The Yellow Screen: Blog-Based Knowledge Makes a Hit-Job Easy, Research Time, 19/11/2014

I haven’t mentioned much of the material I’ve engaged with in my Communications program on the blog much lately, because my learning curve in that field is a bit larger than I originally thought it would be. However, I’ve begun to catch up to some of what we’ve been taught, and surpass some of the theory involved. My casual background in media studies is a help in this as well, as it’s helped me get a grip on some of the aspects of new media as an art form that our program hasn’t touched directly.

I discovered a book in my independent research by someone who, when I researched his career and reputation, was actually rather notorious. Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me I’m Lying is a description of the discourse structure of online blog-based journalism as a media, which he’s theorized based on his empirical experience as a promotional fixer and as a company executive having to deal with it.

Trading up the chain from business to qualitative research
to media theory.
In short form, the intense pressure to publish constantly degrades editorial oversight simply because no one in blogs has the time or money for it or fact-checking. You have to publish much too quickly for facts to be fully checked. That’s only the negative aspect of the problem. The positive aspect of the problem is that online revenue depends on page views and click-throughs, the number of discrete advertising impressions. So the incentives in publishing aren’t truth, but encouraging shares and fighting through the deafening din of all the other blogs screaming for attention. So sensationalism is the main incentive for publishers and writers.

This is a media environment that makes a disincentive of truth and encourages excitement, anger, and confirmation bias. It’s an environment where correction becomes impossible because of the incredibly high turnover among articles, and a publisher-reader relationship where every individual piece has to fight for reader attention by distracting them with the most intensely sensational headline or image. The sober act of correction of a previously published lie would never have the same reach as the original offending article because of how little attention it would draw.

While meditating on these lessons, I discovered the story of Cheryl Abbate, a PhD student and philosophy instructor at Marquette University, who has just had her career ruined by the new media environment. Abbate was teaching an ethics lecture one day, and asked her class for examples of public policies that would violate John Rawls’ principle of equality, a standard method of teaching an abstract principle of moral philosophy. One student suggested a ban on gay marriage as such an example, which Abbate acknowledged and moved on.

A different student later complained to Abbate that she had moved on from the gay marriage ban example too quickly, so he never had the opportunity to speak in its favour. His objection was actually rather tangential to the topic, and it turned out that it was based on faulty scientific research (the contention that children of same-sex couples tended to turn out worse than those of more conventional families). But he was recording their conversation on his phone without Abbate’s permission.

Later, a Marquette political science professor named John McAdams wrote a blog post accusing Abbate of pushing an ideological agenda on her class and railroading over the objections of students. McAdams’ post was an utter distortion of the facts of the case when he was not outright lying. However, his post was picked up by several other online conservative publications, a textbook example of an individual blogger trading his content up the chain to professional blogs, who monitor smaller cases for grassroots stories.

The irony is that I learned about this case through the Daily Nous, a blog covering issues in academic philosophy. This publication would itself come under Holiday’s definition of a blog, though it is an entirely volunteer effort of its contributors and editors, who run it in addition to their day jobs and do not monetize their sites with ad revenue. Nonetheless, to advocate for Abbate, they need to follow the same sensationalist rules of promotion that all online blog media do. Otherwise, they would go unread. This is why the post has such a provocative, share-attractive headline, “Philosophy Grad Student Target of Political Smear Campaign.”

Even in defence of the victims of sensationalistic smears against their reputation and career, one must play by the rules of the 21st century’s yellow press.

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