Historicizing technological and political change
Information disorder1“Information disorder” is an emerging conceptual framework and umbrella term that refers to three types of “bad” information: mis-, dis-, and mal-information and highlights their key differences. Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan, Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2017). is a burgeoning and imminent challenge to democracy and the legitimacy of democratic institutions. But in the “Era of Platforms,”2→Martin Kenney and John Zysman, “The Rise of the Platform Economy,” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 3 (Spring 2016).
→Kirsten Adams et al., The Rise of Platforms: Challenges, Tensions, and Critical Questions for Platform Governance (Brooklyn, New York: Social Science Research Council, 2019). when information online proves difficult to regulate and battles rage about the boundaries of acceptable speech, mis- and disinformation tend to be characterized as novel threats, spurred by the rapid development of social media networks and the collapse of an advertising model that once sustained the journalism industry.
Media historians suggest otherwise. Indeed, fierce contests over the veracity of information are more the norm in US history than the exception. Such insights from the past can be easy to miss, but they are crucial if we are to reckon, not only with mis- and disinformation, but also with the related challenges media faces in the context of rapidly changing technology and power dynamics: hateful and toxic speech, polarization, the delicate balance between profit and public interest journalism, and a host of other threats to healthy democratic discourse.
In order to situate these challenges within the arc of media history in the United States, the Media & Democracy program convened a research workshop on May 16–17, 2019, at the Social Science Research Council’s offices in Brooklyn, New York. The workshop, “Media, Technology, and Democracy in Historical Context,” opened with a plenary panel hosted at Brooklyn Historical Society on May 15. The event, “An Objective Media: Fact or Fiction?”, featured a conversation between four experts in media history and journalism: Dr. Kim Gallon (Purdue University), Dr. Andie Tucher (Columbia University), Karen Hunter (The Karen Hunter Show), and Dr. Kathryn Cramer Brownell (Purdue University; moderator).
Here we outline key themes from the workshop and the plenary panel that help to contextualize the present moment of information upheaval. Importantly, these themes indicate that “media”—understood as both media technologies and media organizations—have always been and will always be sites of struggle where political actors shape public understandings and democratic society through the vehicle of “news media.”
Much of the current discourse on media crises, from the threat of mis- and disinformation to the impact of financial disruptions on the news industry, is characterized by hand-wringing about the future of key media institutions. Observers point to familiar broadcast paragons like the CBS Nightly News or revered print publications like the New York Times as some of the few remaining guardians of balance and objectivity. Such rhetoric suggests that these purported values have been characteristic and longstanding traits of US media.
However, paeans to balance and objectivity ignore the complex origins of now-predominant notions of journalistic professionalism. Kim Gallon explains how, historically, objectivity was seen as embodied in one’s craft or method, not as embodied in oneself—in other words, one could report objectively by adhering to certain rules or practices despite the fact that one could not shed one’s personal biases. Indeed, for much of the history of US media, objectivity was not even viewed as a defining aspect of the news. Rather, the pursuit of truth in media has always been complicated by politics, and objectivity’s enshrinement as a core value of US journalism is socially and historically constructed.
Research presented at the workshop3Because this was a closed research development workshop, we will not cite authors by name. noted that many newspapers in the history of US journalism were conduits for propaganda by wealthy individuals or political parties—that is, not the kind of large commercial operations that we are familiar with today, which generally offer a breadth of different perspectives and profess balance. In these smaller, partisan presses, news was frequently falsified and sensationalized for political ends. Research presented at the workshop suggested this was the state of affairs as early as the revolutionary era and as late as the 1940s. Much like today, the products of news media were characterized not only by questionable information itself, but also by the rhetorical use of “false news” or “fake news” as an epithet meant to delegitimize information provided by political opponents.“Within this tradition, perspective is used to critique the shortcomings of the ostensibly balanced and objective press.”
Andie Tucher argues that the New York Times carved itself out as a “respectable” and “scientific” alternative to the partisan press in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the height of yellow journalism in the United States. Over the course of the twentieth century, the style of the Times and others, which aimed to present multiple sides of an issue with an even-hand and without overtly partisan language or imagery, would become mainstream as the pursuit of balance catered to the demands of a wider, often middle-class, and more professional audience than the narrower partisan papers that preceded them. Yet even after this key transition toward perceived balance and objectivity, there continues to exist a tradition of journalism whose contribution to knowledge consists in its explicit and purposeful embrace of subjectivity. Indeed, within this tradition, perspective is used to critique the shortcomings of the ostensibly balanced and objective press.
