Demagogues of the world, on the right or the left, have got to love television. The linear, emotion driven, passive, and image-centred medium has reduced politics to a reality show. As Neil Postman posited in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, television has vastly downgraded the level of public discourse in most democracies. From the U.S. to Iran, from Venezuela to France, from Egypt to Russia, from Italy to Turkey, there is as much competition for viewers’ gaze as for their ballots. In many countries, gaze is automatically translated into votes.
Most alarmingly, the internet, which was the last word-centred public space after the decline of print journalism, is capitulating to the television format. Social networks’ notion of the stream, on Facebook, Twitter etc., is killing the web and, consequently, word-based journalism. Facebook is now more like the future of television than the web as it has looked for over two decades.
Recent research by Oxford University shows that watching online videos is on the rise in the U.S., and in most parts of the world excluding northern Europe — perhaps because they have a healthier work-life balance, and also because their public education system still promotes reading and critical thinking.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that video will soon dominate its news feed, for it “commands so much information in a much quicker period so actually the trend helps us digest more of the information in a quicker way,” in the words of Nicola Mendelsohn, a vice president of Facebook.
This confirms my own speculation; when I was released from an Iranian prison in 2014, I discovered a whole different internet, where text is in decline and images, still or moving, are on the rise. As a pioneer of blogging in Iran, what I realized after six years of isolation was that blogs, the best example of a decentralized public sphere, were dead.
Facebook and Instagram had killed hyperlinks to maximise profits by keeping users inside, and exposing them to more and more advertising. Thus they were killing the open web, which was founded upon links. The internet had become more of an entertainment tool than an alternative space for public discussion. Worse than that, I noticed a strange unease among the youth to read anything over 140 characters.
Of course text will never die, but the ability to communicate through the alphabet is now slowly becoming a privilege dedicated to a small elite in many societies — quite like the middle ages, when only politicians and monks enjoyed the ability to communicate through the alphabet. The rest are going to be the 21st century illiterates who mainly communicate through images, videos — and of course, emojis.
The emerging illiterate class, hooked on their old television sets or their Facebook-centred mobile personal televisions — i.e. smartphones — is good news for demagogues. Look at how Donald Trump has mastered the formula of television to turn it into his free-of-charge public relations machine.
Postman perfectly explained why in his book. To him, the difference in public discourse in the U.S. between the 16th to 19th century and now is that public opinion in the age of television is more a set of “emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.” He sees the entertaining nature of television as only producing misinformation, which “does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information; information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”
The EU referendum coverage on UK televisions was a good example. While sticking to the UK media regulations on impartiality, some still believed that the numerous debates, in which both sides had equal time to argue their cases, had not done justice to a complex and sensitive topic such as Brexit. This is particularly true now that some initial claims by the pro-leave camp, such as the diversion of a £350m “sent to the EU every week” into the UK’s public healthcare system, are denied by the very people who pledged it. There was already much debunking of such distortions and misinformation available on the web and in print. But talking about numbers and maths is always boring and useless on television. A Persian saying goes, “a stupid person throws a stone down a well, but a hundred wise people cannot take it out.”
Justin Webb, a former North American editor at the BBC, went as far to blame the existing impartiality rules, writing in the Radio Times: “One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counterclaim so that they could work out what was true.” He suggested that the “media needs to look again at how it covers politics and the way it holds people to account in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union,” according to The Guardian.
The twilight of word-centred journalism, either in print or on the web, means oversimplified, emotional political discourse, uninformed political participation, and of course, more demagogy around the world.
It’s hard to say whether it was the public who first demanded more videos, or the media that, scared by the prospect of ad-blocking technologies, rushed toward video, which drew more audiences, generated more advertising cash, and proved harder to block. Nevertheless, we face the grave consequences of such a shift for the future of our democracies.
It is clear that for a healthy, representative democracy we need more text than videos, at least to resist self-serving demagogues. This is not just an American or a British problem; this is a threat to our civilisation.
This article was originally published in September by the International Business Times and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.