Media Literacy for Political Actors

by Christian Wright on November 17, 2012

Today several hundred of my friends, family, and coworkers, past and present saw the following two images:

They were seen because I posted them to my Facebook News Feed. When I did that, the decades-long media blackout of Palestinian reality was in an instant shattered. The pressures of advertisers, lobbies, and newspaper owners was transcended by these two very simple and poignant images that I, in a few seconds, and for free, posted online. Many of the ignorant and the unaware felt the tremor of my knowledge bombs. Many more of the all too familiar felt empowered and were given a highly effective leaflet they didn’t have to print or tape up any where. And… a very few people were rather annoyed with me, which of course is precisely what political agitation is supposed to do. Conversations ensued. Words were exchanged. Logical fallacies and underlying priorities and prejudices were exposed. Dents were made.

Yes I am one small person. The New York Times and Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and FOX News and MSNBC are much bigger and stronger than me. But today my tiny spear penetrated their armors of indifference and webs of lies completely. The juggernaut remains, but a tiny light peers out from a hole I have created. Now more spears are thrown. Some miss, but many find their mark. The juggernaut is weakened.

Perhaps most shockingly of all was that despite rather polarized opinions the discussion was entirely civil. It was conducted without raised voices by people sitting in chairs and lending their undivided attention to the subject at hand. I had more attention from people who completely disagree with me or who don’t care about the issue at all than I could get from a sit down meeting in a bar with someone who agrees with me.

That is the power of the internet, and it is more politically powerful than any journalistic tool invented since paper.

The Triumph of Horizontal Media

The Facebook News Feed is the new newspaper. And the News Feed is the new homepage of the internet. While many online news sources endeavor to be the new “paper”, Facebook has actually succeeded in attracting and holding that attention, and it has done it by putting us in the drivers’ seat. Our editors are our aggregate assemblage of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, the quality of its reporting varies with the intellectual and political levels of one’s friends. But even a minority of very intelligent friends, if they post something rather touching and true, can get it transmitted faster through a very large network of not self-consciously political people.

Decentralized as it is, the work an editor used to do is spread out among one’s entire friends network. And putting together the new “paper” (such as it is) now takes way less time as well as money. The relatively small amount of revenue actually needed to sustain the technical aspects of the project are paid for by very discreet ads.

The people have voted with their feet and made Facebook the home page not because it has the flashiest design or the best paid contributors or because it was implanted with a virus that changed it to your browser’s homepage automatically. People like it because they are personally invested in the story that it tells. Though imperfect, it is more democratic than any other written news form in history. The speed at which ideas are assimilated, shared, and dialectically responded to and learned from is much faster than the time it took historically to read a paper, digest it, and then maybe somewhere later that day have a conversation about something you read in it.

And of course like a newspaper if someone has free time or a job with minimal supervision and a computer and the internet, they can waste a lot of time on it. Partly they are learning, and the joy of learning and of sharing things with others (and feeling somewhat connected to one’s friends in the process) triggers the brain to release “happy” chemicals. I am not a chemist, but I believe reading Facebook prompts the brain to release similar if not larger quantities of dopamine and serotonin than it does for a committed reader devouring his favorite newspaper over a leisurely morning breakfast. As such of course it is dangerous and needs to be used in moderation, though internet addiction is beyond the scope of this article.

Today one person in my News Feed posted a bit about the absurdity of having the news of Hostess (the maker of Twinkies and Ho-Hos) going out of business occupying as much of his feed as posts about the bombing of Gaza or the strike of Walmart workers. Are not the latter two topics much more important? Indeed they might be. But all popular newspapers have been liked for more than just what is “important”.

Even to the most political person Facebook is a newspaper and not a political journal. Most newspapers have humor, culture, relationship advice columns, horror scopes, and much else besides current events and business trends. Many newspapers even have whole sections devoted to art or cooking. The Twinkie feed got popular because it is relevant and an enjoyed, shared, cultural experience. The totality is popular. Though not perfect by any means, it has been voted “with feet” over newspapers as a more relevant, interesting, and enjoyable news tool than anything else.

