“If the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of “mass media” which is its most glaring superficial manifestation, seems to invade society as mere equipment, this equipment is in no way neutral but is the very means suited to its total self-movement.” – Debord
It was only a decade or two ago that ‘mass media’ ruled supreme. Back then, information was broadcast by the few to the many and the many had fewer sources by which to evaluate information against. Mass media spoonfed, or broadcast, information that could not really be evaluated by the masses to the masses. Brands and politicians held all the power in the recently by-gone era of mass media. They could afford to broadcast on telly and in newspapers and they could make claims about their products and policies that few customers or voters could really interrogate. North Koreans have come to believe that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger through the very power of mass media.
You only have to watch the opening scenes of The Lego Movie to understand how powerful mass media is known to be. Their pastiche of current Pop music, ‘Everything Is Awesome’, tells the viewer that everything is not awesome, we are just told to believe it is. Well, that seems to be a great message to feed the kids: Question the world around you, “Find the piece of Resistance” to stop Lord Business’ autocratic rulership. It would seem that Lego is making a point about the power of commercial giants in a film that seamlessly mashes together the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley (‘Brave New World’) and the Matrix.
However, with its tongue-in-cheek Lego billboards reminiscent of ‘blue sky’ Soviet propaganda, the ripping up of a rule book aimed to instil social conformity, and the pedalling of the belief that ‘The Special One’ is made, not born or prophesied, the film actually holds a very Capitalist message: Individualism, choice, control of your own destiny. It’s the american dream in Lego bricks. It’s one form of mass media (the Lego film) appearing to critique the power of mass media (in Lord Business’ autocratic Lego society) only to exercise its own power as form of mass media in pedalling a Capitalist message. Undoubtedly this was not Lego’s express intentions – they were aiming to produce a ‘gripping narrative’ to further their brand mission of “inspiring and developing the builders of tomorrow,” not a ‘political message’.
Debord’s argument is that Capitalism has monopolised the means of communication in order to proliferate its own profit-driven agenda. Debord considers that advertising and the ‘mass media’ are essentially machines of Capitalist propaganda not too dissimilar from North Korea’s or Nazi Germany’s political propaganda. After all, Capitalism is a form of political doctrine.
With the advent of Social Media and The Internet, or what I will refer to as ‘The Media of The Masses’, we have the whole world wide web at our fingertips and we can all add to that sprawling mass of media in just a few swipes and taps. We can both broadcast ourselves and we can evaluate others. If this is the democratisation of information and communication en masse, then surely the old mass media autocracy of Debord’s time should be finding a Hussein-or-Hitler-esque hole in the ground. Don’t worry ‘Mass Media,’ shovels aren’t necessary just yet. You may be able to pass the buck and dodge the bullet.
Mass Media, Mass Scepticism
Although Debord’s vendetta against mass media as a machine of Capitalist propaganda initially seems a bit extreme (and Debord is nothing but extreme) it seems to be rippling into the mainstream. In a way this is nothing new. We all know that people are becoming increasingly ‘media-savvy.’ David Olgivy wrote over fifty years ago in ‘On Advertising’ that “The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”
The issue is not the media-savvy, it’s the media-sceptics. Its not what advertising is or how it does what it does (flog shit) its why it does what it does. The issue is precisely that as we emerge from the recession, Capitalism could be considered to be public enemy number one, followed closely behind by bankers, fat cat megacorps/brands, the government and marketers. You only have to type ‘Capitalism’ into google image search to feel their wrath.
Not only do people understand how advertising tries to persuade people to part from their even harder earned cash, causing them to resent the methods that they use, but they have also come to question why they even bother. They have realised that aspirational status symbols, spangly new sneakers, skinny Starbucks soya lattes and the like simply aren’t necessary. They have realised that Capitalism, in order to survive, requires of us to constantly feel inadequate in order to keep us ‘growing’, ‘moving forward’, working, worrying and buying reassurance.
“The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself.” Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.
Russell Brand’s ‘The Trews’ youtube channel is Guy Debord’s philosophy in action. Brand objects to the control that the media has over our lives and how we think. He believes that Capitalism is all one big distraction from having more honest, instinctual, human relationships. Indeed, Brand also believes that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Brand, however, has identified another enemy in our Capitalist system other than bankers, the government and advertisers. He’s out to make the branch of mass media we call ‘The News’ a public enemy.
