Mass media, self-publishing, privilege, and social networking websites

When I was a teenager, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the Internet wasn’t a thing yet, I read Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, and it kind of blew my mind.

'Manufacturing Consent' book cover

Manufacturing Consent demonstrated that the mass media is systematically biased in ways that promote the interests of corporate and political elites, not as a result of an overt conspiracy, but as a result of what Herman and Chomsky call “filters”. I’m going to quote the excellent Wikipedia article on Manufacturing Consent:

Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes five editorially-distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media:

  1. Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience.
  2. The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”.[1] Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.
  3. Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”[2]
  4. Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.[2]
  5. Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.[3][4]

I’m going to call the particular, biased world-view put forward in the mass media “Hegemonic Reality” (sorry for making up a clunky expression, I promise I won’t do it again), and I’m going to look at it from a slightly different perspective from the authors of Manufacturing Consent. Herman and Chomsky were interested in looking at how Hegemonic Reality benefits elites politically and economically; an obvious example is that we have endless headlines about benefit cheats but none about tax fraud, even though the latter costs far more money each year. It is mainly the very rich who commit tax fraud, the same people who pay large campaign contributions to political parties and can directly or indirectly influence how much ad revenue a newspaper will receive.

However Hegemonic Reality doesn’t just uphold financial and political hierarchies, it also reinforces and reproduces social hierarchies, along lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability, for example. In Hegemonic Reality people are taller, thinner, and whiter than in real life, cops are usually the good guys and don’t harass or racially discriminate, people working in cafes or pensioners can afford to live in luxurious flats, almost no-one is gay, and the few people who are gay behave as funny, stereotyped caricatures, not as complex individuals. In Hegemonic Reality everything is fine with the world. No-one is poor or discriminated against, no-one is sick and unable to get the medical treatment they need. Domestic violence and sexual assault are rare and are always taken seriously by the police, and capitalism is working just fine.

Most people experience a disconnect between their day-to-day real-life experiences, and the Hegemonic Reality displayed on TV, in films and in newspapers, and the most marginalised people are the ones who experience the greatest disconnect.

In the early days of the Internet there was great optimism that a new era of free speech was dawning. Almost anyone could self-publish, and blogs appeared on a dazzling array of topics. The Internet may have given us access to an unprecedented amount of porn and cat pictures, but there has also been an explosion in consciousness-raising on topics such as race, gender, and feminism. I’ve had the privilege of reading a black woman describing, in her own words, what it’s like to experience every-day racism, and I’ve learned from trans women and trans men what it’s like to be mis-gendered. I’ve learned from fat people about the discrimination they face, and I’ve learned from US-Americans what it’s like to live in a country where many people can’t afford health-care. I’ve been enriched as a person by learning about these things, although they weren’t always easy to hear about, and I would never have learned any of this through the mass media of TV, newspapers, and radio. In Hegemonic Reality, these lives and experiences are invisible.

All of this blogging and story-telling on the Internet goes some way to breaking the stranglehold of Hegemonic Reality on our world-view. However the ability to tell these stories freely depends on the ability to use pseudonyms and to control who can see our posts, but these are being eroded.

Facebook has been steadily making more and more information that used to be private, public, and this has had a devastating effect on the lives of some people who have lost their jobs as a result of Facebook posts. In 2012 it’s pretty much common knowledge now that employers and potential employers look at people’s Facebook pages, but in 2006 Facebook actually allowed quite good privacy options, and many people signed up using the name on their government ID assuming that Facebook would continue to allow good control of privacy in the future. Of course that turned out not to be the case, and these days anything posted on Facebook might as well go on every CV you write for the rest of your life. So people have been making Facebook more like a CV, posting only things that would be inoffensive to an employer. There has been a creeping expectation of self-censorship, which I find to be deeply sinister.

Lots of people simply ignore Facebook’s “real names” policy (I put “real names” in quotes because it really means “the name on your government ID”, which for many people is different from what they consider to be their true name). This is not a perfect solution, since a malicious person could get your Facebook account shut down by reporting your violation of the policy. So we have a sort of fuzzy situation where many people self-censor to varying degrees, some people are authentically themselves on Facebook with no repercussions, and some people are too authentic on Facebook and are punished for it in various ways, and a lot of people are somewhere in between.

Enter Google+. When Google’s social network first appeared I naively assumed that pseudonyms would be allowed, in line with Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto, but Google+ has a “real names” policy similar to Facebook’s. A few months back Google started shutting down the accounts of people who they believed had violated the policy. There was a storm of controversy which came to be called the “Nymwars” (“nym” is short for “pseudonym”).

Google’s position was that “real names” promote good behaviour and make the social network “like real life”. Google hasn’t said much beyond this in defence of their policy, and my opinion they are well aware that they have are on the wrong side of this argument, but insist on a real names policy because it allows them to collect more and more valuable information to sell to their advertisers, and because they want to collect as much information as possible about us in order to offer us more personalised services down the line.

