Journalism and the free press are honorable institutions which I have always revered. I was briefly the editor of my high school newspaper, but was more comfortable in my role as photo editor. I just never felt I had the confrontational chutzpah to get to the truth in a journalistic interview. So I always revered those who had natural journalistic aplomb.
The pursuit of the truth has always been one of the most noble quests. The standards to which journalists were once taught to hold were unflappable. Countless hours of research, interviews and the painstaking gathering of undeniable proof were required before that knowledge was distilled into one article or book which could wield the power to change the world – or to change the world’s perceptions. And there are still many journalists who hold their work to those sacred heights. The recent publication and success of Carol Lenning and Phillip Rucker‘s “A Very Stable Genius” shows the journalistic ethic held intact, just as their Washington Post predecessors Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had done. I applaud and honour this work and those who dedicate their lives to its pursuit. The pursuit of Truth.
However, in the advent of the digital age where venerable journalistic institutions are being crushed by the influx of independent content, one no longer needs to study and practice the ethics of journalism to present their own views and change others’ opinions. Bloggers have long been creating their own editorial outlets. And the rise of social media has given a broad, free platform to a new brand of vigilante activism. Providing power to anyone with internet access and a passionate voice. The pen is truly mightier than the sword. And in many cases, deadly.
But at what cost to our humanity?
Doctors take The Hippocratic Oath. Lawyers agree to submit themselves to the authority of the Supreme Court of their state though local codes of professionalism. In 1914, Walter Williams penned, “The Journalist’s Creed” which has been published in more than 100 languages and hangs prominently at The National Press Club in Washington. But to whom do the millions of voices of the new free media hold themselves responsible?
Any person with an axe to grind is now a “voice of the people”. Persons who feel uncomfortable with another person, place or thing due to their own personal traumas, psychological baggage (of which we all have plenty), jealousy or resentment are now armed with the ability to use a few words of that misdirected animosity, gathered in fury or frustration, to set forth an avalanche of content through what is commonly known as “dogpiling” to effectively crush, bury and kill the life and reputation of their perceived opponent.
And they do.
We all see hundreds of click-bait articles, memes and headlines flooding our social media feeds each and every day. Angry rants by persons at the fringe of our social groups are moved up in the ranks of our feed due to their extreme tone and subsequent engagement from others. No matter if the rant is fueled by lies or libel, there it is topping our feed, creating havoc and generating engagement. The robotic algorithms which monetize the internet for their corporate owners are designed to produce, present and regurgitate content that agitates the viewer. That agitated human state results in further engagement and more opportunity for ad placement and data mining; each of our responses being carefully compiled in each of our unique digital profiles so those corporations’ bots can target us all the more easily in the future. (And for a terrifying look into how all that info might be used, check out China’s Social Credit System.)
Part of the bots’ modus operandi is to push us into more easily recognizable groups. As presented in “The Great Hack”, the documentary exposé on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytical data scandal, we learn how easily those algorithmic bots are used to manipulate us. By knowing which ideals agitate us, they use that intel to continue to present content that pushes consumers out of a grey zone of curiosity and contemplation over the digital fence into one polar group or another. Pro or con. Black or White. The bots’ language is made up of 1’s and 0’s. For them, there can be no grey zone. Like some kind of a social centrifuge, they keep spinning until everyone is neatly separated.
Meanwhile, our online voices are being used by those entities. The algorithms are trained to seek out the most extreme social media content, knowing it to be the most engaging. The loudest voices of the internet– regardless of truth or accuracy – are regurgitated and rewarded; elevated to “influencer” status and used by the corporate bots to further their human masters’ wishes and in the process, innocent lives are being destroyed at a few quick keystrokes of a laptop. There are rarely repercussions for those who post libelous rants, and even less for those who “dogpile” onto those posts with likes, comments and further insults.
I have been observing the growth of this phenomenon for many years. I have been seeking knowledge about the ways in which the internet, technology and our minds are melding. The once hilarious scenes in satirist Matt Groening’s (who also studied journalism) “Futurama” where commercials were beamed directly into the minds of the characters, are now chilling omens of an ever-encroaching dystopian future as we allow our privacies to be shaved away like a carrot under a peeler.
I am constantly struggling to define the modern concept of Culture. In an era where we are more globally connected to persons from other parts of the planet than ever before, we are simultaneously becoming more and more polarized against one another through the advent of algorithmic influences and their constant barrage of extremist content. As we are driven apart into more easily manageable groups by the bots, the more natural process which SHOULD be taking place of the intermingling of our cultures through increased global contact and mutual appreciation is being retarded and even stopped cold. I worry that division and derision are becoming the prevailing ethos of our time. I worry that in an era where the idea of “Social Justice” is lauded, our society is losing any sense of responsibility for words which are now commonly used as weapons. Words which remain in cyberspace forever, used either carelessly or maliciously without any system of personal accountability whatsoever.
In this digital age of “black or white” polarization, I find it interesting that we have always commonly referred to our brains as “grey matter”. That grey matter has the enormous power to evaluate, assess, ponder and process all the stimuli in the world around us. It remains flexible only as long as we continue to exercise its potential. Conversation, debate, and the search for truth and knowledge are excellent ways to flex that great grey muscle. As is standing up for what we individually believe is right rather than staying silent due to a fear of being socially exiled, or jumping on the nearest bandwagon in the vain hope of gaining social acceptance. The triumph of journalistic efforts seen in books such as “A Very Stable Genius” give me hope that we still have the ability and desire to stretch our grey matter. For when we allow the devices in our hands and under our fingertips to do that exercising for us, we lose. We ALL lose. Much more than we can imagine.