Certainly in this regard I feel it is often an improvement upon the newspapers many of our left wing groups have been able to produce. Far too often, in fact almost universally, what gave Pravda or the Daily Worker life and made them attractive is today missing. Our papers are too “serious” for poetry, political cartoons, personal stories, local histories, or sports analysis. Ah, but we have plenty of terrible news of death, oppression, ecological disaster, and human suffering! Also perhaps some reprints of meaningful theory in confusing language written by people most workers have never heard of in a far off land a long time ago! And on page 10 there’s a report of a tiny strike in another time zone that will probably end in defeat!

All that and still we are baffled about why the time we have spent to distribute such gems of liberation has not sparked more widespread revolt!

The emergence of the internet generally and the News Feed more specifically is good news for everyone but professional journalists and newspapermen. The dream of the liberal intelligentsia that more men and women would one day be able to read and discuss and write and thus share their opinions on important issues has been realized. Another dream, that a living can be made as a “journalist”, has been crushed. For an unknown person to announce to a room that they are “a journalist” is liable to elicit the same mixture of sympathy and laughter as someone introducing themselves as “a musician” and subsequntly asking you to purchase their homemade CD-R or pointing you to their unsigned band’s free download page.

News Blogs and News Sites

News blogs and news sites are still very important. Today the name recognition and quality control they offer is as ever appreciated and much sought after. For example, seeing an absurd but politically relevant headline posted and then noticing the URL is from “theonion.com”, will make it more likely to get clicked and read than the same headline from a news site that elicits no name recognition. It’s the same thing as having a friend suggest you dine at a restaurant that you both had a great experience at last time. “Oh yeah, that place was great! Let’s go there again!”

For political organizations, the proto-groups of what might one day be a serious political force, establishing name recognition among a broad population is an essential task.

Furthermore the ability of a single articulate and timely article or video to “go viral” far beyond the established readership is a very empowering development. Name recognition is a contributing factor to virality. Do you click more often on YouTube links that have a nice formatted picture, title in bold letters, and short description, or do you more often click on links that are just a text of an address? Most likely, you click on more links to You Tube. You probably had a good time there the last time.

But while worth investing in, our news sites need to be constructed intelligently. And this goes far beyond questions of layout, colors, or HTML, to which I happily defer to more qualified experts.

Perhaps the most important democratizing feature of the internet to arise in my lifetime besides the News Feed is the emergence of comments sections beneath articles.

All “newspapers of record” from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Denver Post have created comments sections. So have many of their often hipper and edgier internet competitors such as Mother JonesThe Nation, and The Huffington Post. Not only have comments sections spread widely but they have come to be as expected to a reader as a restroom or napkins are to a diner in a restaurant. Not having a comments section is interpreted as almost offensive. Surely, isn’t any participant entitled to fill out a comment card on their experience as they leave the plane / hotel / restaurant / employee meeting / GRE prep course?

Readers like comments sections, like the News Feed, for their horizontalism. Now anyone can fact and logic check and if need be raise questions about the articles themselves. And many times a highly rated comment may express a point more articulately than anything in the article. Even when discussions get contentious, reading an exchanged debate of ideas about a controversial subject can be highly educational, perhaps even more educatioaln than the origional article.

Proponents of the idea that democratic discussion can lead to truth – from Socrates to Marx to Myles Horton and beyond – would probably be as baffled by today’s technology as they would be impressed by it. Most likely the editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung would take to Facebook, blogs, and comments sections as fast as Mozart or Beethoven would to a modern electronic music studio.

In this context I remain baffled by the reluctance of many left wing news outlets to embrace these changes, particularly as left wing organizations are more outspoken in the potential of ordinary people to come together to solve their own problems. Z MagazineCounterpunch, and Socialist Worker are a few examples of explicitly radical websites that deny their readers the ability to comment on read material. The idea that that the ability to host commenting is beyond the technical know how of these outfits is not credible. In touch with many young people with basic to advanced programming skills, there is no technical reason why any of these sites could not host comments. Several much smaller left news sites, such as the North Star or New Left Project have figured out how to do this.

Other excuses fall apart almost as quickly. Many mainstream news sites where readers (with often highly polarized views) are able to comment have found ways to keep discussion orderly. One of the best methods yet devised has been to allow users to rank comments. Highly rated comments move to the top, while lower rated comments move lower. The ability of any reader to flag comments allows them to be hidden if they are offensive or malicious. Flagged and thus hidden comments may be clicked on and read anyway by the curious, helping to address fears of censorship. The desire to have one’s comment actually seen and read, rather than flagged and hidden, motivates even a highly opinionated writer to choose their words carefully.