I can understand (but not support) why Brand, if given the choice, would probably rather punch a journalist than an advertiser. Given a PR person he would make no hesitation in flooring them. Whilst advertisers can never pretend that they are doing anything other than trying to sell you something, journalists can only pretend that they aren’t. PR could be seen as an uncomfortable mix of the two. ‘The News’ must seem ‘impartial’, ‘objective’ and written with the express intention of informing people. ‘The News’ and journalists, however, are also working under the Capitalist constraint of profit. They work in disguise. They seem to be providing helpful information about what is going on in the world, but really, they need to sell papers, they have a target audience in mind, they have their own salaries to enlarge and a career ladder to climb.
The news is not about what is going on in the world, really. PR agencies ‘sell’ in stories about their clients and they craft a ‘hook’ (bait) to entice the different audiences that read different publications. This is why the Telegraph is known as ‘The Torygraph’. Even the Independent claiming to be, well, ‘Independent’, still has a point of view: that which can be seen whilst supposedly sitting on a fence distanced from the action. Newspapers construct an ‘angle’, a ‘hook’, a ‘narrative’ around which the facts are arranged and manipulated to say a number of different things – “this equipment is in no way neutral but is the very means suited to its total self-movement.” Russell Brand hopes to inform the masses that newspapers have political agendas, and (in the video below) that they brainwash society to be constantly fearful in order to feel the need to buy papers to be constantly in the loop.
Media-scepticism is growing. Brand has 187,000 youtube subscribers (that’s roughly the population of Swindon) and 7.87 million Twitter followers (that’s the population of Scotland and Greater Manchester combined). How could media-scepticism not be growing when you consider the News of The World phone hacking scandal and the Murdoch News Corp empire? It seems that journalists will put out what sells, whether that be fear-mongering stories about terrorism, immigration and cancer or exclusive gossip obtained through illegally hacking into celebrities’, crime victims’ or MP’s voicemails.
People will not, and cannot, be lied to any longer, ‘The Media of The Masses’ argues. ‘The Media of The Masses’ claims to gallantly fight the people’s corner by democratising information and the means of communication. ‘The Media of The Masses’ proclaims that the communication it offers is not “essentially unilateral” like that of ‘Mass Media,’ that they offer ‘discussion’, ‘interaction’ and ‘participation’ and therefore ‘transparency.’ Interestingly The Guardian, in association with Edward Snowden, has chosen its allies well in this socio-political shit storm. The Cannes Lion winning spot by BBH below shows how ‘The Whole Picture’ formed from #opennews can bring the establishment crashing down as the peoples’ truth unfolds.
Social Media: The Media of The Masses.
In our age of Social Media as ‘The Media of The Masses’ we have all become broadcasters. We are all Authors and we can all proliferate our own knowledge and opinions. Simultaneously, in our age of google search, we are able to evalute the worth of information and its sources. This has given us all the power to choose what we do and do not constitute as knowledge. We are all Readers. Today I can theoretically set up shop, buy a domain name and feed information to anybody with an internet connection. They could then troll me in the comments section. Oh wait…
We can broadcast and be heard. We can evaluate information and refuse to be suckered in by information spoonfed to us. Surely, then, if ‘The Media of The Masses’ has enabled us all to broadcast knowledge, and given us the means by which to evaluate what is broadcast at us, then we should be in a position to topple ‘Mass Media.’ I can’t help but feel, and I reckon that Debord would agree, that although ‘The Media of The Masses’ is creating an information and communication democracy, such a democracy yields less actual real-life power than it promises online. Although scepticism of ‘Mass Media’ communication is due to the realisation that it is “essentially unilateral,” this could be a similar issue with ‘The Media of The Masses’ form of communication.
1. Too many authors, not enough readers.
We can now comment on articles that we think are outrageous. We can give a counter-argument straight away – we don’t need to write a letter to a newspaper and hope that the editor decides to print it next day. People who complain about brands on Twitter or Facebook must feel a twinge of power. They genuinely believe that in imparting their knowledge of a company’s malpractice, terrible product or customer service they can play David in a world full of Capitalist Goliaths. We can troll the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on twitter, but this won’t change his policies. Nor will it stop people from voting for him. Why is the political David more powerful than the biblical one?
