Underlying dangers of modern media

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

Our weakness for slick selling, either of an idea or a product, makes the web hugely powerful, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

‘MAN is a two-legged featherless animal who shops.” When I heard the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) had upheld Seán Gallagher’s complaint about the now infamous tweet, it reminded me of Margaret Atkins’s ironic definition of human beings.

Why did Frontlinerun with the tweet? It couldn’t afford not to. Ultimately, any current affairs programme has to justify its existence by pulling advertising.

Tweeters are mostly young, and if firing sarky tweets keeps them engaged with the show, it helps to deliver a highly coveted demographic to advertisers. But programme makers know that when something “breaks” on Twitter during a live programme, tweeters will be contemptuous if the programme doesn’t cover it.

But running it without fact checking can mean getting it disastrously wrong, as in the Gallagher case. Did it lose him the election? Who knows. He was under pressure on several fronts.

But it certainly didn’t help, and the elephant in the room is that Michael D would have been the preferred candidate of many media people. Would they have run with a tweet suggesting something scurrilous about Michael D? Again, who knows.

What is certain is that relentless commercial pressures are changing the way the mainstream media operates, and the wildly unregulated internet is a large part of that pressure.

Journalists could not survive without the internet, and there are many respected bloggers, such as Slugger O’Toole, who do the mundane fact-checking.

However, many people on the internet feel unconstrained by civility, much less accuracy, and they have a potentially huge audience. But there is another deep underlying problem.

There is a phenomenal amount of information-gathering and cross-checking, but much of it is aimed at targeting ever more carefully honed advertising at the consumer. Google recently announced it was going to start integrating information from all its services to help pinpoint audiences for advertisers.

The model of the human being is of the two-legged featherless shopper, who must be dazzled and distracted into buying.

Sometimes it is a product for sale and sometimes it is an idea. Over the past few days, a cleverly produced, highly emotive video called Kony 2012 has swept the internet, particularly capturing the imagination of young people. It has had many million of views.

The makers, a charity called Invisible Children, want to see Ugandan Joseph Kony, the malevolent leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, arrested and tried by the International Criminal Court.

Kony is an evil individual, notorious for kidnapping not just adults but children, and forcing them to perform brutal acts such as mutilating or beating others to death. But he isn’t even in Uganda and the problems there now are very different to what is portrayed in the video.

Edmund Inglis, a writer with The Stand, the online news site of St Andrews’ students, sums up a lot of the criticism. He spent four years involved with the charity.

“Invisible Children represents the poisonous subspecies of aid organisation which is predicated on the belief that good intentions are an adequate substitute for previous experience in aid work, a holistic understanding of the problems being tackled, or any of the other multifarious strengths which large/established aid groups are able to draw upon.”

Some Africans have defended the Kony 2012 campaign on the grounds that while it may be simplistic, at least it is drawing attention to a neglected area.

However, the reaction from many African journalists and activists is anger and frustration.

Ethiopian Soleme Lemma’s comment is typical. “The Invisible Children narrative on Uganda is one that paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering.”

Invisible Children is selling a narrative of changing the world by taking out one bad guy. It is very similar to the narrative about Osama Bin Laden. He features on the group’s Kony poster, along with Hitler.

Oxfam representative Steven Van Damme is not the only one to suggest “taking out” Kony will mean killing a lot of child bodyguards.

But Invisible Children doesn’t have to be objective, or nuanced, because it is so good at what it does, which is emotionally engaging young people, and because it uses the internet. (And yes, critical voices are also on the internet, but they don’t have a fraction of the reach of the viral video.)

Invisible Children are patently good people and run good projects in Uganda. But changing the world demands more than selling, no matter how slick the product.