Traditional News Was Devilish – But It Was a Devil We Knew
Did decentralizing top-down media control bring us any closer to the truth-topia we were hoping for?
Oliver Luckett is a technology entrepreneur and currently CEO of ReviloPark, a global culture accelerator. He has served as Head of Innovation at the Walt Disney Company and co-founder of video sharing platform Revver. As CEO of theAudience, Luckett worked with clients such as Obama for America, Coachella, Pixar, and American Express. He has helped managed the digital personae of hundreds of celebrities and brands, including Star Wars, The Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki, and Toy Story 3.
His book is The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.
Oliver Luckett: For all of the history up until this point, our communication structures have for the most part, especially mass media systems, have been very top down and they've been controlled by a few people that had distribution control. If you look back the church was really the first broadcast network. The church built out a very defined architecture of communication that was coming from a centralized place where very few people could have the word of God come down to them and they had the ability to transcribe – this was at a point when literacy was very rare and so you had only a few people that were illiterate that could transcribe this holy word – and then they would distribute it out to a local market where you had a big impressive building that had lots of iconography and lots of beautiful images inside of it and the tallest building usually in the town and they would ring with the steeple at 8:00 a.m. and we would all congregate for mass and we would listen to one message from one incontrovertible truth, from one source.
And that's not too dissimilar from television architecture. You have a group of people in suits in New York or in Los Angeles and they're deciding what's going to be on television and then they distribute it to those towers. And at 7:00 p.m. prime time we aggregate around a television that's been brought into our home and we watch this one incontrovertible truth and this signal from a top down approach. And when the Internet started enabling people first with this underlying network architecture of TCP/IP that allowed us to transcend time and distance, that allowed any node on the network to contribute to the system, and then we started seeing things like video sharing and a photo sharing that allowed us all to become publishers. And then we had this kind of this layer of social that is redefining everything where every single person is now a contributing node on the network, and every person that is part of that uses emotions and memes and content to distributor things in a horizontal fashion. And so what that's doing is destroying the ability to discern what is authentic; what is not, what's real; what's fake, what's commercial; what's non-commercial, what's sponsored; what's non-sponsored, what's a good idea versus a bad idea. And so when we exist in this freeform society where every node on the network can contribute something to the network, and it has no checks and balances if you will, there is no top down authority that's editing it or deciding what's real or not – then suddenly it becomes every node on the network's responsibility. We’re all having to learn a pattern of behavior that we're all responsible for the propagation of this content.
Because the one interesting rule is it's very difficult to make a mass media statement in a cellular holonic structure nodal network because you have to get a bunch of people to agree to share it and agreed to propagate it. No big media company can buy their way into the system anymore. But at the same time if everybody is on a balanced playing field then people that are hackers or people that scam the system or people that kind of arbitrage the new ad features that emerge or decided to take this path, have an advantage over some of the tried-and-true institutions, you know, especially in things like the context of fake news that's been happening a lot. The idea that a bunch of Macedonian teenagers that are arbitraging ad dollars on Facebook's system can put hundreds of stories into a network that people believe, these fake news stories, when a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal refuses to pay for play in a system like Facebook. And so you have this great imbalance because we haven't learned yet how to - we haven't taught ourselves yet how to discern what's real and what's fake and how to look at sources and how to see them for what they are.
And that's also because of a lack of transparency. We're living in these systems now that are controlling our ability to disseminate information and we have no transparency whatsoever when it comes to algorithms. Why this does content behaved this way, why one day when I post something to 500 people does it reach and the next they only five people reaches? And so until we have visibility into that system and into these algorithms we're going to be at a bit of a loss and a bit of a grabbing in the dark trying to make sense of this new communication architecture.
I quote Aldous Huxley, paraphrase him basically says: The only part of the universe you can possibly control is yourself. And now more than ever that kind of social responsibility is upon each one of us. Because now we're in a holonic system, a cellular holonic system that we are all responsible with the propagation of the right information, positive information, negative information, fake information. We're all responsible for it because we're all part of a metabolic factor inside of the system. The sharing of these memes is propelled by emotions. So human emotions are the metabolism of this system. And you can tap into human curiosity and the whole range of emotions from anger to laughter to desire and so we're seeing that played out in real time right now.
The church was the first news magnate, says tech entrepreneur Oliver Luckett. It was a top-down centralized network where just few people could access the word of God, and would disseminate that information to the masses. Centuries later another top-down network emerged: print and later television media boomed and set the agenda, relaying information with authority from just a handful of networks. Today’s communication system has a different architecture: it’s holonic, says Luckett, or horizontally disseminated – everyone with a signal and a device can produce, contribute, dispute and report news. So in which system are we better off? Are we any closer to the truth now than we were then? Luckett contends that human emotion has become the editor-in-chief of today’s news, and that to steer us away from misinformation, fake news, and opinion masquerading as fact, it will require a concerted effort in social responsibility – something that we may not be capable of en masse. Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey's book is The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.
Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey's book is The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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