The internet has created a public forum in which we can all feel that we are being heard. None of us are really being heard because we spend so much time talking, broadcasting, blogging, tweeting rather than listening and reading. Instagram has made everybody and nobody a photographer. WordPress has made everybody and nobody a writer. Soundcloud has made everybody and nobody a composer, DJ, musician or a band member. None of us are photographers, writers or musicians because nobody is looking at, reading or listening to our output. The ‘power’ associated with being heard, of putting across our knowledge, is eroded as everyone tries to shout ever louder. The political David is more powerful simply because he has ‘Mass Media’ on his side, who just so happens to be able to boom louder. He may even get more of an audience by pretending he is listening to the concerns of British citizens through ‘The Media of The Masses.’
“If the social needs of the epoch in which such techniques are developed can only be satisfied through their mediation, if the administration of this society and all contact among men can no longer take place except through the intermediary of this power of instantaneous communication, it is because this “communication” is essentially unilateral.” – Debord, The Society of The Spectacle
The picture Debord paints is of a society in which nobody ever stops talking, everybody is talking over each other and consequently there is nobody left to listen and nobody is listened to. As we broadcast, tweet, status update, ‘like’ and share away, our society is being ‘administered’ or ‘managed’ by an ‘intermediary’, the social media machine, who acts as a go-between delivering information instantaneously. Debord argues that this information is not ‘communication’ at all, it is one-sided. It’s a monologue boomed down a microphone to an empty room.
Power, however, lies in being able to listen intently, to evaluate information so that it becomes powerful knowledge. After all, you already know what you are going to say. You don’t know what others might conribute. With social media, the ‘intermediary of this power of instantaneous communication’ is the only one that is listening. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their data-crunching machinery are really the powerful ones here.
2. A piece of information’s source, it’s author, is no longer it’s author.
Although we are becoming increasingly aware and cynical of the desired effect that mass media communications are engineered to have and we increasingly question the authority and motives of sources of information, there is a silent ‘Author’ or ‘source’ who we haven’t considered. This is because information’s worth is now measured by how ‘like-able’, ‘share-able’ it is or whether all of your friends have now read it rather than who actually put the information up on the internet in the first place. People now consult their social media feeds when they look for breaking news. Since 2009 traffic to news sites from social media platforms has increased by 57%. We are more likely to read something because a good friend has shared it and consequently it pops up on our news-feeds. This is why ‘social media gurus’ (retch retch) try to ‘reach out’ to ‘influencers’ or ‘bloggers’ and find out who in ‘The Media of The Masses’ is first amongst equals.
Facebook’s algorithms are that silent ‘Author’ or ‘source’ that we haven’t considered. They are under the bonnet and therefore off our radars. We are in no doubt as to Facebook’s position of power, but we haven’t realised to what extent and in what ways their data-crunching algorithms can influence us. If all of your friends read and share Daily Mail articles, Facebook will ‘helpfully’ tell you that reading these articles will keep you in the loop. Our news is literally ‘spoonfed’ to us (just as with old school Mass Media) and, although we can tinker with Facebook’s algorithms ourselves, few of us have probably bothered. One thing that really worried me about UKIP’s European Election victories was that, statistically speaking, a handful of my Facebook friends should have voted for them – I received only dearth of scathing comments and feisty Guardian articles on my news feed about Farage.
(A painting by my brilliant artist friend Helena Izett)
The power of Facebook’s algorithms became clear when they conducted a controversial experiment in which they only allowed positive or negative sentiments posted by the friends of 700,000 unwitting subjects to make it onto your News Feed. Invariably people posted suitably negative status updates when exposed only to their friends’ negativity. Similarly a single tweak of Facebook’s algorithms allowed them to spread positive sentiment like wildfire. Facebook can directly influence your mood. Facebook can even influence who you are better friends with online by consistently showing you updates from a certain group of select people.
Facebook now have an audience to broadcast to who think that they themselves are the broadcasters. They have subtly shifted the power balance. Whats more, they have obscured themselves as the ‘source’ or ‘The Author’ and are penning in your friends’ names. Lets just hope that Facebook don’t have a political agenda, because if they suddenly decided that they wanted Republicans to win over Democrats they could influence social media herd mentality in an even more terrifying way than Mass Media ever could. It seems just a matter of time before people become more sceptical of ‘The Media of The Masses’. ‘Mass Media’ may be able to dodge the bullet.