Comparisons between the already observed changes in journalistic standards and fast food are nothing new. The term McJournalism – for instance, has been used to describe this phenomenon, and infotainment* and enthralling*, yellowing, and general tabloidisation of the media environment have been thoroughly discussed and analyzed thoroughly discussed and analyzed for a decade. The most delicious aspect of the fast food metaphor, however, is its unpredictability – evident at the point of its inception and even more so today. Capitalist production of media content seeks speed and taste, to the disregard of all else, for the precise reason that it is these two factors that lead to consumption.
The pace with which the new batch of news is flowing today matches the pace of delivering a fresh portion of french fries. Just like some fries will contain additives alongside potato to mimic the authentic product, ever-increasing ‘fake news’ is produced to match increasingly heightened demand for a new batch of stories. These are the new media realities.
The primary factor that has led this trend to its current triumph is the mass penetration of social networks. There is no time to understand the story, the details, sometimes even the facts. You need to drop a link on your Facebook site now because otherwise the consumer interest will be directed to another media content provider. Over the past few years, Facebook has become indispensable, and sometimes even the only source of traffic for news sites. Loyalty to a particular media provider has been replaced by the loyal click of its links across social networks. What scandalous comment has been made by a certain celebrity, what exactly is the election result, how many victims of the catastrophe are there, and so on? On Facebook and Twitter, it’s a battle with time, and creating an efficient production line of content is now more necessary than ever before. After reading one news item, the reader goes back to Facebook and has to be pulled out again and again.
An accelerated pace of life was a trend detected well before tabloidisation. Even in the early stages of its observation, its main paradox was noticed in relation to capitalist progress: Although all new technologies are designed to save us time, the amount of free time we have is steadily decreasing**, contrary to utopian ambitions in the first half of the 20th century. While only fifteen years ago the standard for media reaction in written speech was framed by the daily journal, nowadays it is measured in minutes. Everyone is online and, more precisely, everyone is on social networks where the action happens in real-time. In social media not only are users constantly exposed to media content to click on, but the media itself has access to a large number of people at once.
Until recently, concerns about media quality mostly related to the use of cheap scandals to sell newspapers. Today we are talking about something more sinister: journalism being replaced with fake, alternative, post- and even no content. Worse, the use of fake news has created a backdrop of mistrust and ambiguity around journalism, has affected broad public consensus on some issues, and has cultivated profane insights on others. More recently, sharing with one click has allowed the multiplication of countless fake news articles relating to migrants, politicians and bogus heroes. The effect of rapid readership, created again through the flow of social media, has led to the phenomenon of “self-production” of news. The source is not a primary, external and verifiable fact, but secondary media content. There is an avalanche of social networks, which, as we have discussed, are designed to be fast moving and facilitating of easy reproduction of content, leading eventually to the passing of this content to major information channels. Acceleration of media speed, combined with easy sharing, promise in the future even more news-incidents, though we can barely look for intentions in the media itself (despite work done carelessly). The medium of speed and connectivity is a key prerequisite for their emergence, and their insuperability at the moment is determined by the fact that it is a prerequisite of the market, not someone’s conspiracy or nonprofessional action.
All of this makes the simulacrum, a term coined by Jean Baudrillard, particularly relevant. According to Baudrillard, the accumulation of media content over one another often leads to the inaccessibility of what is happening in reality, this reality being overwhelmed by repetitive communication of and between media representations ***. In order to understand media content, according to Baudrillard, we often need to be more knowledgeable of the media as a system of meanings than of the world outside media. Although seen long before the emergence of social media, the simulacrum is further expanded in the age of social media due to the fact that everyone becomes a content creator and a media source***.
In addition, to keep up with this increasingly accelerated pace of online content creation, more and more media creators have started creating short video clips or uploading articles consisting of 5-6 sentences because after so much as the reader preferred to return to the main stream of social networks, coming out of the specific material. We also see in this context the practice of serial short-term unification: Everywhere, the same theme is shared and promoted, only to be replaced by a new theme every few hours. Variety has been replaced by constantly renewed uniformity.
While the picture we paint here is not necessarily synonymous with low quality, it does indicate that the environment of media creation is changing. Alongside this, expectations and habits relating to the handling of personal information are changing alongside this, as well as profitable approaches to creating dialogue with audiences.
A joke / anecdote in which they first ask if you can make a nicer sandwich from McDonalds and almost everyone says “yes”. Then they ask if you can sell more sandwiches than McDonalds, and everyone says “no,” understanding what the catch is. Access to the largest possible audience is critical to the success of media creators, and any new phenomenon that directs audience behavior influences the public’s constructs. To be adequate and close to the audience, media content must meet new criteria for remaining up-to-date and quick in production and social sharing capability. Gradually, this is becoming an increasingly important factor in their success, obfuscating public reality with yet another layer of representation – that of the social network itself.
Like fast-food, the media should be available everywhere, at any time, prepared and consumable as soon as possible. While what is described in this article can be considered “the new normal”, it does not coincide with the normative expectations of journalism. For the so-called generation of people “born digital”, this could be seen as a natural way of social communication. In their eyes, there has been no dramatic change, and they may well listen to our accounts of life “before” as they listen to our accounts of the corded telephone. New young people may have less desire to return to the previous state of journalism when this has no normative value for them.
Today, everyone who remembers the world before social networks will see the consequences of adapting the media to new market realities. Add more and more developed targeting methods used to broadcast political messages and their role in redeeming different dependencies. As a result, we have today’s over-saturated picture where “more” has long ago no longer. The only strategy for improving this state of affairs that I can see is through education – providing up to date knowledge of current affairs and greater awareness of how reality can be constructed through the media. As usual, we can only deal with the effects of technology development through further development – that of ways of thinking.
Text: Kalina Petkova, Ph.D.
* Infotainment and enthralling are concepts for light news, a combination of information and entertainment.
** for a detailed sociology of the time, see “Social Acceleration” by the German professor Hartmut Rosa.
*** regarding the term “media representation”, see here.
The article was originally published in Humanolic.com and translated from Bulgarian language.