Everyone these days is agitated about Facebook and 4chan, those echo chambers of disaffection and distorted worldviews. To be sure, it’s unclear how any civilized society can afford to tolerate 4chan and its equally repellent brethren and Facebook clearly has a lot to answer for. But the surprising thing is that for the most part we’re actually looking in the wrong direction. The real blame for the mess we’re in today lies with conventional mass media: the television stations and newspapers.
Remember the Republican primary campaign back in 2016? Remember how Trump got 85% of the coverage not despite the fact he was an utterly unqualified infantile halfwit who knew literally nothing whatsoever about any of the important matters being debated but because of it. Trump was a freak show and the television stations and the newspapers all know that the public loves a freak show. Nothing grabs eyeballs like a freak show and thus nothing boosts advertising revenue like a freak show. So Trump received billions of dollars of free exposure, almost all of it totally uncritical. As face and name recognition play an important role in determining who we ultimately vote for it’s not entirely surprising that the repellent orange pustule ended up in the White House. The USA thus became the first society in history to commit suicide for the sake of advertising revenue.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic the British Broadcasting Company had already ensured that a sufficiently large number of gullible Brits would vote for Brexit, thus committing the UK to national self-harm of unprecedented stupidity.
How could such an institution, supposedly a source of quality programming, have played such a decisive role? The BBC has been confused about its role since inception. On the one hand the BBC was supposed to provide programming at a level of quality mere commercial organizations were presumed unable to deliver. But on the other hand, as it was taking money from each license-payer, it felt an obligation to churn out the kind of lowbrow programming a great many people actually want. The fact that this invalidates the BBC’s reason for existence seems never to have occurred to anyone in the organization at any time in its history. Furthermore, the BBC is desperate to appear apolitical. In practice this means refraining from pointing out when politicians are blatantly lying. As the entire Brexit campaign was based around a bundle of lies the BBC’s supine lack of commentary meant that these lies were presented to the average viewer as being just as valid as facts. Because most people are indolent and won’t take the time to look for real-world data or think about things for themselves, this meant that a huge number of voters felt that the Brexiteers’ lies were credible. After all, wasn’t the BBC itself reporting them with a straight face? And weren’t the national newspapers doing likewise?
Supposedly the “fourth estate” is there to bring our attention to misdeeds and untruths. In reality it’s there to self-perpetuate. And this means chasing advertising revenue and viewing figures regardless of the cost to society at large. This is why the BBC basically collaborated in delivering the catastrophically stupid Brexit decision and why even now, when the lies have been exposed by others and the whole Brexit fairytale has been shown to be utterly without foundation, Brexit is still happening. Once people believe in something, no amount of real-world information will change their minds. Study after study shows that once we think we have an opinion about something (even though it’s really only a meme or soundbite we’ve been fed) we resolutely ignore all real-world evidence that shows our belief is false. Hence Brexiteers continue to believe that massive national self-harm will magically “make Britain great again” even as every single piece of real data shows the exact opposite. Trump supporters continue to howl and drool in their dull-eyed thousands at every Trump rally because they are True Believers and no amount of Trumpian incompetence, stupidity, ignorance, and repellent behavior will cause them to change their minds. After all, doesn’t the media focus its attention on him? That means he must be great!
After we’ve passed through the horrors to come and the survivors are looking around for better approaches to self-governance than our pathetically inadequate systems of representative democracy, it is to be hoped they also learn the lessons of permitting information channels such as television stations, newspapers & print journals, and websites to chase eyeballs at the expense of delivering factual information. We can’t expect the average citizen to make adequate decisions, or even to understand the basics of what is happening around them, when every message they are exposed to in every medium is a grotesque distortion designed to attract their attention with empty sensation before they move on to the next sensation and then to the one after that.