Thursday, 26 January 2017

BuzzFeed and the changing of the guard

BuzzFeed News is trying to defend its actions of releasing an unverified dossier on US President Donald Trump’s shenanigans in Russia. Did I mention no one could verify the contents? Facts never bothered journalists in the past, so why should they stop them now? And to quote the legendary White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

Anyway, here’s what “quality” “news media” BuzzFeed News decided to use as reasoning:

"“First, the documents were in wide circulation among top intelligence and elected officials and news organizations. They were being fought over — and acted on — at the highest levels of power. But the rest of the country was getting only the occasional glimpse of those battles, never the source documents themselves. 
“The only party to this whole affair that didn’t know about it, it seems, was the public,” as the newspaper editor Seth Lipsky wrote in The Wall Street Journal."

Which boils down to: Hey, everyone was talking about it, and it makes sense I’d tell you too.

But I don’t really care if Mr Trump did hire prostitutes to micturate on a forgotten former President’s hotel bed. The question at the bottom, the query that is breaking everyone’s faith in traditional media, is: who gave BuzzFeed the power to decide what information the public should be exposed to?

Notice how no one is asking that question of Facebook and Twitter. People seem to already assume news delivered through those social mediums is “more true” because of the use of algorithms. Far more “true” anyway than messages coming from old-time journalism. But why? What is it that old-time journalism lacks and social network’s own? What changed?

It’s that sneaky word “algorithm” at fault. I don’t mean the word is particularly malicious or duplicitous. It simply refers to a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer, according to Wikipedia. In Facebook’s case, algorithms are all over the place, running everything from logins to your friend’s pictures. Pretty benign, really.

The problem is what happens inside our heads when we hear “algorithm.” It’s like a password for a little drawbridge, that once lowered allows a bunch of information to enter unmolested. “Algorithm” works on your lizard brain in the same way as the phrase “science says.” It draws from the pathways and semiotics of authority, trained into all of us since birth. When we hear “science says,” we assume veracity immediately. It wasn’t that the thing was correct and then science discovered it, rather science discovered it and then it became correct.

(I’m not saying science is bullshit. Some of it surely is, but lots of it isn’t. I’m only pointing out how the semiotics of power works. Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and many other postmodernists thought words were merely tools of power relations. But those people also treated power as a god.)

That word “algorithm” now performs a special task in this information age. It ensures citizens do not ask: Who gave Facebook the specific power to decide what information the public should be exposed to? Such a shield is important because people lose faith in truth systems. A few hundred years ago we asked about priests, and then power flowed to journalists. Now we’re asking it about journalists and power is flowing…somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong. Journalists also have their version of the “algorithm” sign. They like to say a story is “analysis” or “investigative.” It convinces an audience what they are about to read is unbiased and certainly not subjective. Most people believe this, absorbing the semiotics as sunlight soaks through skin. “Of course analysis is objective, it exposes what’s really going on!” But if that's true, why is every newspaper analysis of peripheral things such as legal matters, business or culture different? And why are all the important analysis about government, military, taxes, etc all suspiciously identical?

Priests also had their own “algorithm”: received revelation, conclave or a magical curtain in the temple. But the idea that people once believed in this obvious untruth seems preposterous today.

The final piece of the puzzle is that Facebook’s algorithm bamboozles us as it nests into the magic of computers. And computers may as well be magic to most people. Hell, most science may as well be magic. We’re told computers separate fact from fiction, circumventing toxic fallible human minds and biases. People hear about algorithms in Facebook news feeds and migrate their faith away from old-time journalism.

Hence the most important result: nothing changes. Heidegger did this too. He “got over God" in the way you "get over" a former lover. We disbelieve in media in the same way. Both you and Heidegger now search for structures that make the same worldview possible. Social networks, "everything is connected" is a vivid metaphor for globalism. And you thought that project would never work? At the very last step of a carefully managed outcome, we can bask in the freedom of our pretend choice.

Remember that power never thinks of you as an individual. Power never thinks of you at all. With old-time journalism and social networks, you are seeing a shift in power being repackaged as a commercial battle.

Like Marshall McLuhan once screamed, there's a war going on out there, and it isn't between liberals and conservatives or atheists and believers. It's between us and them, where them is defined as everyone who is not us and us is defined as me. You lose.

No comments: