Down the rabbit hole

The study of media helps us interrogate the media environment we are in. But we have to push back against despair and cynicism if we want to make change.

My introductory media course has been working all semester building toward understanding the problem of disinformation in our media environments. Taking an ecological approach, we have studied the business of media, platform histories, modes of information sharing (news, info, search, persuasion) and social networks. There were two deeper, more urgent guideposts driving the semester, ones I presented the first day of class:

  1. How did Jan. 6 happen?

  2. Why do we have a hard time getting people to accept the reality of COVID, wear a mask, or want a vaccine?

The guideposts from the start represented larger structural and social problems, but as case studies they are useful ways to think about how understanding media can help us analyze it and ask how we got here. It’s self-evident at this point that the gravity of getting this wrong has impacts on all of us even if we don’t dabble in QAnon or the occasional antivaxxer conspiracy theory. Media and society are connected, and to understand epidemics of the mind or the body is to understand sociology. You cannot have civilization without communication, and while there are other structural issues that can explain what is going on—viva interdisciplinary thinking!— I see these as partly as problems of how we encounter information and talk to one another.

More to the point, Jan. 6 and COVID denialism are related in ways that are subtle to new eyes. The goal this term has been to guide students in ways to interrogate their information environments. This is a toolbox approach that, theoretically at least, is a life skill that lasts past a semester. It’s less about a method and more about reframing the concept of media in a way that allows us to ask questions about what is, and what should be.

Media ecology asks us to examine our own information environment, but also to see our environment as interdependent on the environment others find themselves in. Pollution flows downstream. We are not isolated; how are we contributing to broader social information pollution?

This is a difficult point to grasp, but our passive behaviors online create data that shape the experience others have. This is about data. What we read, what we like, what we share. Our sense of What Facebook Is, What Twitter Is, What TikTok is, this is so determined by the limits of what we see. It’s easy to get caught up in things being ok for others because our own online experience doesn’t surface junk.

Here’s a really messed-up example. We know that you shouldn’t share without clicking on the headline, right? I hope we are clear on this. But in the act of clicking to fact check, you’re feeding data to the system that can be interpreted as interest/engagement. So in doing due diligence, you decide not to share junky links. But if the social media platform is designed badly, it might not matter. All that data that correlates your interests with others might still surface that bad news story even if you don't share it, depending on where it came from.

The content we see on social networks is visible, but the process by which we are fed it is largely opaque to the public. This gets called a problem of literacy in public parlance, but I see it as a larger and fundamental problem of justice. Media products deployed badly can harm us.

I worry about moral panic, that criticism will be interpreted as asking people to be scared of media use. But I also want to underline something important here, that media use is a type of power, and that users should exercise this power liberally if we are to make a better system. The media economy is built around attention. Denying companies your attention if they serve up junk is a very useful exercise of your power.

I see three areas we need to get a lot smarter about, and in a hurry:

  1. We need a lot more awareness about how social networks operate, and to expose people to the limits of their own experience. We socially construct our vision of reality by media, and if our media environment is a polluted echo chamber, well, that’s how we get here. I will never not see this as a problem of education. We don’t want people to descend into panic, but rather to help foster better digital citizens who are aware of the limits of their media environment and the techniques they need to use to interrogate and change it.

  2. With the knowledge gained from #1, we need to act collectively as a user base to shape network decisions. Most social media company policies have inertia because we as users don’t act on our disdain for them. Adtech platforms are just as sensitive to ad revenue drops as the newspaper industry is, perhaps even more so because there is no subscription money to fall back on. We as users have sold our power for free products, given it away too easily. Our data is being used to shape reality-altering experiences for the broader public. We need better tools to control what is collected and how it’s deployed. Ultimately, we need a seat at the table.

  3. We need to understand how fragile self-governance is, and how much media shapes the way we see ourselves and society. That Facebook, Twitter, etc. have gotten so big that vaccine conspiracy theories can swirl and alter the course of society is a heavy, heavy thing to ponder. We are in the process of reconstructing what information authority looks like. Journalism was shorthand: “Trust us, we verified before publishing.” It’s a message that works, for all its flaws, in a world of scarce choice. And it’s struggling in a time of abundance, when the media landscape is flooded with choice and differentiation is hard. But free democracy relies on us being able to think, decide, and vote. I don’t think we need to go back to the good old days that never were when it comes to news, but the news products that come next need to be predicated on creating a healthier information environment (and democracy, by extension).

We have an interlocking set of incentives that encourage pollution in our current media environment. It’s nobody’s fault in particular, and I don’t think the people deciding intended this. Nobody sets out to destroy an ecosystem, but they will often act in self-interested ways that isolate pollution as a particular choice rather than thinking through the systemic effects and the larger question of what if everyone else does this too? It’s possible to rationalize your own role in all this. So we need to change the incentives.

The larger question I want to pick at here is where we go from here. I study all this for a living, and I confess to feeling moments of despair. I am a heart-on-sleeve optimist at my core, masked by some GenX outward cynicism as defense mechanism. But I also am a pragmatic, and I look around and see seeds for change lying unwatered and uncultivated. It is easy to dunk on the fool who is always sharing conspiracy theories and links from bad sources, but even in my own carefully built networks I see smart people with PhDs falling for scammy viral campaigns or unknowingly having conversations with troll bots on Twitter. I try to have a bit of humility about all of this, that any of us could fall for this at any time. Disinformation and conspiracy theory content are that seductive, tap that deeply into psychological needs we have to assess and share threats with others across our networks.

People who work in my part of the field have become a type of support group. I had a conversation with a colleague at a conference a few years ago and was asking her about her work documenting racist and misogynistic trolling operations being staged on a few of the internet’s underbelly sites that shall not be named. The conversation was fascinating, but what I remember most was seeing her get more and more animated about specific things she had observed, all before bursting into tears at the end. The sheer exhaustion of it all, and the worry that eventually she was going to become a target for shining a light on it, were on her mind as she talked about the critical work she was doing. The work and trauma were clearly entwined in ways that no amount of objectivity could separate.

It’s very important that you see that last anecdote for what it is. It’s a story I see a lot in my field, that women are shouldering a lot of the burden without great institutional or public support. Men in my field gain star status for speaking more philosophically about high-level concerns of free expression and hand-wringing about nonexistent “cancel culture” while women dig their hands in the dirt to expose what’s actually going on, and they pay a significant price.

There are other examples, but it’s important to stop and appreciate how much of this work documenting toxicity online is being done by people at the margins who by and large face the lion’s share of online abuse. We need their voices and perspectives so much to shift the public conversation on these issues. It’s important we call this what it is. There is a privilege that allows one to live in the abstract, and those like me who benefit most from this privilege need to support and defend the women and people of color who bear the brunt of shining a light on what’s really happening.

So I come at this topic with a mix of urgency and despair, that I spend a lot of time screaming into the wind while watching smart people act in ways that are making things worse. It’s why I hammer on these issues early and often in my intro course, possibly before students are ready or wanting to engage in criticism of platforms they largely see as being only for entertainment because their experience is so siloed or limited to perceptions of their own use and experience. In almost every class I end up quoting Solomon from Ecclesiastes:

“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

It is the paradox of seeking knowledge and wisdom, the core tension in doing what people in my field do and my daily struggle as a mentor and educator. To change things for the better, we have to know and understand things. And with knowing and understanding comes knowledge of just how cruel and awful the world can be, how obstinate humans are, and how difficult it is to change minds or alter behavior.

But we have to try, have to plant seeds that may take years to bloom into something beautiful. If you aren’t taken to Solomon, consider the words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel:

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

We have power to interrogate, to point out, to demand change. One thing I wish for is that we harness that power, both as individuals and collectives. to create healthier information environments for everyone. Personalization locks us in silos, to the point where we come to think of our own experience in these media spaces as universal experiences. They are not. There are people suffering and harmed by what we’ve created, and we need to use our market power to demand better. Because the potential of these networks to make something wonderful or transformational is limitless if we can harness it.

I cannot solve the virus itself, cannot stop political riots. But how we weather it, how we learn from it, how we avoid the mistakes of the past is a communication problem. Education should empower us to help solve what is coming.

That, my friends, is a lifelong pursuit.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.