While Google didn’t say very much in defence of their real names policy, a lot of tech bloggers spoke up in support of it, making the argument that that people who had done nothing wrong should have no reason to hide behind a pseudonym. This argument was roundly crushed, with sites such as Who is harmed by Real Names policies and My name is me raising awareness of the fact that nearly everyone has good reasons to use a pseudonym at least some of the time.

The argument in justification of “real names” policies was changed to: “A tiny fraction of people need pseudonyms, but they are a special case and there are other places on the Internet where they can discuss their little minority concerns.”

For example, Robert Scoble, a well-known tech blogger, said:

“And there are plenty of forums and other places on the Internet that are great for discussing all those political and racist and other ideas. I’m not seeing anyone harmed if Google wants to go down a better discourse path by forcing real names and real identities. As far as being a woman and discussing rape or domestic violence, maybe Google+ isn’t the place to discuss those things. Maybe someplace like Quora, where you CAN be anonymous, is a safer and better place to talk about those things.”

Pic of Robert Scoble, a white man with blond hair of about 40, wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt, with a lake and hills in the background

Robert Scoble: blogger, tech evangelist, total asshat.

However it had already been repeatedly pointed out that people who had good reasons to use pseudonyms were not a tiny niche group, they were actually in the majority. For instance women frequently experience online harassment just for being women, while almost anyone with a job at some point wants to gripe about work. Already that’s the majority of people in the world who potentially have good reasons for using a pseudonym.

At this point I had a little epiphany about the nature of privilege, and Hegemonic Reality. Most people experience a dissonance between the Hegemonic Reality portrayed on TV, and the actual real-life reality that we experience everyday. The more marginalised people are also those who experience the most dissonance. And, I realised, there is also a tiny group of people who experience very little dissonance, and for whom Hegemonic Reality really is like actual reality. This tiny group is made up of very privileged people – heterosexual white cis men with white-collar jobs – Google executives, for example. These people really have no reason to ever use pseudonyms, and they really, genuinely think that everyone is like them. This is one way in which Hegemonic Reality reproduces itself: it’s not a conspiracy, it’s more like a collective delusion. The people with the most power in society live in Hegemonic Reality so they think everyone does, and they use all their power to behave as if Hegemonic Reality was the only reality, literally erasing and re-writing everyone else’s experiences.

To take this further: Hegemonic Reality is threatened by the very existence of people who have valid reasons to use pseudonyms, since Hegemonic Reality is a happy and uncomplicated place where everyone gets a fair chance, no-one is marginalised, and bad things never happen to good people. For a person who has spent their whole life thinking that the world is mostly a fair place, it must be challenging to start hearing about people who’ve been marginalized, since this could lead the person to question whether they were really as special and as deserving as they’d always thought.

So the privileged tried to protect their Hegemonic Reality. First they denied the existence of people who didn’t belong to it: “People who have done nothing wrong have no need for a pseudonym”. Once that had been shown to be nonsense, they did everything in their power to marginalise other realities. They acted as though only a tiny number of people of had experiences outside of Hegemonic Reality which might lead them to want to use a pseudonym, and suggested that these non-Hegemonic-Reality-conforming concerns should be relegated to low-traffic, un-networked forums, where privileged people won’t have to hear about them, as Robert Scoble suggested. This really is mind-bogglingly offensive: “If you really must talk about race or gender or disability or whatever, do it in some forum somewhere, not in our nice social network.”

The insistence on “real names” turns Google+ into an extension of Hegemonic Reality, rather than an open social network. We have come full circle: before the Internet, we got our information from elites who controlled all media, and who used it to spread their version of reality. Then the Internet came, allowing communication directly between ordinary people, un-mediated by the elites. Now on Facebook and Google+ we move into an era of self-censorship, where we police ourselves, never saying anything that could be offensive to a prospective employer. We may not live in Hegemonic Reality but we have to act like we do, because everyone is watching.

I think the worst thing in all this is that I find I have a tendency to internalise the message from Google+ and Facebook, from Richard Scoble and others like him: that my real life isn’t important, that my experiences don’t count, that my reality doesn’t count. That the things that matter to me are icky and disgusting and nice people shouldn’t have to be bothered with them.

A very important part of oppression is silencing the oppressed, preventing them from telling their stories. Facebook and Google+ don’t necessarily want to silence us, they’re just chasing the bottom line, but the effect is the same.

People are resisting by using pseudonyms and by finding any way possible to tell the truth about our lives to each-other. This isn’t a perfect solution though, and my hope for the future is open social networks which are run as not-for-profit services, with users rather than advertisers as customers. Both Dreamwidth and Diaspora give exciting models of this.

3 Comments on “Mass media, self-publishing, privilege, and social networking websites”

  1. KM says:

    Cheers for the heads-up on language! I’ve fixed it in the text.

  2. blueanna says:

    Thanks for writing this post KM and making these privacy debates so vivid and relevant – ‘go and discuss your lack of privilege somewhere else’ is funny but awful. This is making me think about how I use Facebook and wondering whether it’s time to migrate…

  3. […] wrote in a previous blog post, about Hegemonic Reality, a sort of shared reality and understanding of the world which is overwhelmingly dictated by the […]

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