American democracy is nigh defunct. The combination of social media, ad-supported digital content, and the smartphone has spawned a consumer phenomenon that is eroding the democratic mechanisms of journalism and public discourse. If we want a future with a public sphere that upholds American democracy, we need to rethink how we publish, pay for, and consume digital news media.
As it stands right now, most of us pay for digital media with our souls. That’s not to be facetious. Right now, your browser and various online scripts are scanning the contents of this article, identifying key terms and phrases. If you happened upon this piece via email, your email service provider logged similar data. If you came across it via Facebook, even more data were gathered. Any engagement with an online article—clicking, liking, commenting, sharing, even pausing to read the headline—is recorded and analyzed by ad networks and Internet gatekeepers. The results of such analysis are then used to cater your online experience. In other words, what you attend to online reveals a host of demographics about you—age, sex, political and religious leanings, hobbies, diet, career, income—and these demographics are then used to determine forthcoming newsfeeds, search results, and online ads. What we attend to online is monitored in order to serve up more of what will hold us attentive. We are paying for information, news, entertainment, and the semblance of social interaction with our time, our lives, our very existence—indeed, our souls. It’s why many scientists and economists have dubbed today’s economy “The Attention Economy.”
But what is the value of mere attention?
Because most online content is free, publishers rely on advertisement engagement for revenue. And because advertisers pay only for pageviews and clicks, it behooves any publisher using an ad-based monetization model to drive as much consumer traffic to its site or app as possible. This is why we encounter clickbait headlines, salacious photos, pop-up videos and subscription boxes, and other lurid tactics, like reporting on politics with greater frequency and fervency. What’s interesting, though, even ironic, is that many of these ads don’t promote products or services; they simply redirect the consumer to another article, video, or related piece of online content. Yet there is money in this seemingly innocuous merry-go-round. Media organizations buy traffic—they pay Google, Facebook, and various networks to serve up ads for their content across the Web—and then they profit from that traffic as it in turn views or clicks ads hosted on their website(s). That is to say, as long as a publisher pays less for its traffic than it can extract from it, it remains profitable. This strategy is called arbitrage, and multi-million dollar publishers run on it.
Attention is a resource, a real commodity, and media publishers battle to usurp it. In fact, ad-supported digital media is estimated to generate $444bn annually. The online media model literally transforms human attention into dollar bills, regardless of whether anything tangible is sold.
Of course, advertisers have always vied for attention, and ad-supported media isn’t new. TV, radio, and print depend on advertising revenue, and, like the Internet, the greater the viewer- or readership, the higher the yield, at least in general. But there’s a sly difference between how traditional media channels generate advertising revenue and how Web channels do. Traditionally, media outlets and publications sell ad space or commercial slots, commanding fees that correspond with exposure. On the Web, however, because everything is traceable, advertisers don’t pay flat rates according to audience size. They pay for direct, quantifiable engagement: views and clicks. As a result, online publishers must entice or force these views and clicks if they hope to generate revenue and stay in business. In other words, because attention is a scarce commodity (each of us has only 24 hours of attention to give per day), because of the Web’s rapidity, and because advertisers require direct engagement, publishers must increasingly employ garish and garrulous tactics in order to elicit or command attention. And there is huge money in doing this successfully. A single viral post can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a tempting albeit intensely competitive marketplace, and publishers of viral news enter it daily.
But it’s this marketplace that has, in effect, flipped the roles of media and ads. Whereas traditional media is supported by advertisements, digital media is proliferated to support advertisements. The marriage between media and ads appears to be the same, but the primary product has shifted. It’s not information or news that is being sold, it’s ads that are being sold under the guise of information.
How does all this threaten democracy? The short answer is that the public sphere is now the digital sphere, and the digital sphere is a marketplace that immediately coopts any and all participation and then sells it back to us. In other words, the public sphere was once a democratic apparatus (at least in theory), a space where citizens came together to discuss societal problems and influence political action, but now it is a virtual world that commodifies all such discussion, packaging it as information, promising an increase in knowledge for consuming it, and profiting the moment it is consumed. Such a sphere effectively diminishes voice by amplifying voice; the louder everyone becomes, the less anyone is heard. Yet the more outrageous and divisive or penetrating and poignant your voice—or article or video—the more likely it will be reified and consumed as Web fodder.
In fact, the increasingly competitive marketplace demands more outrageousness, more divisiveness. Even organizations like Upworthy, A Plus, and Collective Evolution, which claim to counter mainstream sensationalism with “positive news,” are profiting from hijacking emotions. Instead of fanning flames, they pull at heartstrings. And they know this, which is why they practically beg viewers with their glaring buttons and popups to comment and share.
Trigger the algorithms, direct the traffic, laugh all the way to the bank.
Thus, to participate in today’s sphere is to be an engaged citizen and an enthralled spectator—engaged citizen because this is the state of our democracy, spectator because it’s an illusion of democracy.
Even critiques of the modern public sphere, such as this one, are immediately subsumed. Take for example the conversations regarding fake news and echo chambers, now happening in the public sphere. Both conversations are inherently political, yet it’s reasonable to believe that each will morph into clickbait and revenue rather than policy change or overhauls in journalism ethics and news dissemination. Already the conversation regarding fake news is polarized, with the political left decrying alternative news sources while Donald Trump and his supporters accuse mainstream outlets like CNN and NBC of pandering in falsity. But there is little conversation across the divide, if any at all, as newsfeeds and search engines algorithmically target, rouse, and reinforce sentiments.
Enter the echo chamber. The echo chamber is the result of the social media newsfeed, where people shout their opinions and then are served up that which reinforces their opinions. According to left-leaning news media, it’s how Trump got elected. Despite this affront, right-leaning news media are practically ignoring the topic. And because the term is fast becoming politically loaded, it appears discussion regarding echo chambers has about as much chance of fostering dialogue as did “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” The intellectuals on the left, in their discussion of echo chambers, are talking to themselves. Go figure.
But it’s all buzzworthy, and thus profitable.
Now, there is an argument that runs counter to what I’m forwarding, and it suggests that digital technologies and social apps have in fact furthered democracy, broadened the public sphere, and granted voice to those who previously had none. This seems at least partially true. But what’s missing from this assessment is that this new, expanding, all-encompassing democracy is a for-profit enterprise. The larger and louder the public sphere, the more money the Internet gatekeepers, advertisers, and web publishers make. And being large and loud is evermore crucial to reaching an audience in the exploding din. The profit monster feeds on itself. The democracy is pseudo.
So, is there a solution? Maybe, but I suspect that it involves such formidable and revolutionary actions that to utter it here would be naïve, over-simplistic, quixotic, even vain. Perhaps, right now, we are best to unplug, unfollow, and rethink our notion of a free press. As it stands, we regard the press as free in two ways: free to report on or express whatever it wishes, unencumbered by government oversight, and free in that the public doesn’t pay to consume it. But both these notions are ill-founded. First, the press isn’t free given that it’s under duress to perform for the benefit of advertisers and profits; and, consequently, the public isn’t free in that its attention is cunningly commandeered by ever-greater salacity and by increasingly enthralling engagement strategies. In other words, we will not have news media that foster democratic discourse until we willingly pay for such media, for we can’t dispense freely that which we don’t own and control; our journalists cannot serve a public that doesn’t voluntarily back them.
And what kind of media should we willingly pay for? I don't know, maybe media that deserves to be heard rather than media that has a capacity for getting heard. Until then, the public will not control nor benefit from the news media. Until then, the news media own and control the public.
Which raises the question: Who owns the news media? Who owns the digital apparatus through which it is spread?