is so abundant that most of the
time the question really is where and what to look for and,
most importantly, what you can trust. This in turn is primarily
determined by how one got aware of a problem since this
initial exposure to a problem usually makes other sources that
are framed in a similar way seem more credible. So how does
one become aware of a problem? In rare cases, because one is personally affected by it or knows someone who is. Most of
the time it is because we hear about it in the news, may that
be newspapers, radio stations, television or online.

The way we receive news fundamentally changed in the last
couple of decades as a result of digitalization. Classical print
media (with the rare exception of books) are more and more
shifting to online formats like news apps, blogs and social
media, or die out. And this has two important implications.
First of all, instead of receiving a multitude of articles on
different topics that are edited and reviewed, the readers now
get to choose which articles they want to access. The second
and most important implication is that there is a fundamental
change in the business model of newspapers. While
newspapers always made small revenues from ads they used
to mostly rely on monthly subscriptions, nowadays they
almost completely rely on ad revenues (to be fair most online
news websites offer subscriptions to access exclusive content,
but I never heard of someone actually using them).

This circumstance is paired with an increased competition
between newspapers as everyone can choose and access the
newspaper they want online. Smaller and more independent
newspapers are especially affected by this, many of whom are
going bankrupt and get bought up by giant media
conglomerates like News Corp. (e.g. The Times, The Sun, The
Wall Street Journal and owner Rupert Murdoch also owns Fox
News), Mediahuis (e.g. De Telegraaf, Het Nieuwsblad and The
Irish Independent) and Bertelsmann (e.g. RTL group, Stern,
Geo and partly Spiegel). These conglomerates (which not
seldom incorporate more than a hundred different news
outlets) however, have to satisfy shareholders who want a
return on their investments as quickly as possible and have
little interest in journalistic standards. To cope with this
increased financial pressure, news corporations decrease staff and reduce the quality of their articles in order to publish as
much as possible and as quickly as possible to be ahead of
competitors. This means that often journalists are unable to
conduct sophisticated investigations and rely on information
that is already available to them.

Thus, newspapers are forced to eat information directly out of
the hands of government press offices, think tanks and lobby
groups. A good example of this are the G20 protests in
Hamburg of 2017 where many newsletters uncritically
published police press releases presenting the collapse of
civilisation caused by left radicals and how police and the local
major Olaf Scholz saved society. Later reviewing of the events
showing that the police deliberately escalated demonstrations,
attacked journalists and even paramedics, appeared at a time
were nobody was really interested anymore, and public
perception of the events was already formed. It is this
phenomenon that causes the “credible” media to show less
and less diversity of the news that get presented to us and is
the reason why no viable alternative interpretations and
solutions of political problems seem to exist.

If one does look beyond what is considered to be “credible”
media, we quickly find ourselves in probably the most
significant form of media nowadays: social media
(notwithstanding that every professional news outlet has
some form of representation there). The majority of us is
already receiving their news mainly from social media and this
trend is only going to increase. On the surface social media
looks like the perfect tool to receive news. Everybody can
share their opinion or information while everyone else can
comment and discuss it in real time. But here again we have
to look closer at the business model running in the
background. Social media is financed by selling
advertisement. The more time we spend on social media the
more ads can be shown to us. And this is realized by an
algorithm which analyses what kind of content we are
interested in and that keeps us engaged. By comparing our
interests with those of other people that show similar interests
the algorithm determines what content is presented to us and
at the same time which ads are most likely to influence us. So
instead of promoting social connections, as is often claimed,
we are getting enthralled and occupied with the use of social
reinforcers. Everybody likes to hear that other people have
similar opinions because it gives us validation and
simultaneously makes us even more convinced of that

So, instead of having discussions and looking at problems
from different perspectives we end up with bubbles in which
we tell each otherer how great we are and how terrible
everyone else is. And if someone disagrees with us it must be
because they are stupid or because they have sinister motives
for doing so. Additionally, these processes mainly happen
without anyone who is not participating in these circles
knowing about it. Until they eventually resurface. It is at this
point that we end up with “fake news” and conspiracy theories. This phenomenon has always happened, even before
social media, however now we are globally connected to each
other and no matter how crazy a belief is, chances are you will
find someone who shares it. And it is further empathized by
the fact that popular media cannot offer alternatives anymore.

To make matters even worse, the following public outcry from
the established media only creates more audience for these
kinds of ideas and makes the movements behind them seem
bigger and more important than they really are. After all, it is
quite impressive to see how right-wing parties, that emerged
within the last couple of years, managed to present
themselves as alternatives, while virtually offering nothing
alternative to the current mainstream political discourse (with
the exception of immigration politics perhaps and here the
established parties simply adapted their ideas) or by simply
denying the existence of problems (climate change, COVID19, etc.). 

So, after having shown that we are in deep shit and to get
back to the main point of this article: how can we engage
people in alternative political thought (that at the same time
does not simply deny the existence of a problem)? It is
probably easier than ever to publish political ideas and more
than plenty already exist online. The difficult part is to actually
reach people with it and to create awareness. Since political
thought that seeks solutions in opposition to the market
economy is notoriously in lack of funding (I wonder why),
advertisement and other forms of mass distribution are not an
option. And as previously shown, social media will only reach
people who already have an interest or awareness for these
ideas and is likely only going to be useful to further educate or
for the organization of events and as a platform to get into
contact. And even that is questionable when considering the
glaring issues with data privacy. 

The only viable solution in my opinion is to push these ideas
into the public sphere and back onto the streets. There are
many ways to achieve this, may that be with posters, graffiti,
(or perhaps even the creation of a magazine) and of course
good, old fashioned demonstrations. These messages have to
be conveyed in a way that is approachable and does not scare
away people who are not familiar with these kinds of ideas,
yet at the same time they have to be distinct and radical
enough to evoke interest as an alternative. The most effective
way for this would be to address topics that a lot of people are
already affected by and to show how these problems are
connected to other issues. (Un)Fortunately there is no
shortage of problems people are struggling with, from wage
dumping, affordable housing, gender equality to
environmental issues etc. But it is not enough to just create
awareness, and to get a foot in the door so to say. There also
has to be a community that is organized and visible enough to
connect with people that are interested and that can provide a
foothold for further education. 

There already is a growing number of people that are
disillusioned by the current state of politics and that are
looking for alternatives. And it is now more important than
ever to provide this alternative. Criticizing from the comfort of
our couch however won’t do it.

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