The Undercurrents that Ruin Communications As We Knew It

There are a few forces at play that are mega trends that shape very part of our lives, but also are hard to spot: They are undercurrents, powerful but hard to spot unless you know what to look for.

These undercurrents screw up the ecosystem in which we have societal debates, our collective reasoning.

What we think of as a societal conversation is an incredibly complex system of multidimensional influences at the best of times, with a multitude of channels (media, social media, personal conversations) and actors (individuals, groups and communities, corporations, states).

But right now, it’s especially confusing because there are a lot of shifts and transitions going on simultaneously, at different levels and at different speeds, in different ways.

There are the underlying mega trends — or maybe more appropriately, the foundational influences:

Acceleration: Everything around the globe has been accelerating, constantly, through the two-pronged influences of globalization and technology.

Globalization: Globalization has been a shaping factor for a few hundred years, and it has itself been constantly accelerating.

Technology: Technology, from shipping to container shipping to (more recently) information networks has been altering how we perceive the world, how we communicate and organize, how we are in the world.

On top of these, we get to influences like:

Traditional media: “Traditional” media in the sense of “media with a journalistic mission”. The lines here may be blurry, but you know it when you see it. Newspapers, radio, TV, web sites that attempt (to the best of their knowledge and within the confines of a market place, or maybe with public funding) to inform and entertain. So far, so well known and boring.

”Conflict media”: The other type of mass media, interesting because they are different than traditional media, even if they look like them because they use similar-looking formats. They have strong agendas, often aligned with perverse incentives: The many flavors of partisan media (across the political spectrum), maybe most prominently represented by Fox News. Well funded, they look like traditional media but play but a different rule book. The perverse incentives are the key here: Their business models reward focusing on scandal or conflict rather than information, because of how advertising works.

Social Media: Peer-to-peer media, often they amplify mass media, often they influence mass media mass media. It’s a complex interplay, researched for about two decades. We kinda-sorta understand this space, but it keeps evolving quickly.

Consolidation of communications platforms: The internet has enabled an explosion of free expression. It has also led to winner-takes-all market dynamics, and now we’re stuck with a tiny number of highly consolidated global communications platforms owned by an even tinier number of companies. Facebook alone with it’s social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram), messaging (Whatsapp), and advertising is such a dominant force in how we consume media and communicate that around the globe we see anti-trust measures, and rightly so. Nothing good can come from that level of centralization and consolidation, even if it was in much better hands than Facebook’s. It’s structurally and inherently a liability, and we are starting to pay the price for it.

Advertising tech: Advertising, and specifically advertising tech based on surveillance, is at the core of many if not most of the problematic issues with conflict media and social media. Its surveillance and its focus on engagement as a metric means that the worst types of content and interactions are economically the most viable.*

* This, obviously, is bad and needs to stop. I cannot stress this enough: I truly believe advertising tech of the surveillance kind has no redeeming qualities that can justify keeping it around. The sooner we can depart from surveillance advertising, the better we will be off collectively.

And then we get to the parts that are probably just as influential, but are truly not that well understood — even though now there are very smart people researching this field in all its variety now, and I’m very happy about that:

Misinformation/disinformation: Often referred to as fake news but really much more broad and complex, this covers a range of activities and practices by state and non-state actors, including political entities or possibly the darker areas of lobbying efforts. Plays often start with social media where misinformation is spread amplified with the goal to create or amplify societal division, or at the very least the impression of societal division so that mass media can/will pick it up. (If you’d like to learn more about this, I highly recommend Camille François’ work on this. Camille, affiliated with Graphika and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, has been researching mis- and disinformation for years. In a paper (2019, PDF) for the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the United States House of Representatives she highlights 3 “vectors of viral deception”:

  • “A” is for Manipulative Actors
  • “B” is for Deceptive Behavior
  • “C” is for Harmful Content

Lobbying efforts: Lobbying efforts take many new shapes now. In massively (and often intransparently) funded long-term campaigns it’s often not just companies but also other private interests that try to influence the debate, both with law makers and in public opinion. Some might count nation states’ soft power initiatives in this list, too. Lobbying is an essential part of how societal debate works, generally speaking. Many efforts in this list work similarly, although I’d argue that some types are inherently less legitimate than others, and the intransparent “dark money” efforts (think billionaires intransparently funding political candidates through networks of interest groups and astroturfing across social media) seem most certainly worth rooting out.

Dynamics of top down and bottom up: Not a process, not an actor, but a dynamic we still understand relatively little about: The complex interplay between grassroots organizing, targeted attempts at influencing communities, and mass media. We know a few things based on solid research, some of which goes back decades, some of which is very recent (like Camille François’ work referenced above). Among other things we know with some certainty, for example, that…

  • social media picks up and amplifies the key topics from mass media, and vice versa.
  • influence campaigns can pick up and amplify societal division in an attempt to actually deepen the divide and influence mass media coverage.
  • a lot of conversation happens in private chats, even though these channels can grow to significant sizes. Whatever happens there is out of scope for a lot of the monitoring tools that are used to show “what people are talking about”: So we see a lot of reporting and even research working with the data that is available via Facebook and Twitter even if this data is so incomplete that it may be useless (it really depends on the context).

On the other hand, there are many things we don’t really know, like for example:

  • How much any of this happens, and how effective it is.
  • How strongly the opinions voiced online really represent what the broader population thinks, because this is incredibly hard to determine reliably.

Who goes online to share their voice and who doesn’t depends on personal and demographic risk profiles (women, people of color, minorities all face significantly higher risk of harassment when speaking out online, for example). Many people with nuanced opinions won’t engage in a public forum because they don’t want to be dragged into a shouting match; public online debates have often be shown to favor extreme points of view over nuance. (Structurally for similar reasons as “conflict media”, above.)

So there are some big unknowns here.

Taken together, this forms an incredibly complex picture. One we need to understand better, if we want to get to a place where debate at the societal level. Communications is the core infrastructure for making informed decisions, for social cohesion. Right now, these channels are largely broken and we see a truly fragmented discourse — although what’s the cause and what’s the effect is hard to tell. Presumably it also doesn’t matter which came first, both are mutually reinforcing each other.

So let’s get to it.

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