I have heard it said that it would take too much time to devote to keeping a comments site orderly. I believe this is another “red herring.” Indeed, an editor of a news site does need to periodically review discussion, dowse incipient flame wars, and review flags. But the amount of work from the number of people this takes is miniscule compared to how much work many dedicated left wing activists currently spend trying to sell hard copies of newspapers. A revolutionary organization with approximately one thousand members may ask each of their members to spend 3 hours getting to, and spending time at, and returning home from a paper sale on a public street corner. Each member may feel like it was worth it if they sold 3 or 4 papers. That’s 3,000 man hours a week to sustain a circulation of under 10,000. But more realistically if you include the time it takes to read the whole paper to be able to sell it well, that is more like 5,000 hours. At the federal minimum wage, that time is worth $36,250 weekly, or $1,812,500 annually.

Alternately, one member of the organization can spend 30 minutes, twice a day, keeping a discussion orderly. We can probably find someone to do that for free, or at least for something far less than the almost $2 million dollars a year in labor we are collectively expending for the sake of an inherited ritual. Either way, by prioritizing a website’s attractiveness and democratic usefulness, it is likely to become wider, more carefully, and more influentially read than it would be if we doubled the amount of time we spent on street corners.

Again, the purpose of this article is not to suggest that political organizations should not have a public presence in their community, or that printing educational or otherwise political materials should never be done. Rather, I maintain that technological change requires adaptation to stay relevant. By doing this, we can be much truer to democratic ideals, as well as better in touch with the habits of the world we are a part of. Given the ubiquity of technology today, it is pdisingenuous to suggest that devoting more resources to progressive online journalism (thus actually saving net resources) would be to “cut ourselves off” from “the workers”. To do so belies a great misunderstanding of how technological the American working class has become. Most of it is computer literate and checks email several times a week or more. To ignore this is to hold back our efforts in a vain attempt to flatter the most backwards and unpolitical sections of the population. That is not an option for political actors.

If a socialist democracy is to be genuine at all, it must be the product of extremely broad masses of people. It will be learned and spoken by them in their own language and in their own ways of communicating, which in fact quite often might be unfamiliar to the “correct” political “experts”. The right idea will be known when an overwhelming number of people have adopted it, much like the best performing car, deodorant, lawn mower or building material is found. Only then can anyone call it the right idea. Though experience matters and leadership is essential, to hold in this day that the contributions to political discussion must come after “leaders” first screen and proofread them is to make a mockery of the word “radical”.

In closing, I would like to remind the comradely reader that I make these suggestions not because I am endeavoring to be a heretical deviant from Lenin’s theory of the paper. In fact I am quite a fan of his theory and I completely agree with it. Lenin’s analysis was fresh because he was looking at the world around him and summarizing the challenges he saw based on how people lived and communicated over a century ago. We need to do the same thing and continue to look at the world with fresh eyes.

To do that can be quite challenging Far too often amid contemporary darkness radicals bury themselves in the formulations of the past, attempting to find a purity to revive today. In doing so we can wind up glorifying the ossified passed down product, forgetting the process that led to its creation. We place hardened basalt under microscopes, yet know nothing of the life and temper of a volcano. We pick apart the contents of the petrified, unable to behold the grace of the animal that walked by so long ago.

To build today’s “scaffolding,” we’ll need all the latest materials and techniques. The ones that people are actually using might be a good place to start.

Originally posted here

  • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp

    This is a brilliant and concrete exposition of Web 2.0′s implications for organizing, something I brought up but never really got around to discussing in any depth. The persistence of newspaper-selling fetishism on the Marxist left despite the terminal decline of the medium is an indication that the practices associated with these means are a matter of liturgy and ritual rather than the result of independent thinking or results-based organizing (leaving aside the fact that Iskra was never for sale and that Pravda was much more like Occupied Wall Street Journal than any socialist newspaper we’ve seen in the past half century in the U.S.).

    Print I think will remain relevant for in-depth discussions and topics like Marxist theory or original research. I don’t think anyone can read Capital volumes 1-3 online without having an aneurysm or going blind.

    • PM

      Print will also remain relevant for reaching out to readers who don’t have internet access.

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