Research presented at our workshop demonstrated that mainstream twentieth-century news organizations’ claims to balance and objectivity coincided with practices of exclusion and privilege. What tended to be held up as objective in established media outlets nevertheless had a perspective—that of the powerful. Often the only path of independence and mobility within these organizations was to carve out new and typically less desirable beats. For example, women journalists in the early-twentieth-century Hollywood press innovated gossip columns, opening up professional spaces to women to tell stories that were, if typically sensational and melodramatic, also often thinly-veiled critiques of US politics and culture.
Marginalized social groups unable to leverage their own space within these outlets have long produced independent media. In particular, the Black and feminist presses explicitly resisted the calls to balance and objectivity. Gallon notes that Black representation in the media has been necessary to critique the kind of reporting, often framed as balanced or objective, that has historically papered over the injustices and naked abuses of power that are features of social life in a stratified society. Historically marginalized media-makers often see the world differently, having views on persecution that are informed by lived experience. For example, Black media and Black journalists, rooted in the subjectivity of the Black experience in the United States, may be more qualified—at the very least, more inclined—to articulate the nature of power relations that exist between police and Black victims of police brutality.
Today, this kind of corrective exists on social media in spheres like #BlackTwitter, which has established itself as an important collective critic of US politics and culture, according to Karen Hunter. By depicting the varied manifestations of Black life, unfiltered by traditional media institutions, Black social media users present counternarratives to stories produced by organizations whose objectivity has always been complicated by the reality of their perspective. If we ignore the fact that media organizations have biases, we thereby amplify the power of the voices they privilege, and diminish the power of those they ignore or, worse, misrepresent.
The history of US media shows, not only how different perspectives can prioritize some stories over others, but also how the same story—the same facts—can mean different things to different audiences. These differences may be impossible to deduce from the nature of the technology itself, and demonstrate that anticipating the positive and negative effects of new media technology is fraught with difficulty.
Technology is socially embedded. That is, despite our best intentions, technology comes to be used in ways that we don’t—that we can’t—anticipate. The effects of technologies are inevitably shaped by people who decide how they can and should be used. Therefore, users play an important role in shaping how new technology is used and its broader social and political effects. This role is complicated by the fact that media are communication technologies, meaning that users don’t simply transmit and receive messages through media—they also interpret them. Irrespective of the technical features of a medium or the content of a message, it is individual consumers, situated in particular social and political contexts, who make meaning from media.
Consider the circulation of provocative content—in particular, content that communicates hatred or depicts violence. Long before the internet, the incorporation of photography into news media raised important debates about which images were appropriate to disseminate publicly. Depending on the context, such images might be seen as gratuitously violent or politically powerful. For example, a post–World War II LIFE Magazine photo journal depicting Nazis being hanged was justified as an attempt to prevent a Nazi resurgence—as necessary proof that the Nazis had been vanquished. At the time, however, many other publications and, indeed, the governments of several other countries had determined that the image was too obscene for mass consumption. Similarly, the gruesome photos depicting lynching victim Emmett Till were called into question as indecent for publication. But the emotional impact of this disturbing image is, in part, what motivated Rosa Parks to join the civil rights movement.
Each of these examples illuminates the ways social and political actors responded to the technological features of a particular form of media—in this case, the visceral capabilities of photography to capture and communicate violence. Each example also raises unresolved questions about how best to balance truth and decency with regard to images, a debate that was as delicate and politically charged in the twentieth century as it is today. They demonstrate the subjective nature of media effects, as well as their likeliness to be multifinal—to have multiple, coexisting outcomes. A historical perspective cautions against generalizations and assumptions about media and technology as though their effects are pre-ordained and opens the door to a diversity of meanings and interpretations.
The subjects of history
In the 1990s, the future of the internet was unknown, but it was imagined. Perhaps naively, it was envisioned as a utopia within which free speech and free thought would reign. Today, however, as it is increasingly clear that the internet provides fertile ground for disinformation, toxic discourse, and ubiquitous surveillance, visions of the future are decidedly more dystopic.
Reflecting on the history of technological and political change reminds us not only to temper the extremes of our imagination, but also to understand that these imagined futures need not be our destinies. It reminds us that the institutions and traditions that we take for granted—or did, until their demise seemed imminent—were once radical. In many cases, they were ad hoc interventions made in the face of uncertainty. It reminds us that technology does not “develop,” in the sense of linear progress. Rather, technological change resonates with social responses in ways that are difficult to predict and that resist facile descriptions such as either “reactionary” or “progressive.” These changes may simultaneously scandalize established political actors and mobilize new ones; they may silence one group precisely as—or precisely because—they give voice to another.
A video of the full plenary panel discussion is available below.
→Kirsten Adams et al., The Rise of Platforms: Challenges, Tensions, and Critical Questions for Platform Governance (Brooklyn, New York: Social Science Research Council, 2019).