The Media Are To Blame

The number of books in recent years documenting the downfall of civilization due to media - whether smartphones, social media, robots, algorithms or just 'the' media altogether - is astounding. Generally speaking, these are books not written by media scholars, but by concerned citizens, often 40+ years old affluent white authors lamenting what media are doing to, well, the stupid masses and particularly the YOUNG.

Okay. Here it is, from a media scholar: do media have effects on people? Hell yeah. Are these effects the same for everyone? No. Are these effects always there? No. Are these effects one-dimensional and one-directional? No. Is there ANYTHING particular to today's media effects as compared to, say, the invention of the printing press? Hell no.

In a nutshell: some people are affected by some media under some circumstances some of the time in some way.

Generally, though, we're fine and we will be alright. So what is the deal with all these books and their relative success? Three things: fear of young people, projection onto machines, and disrespect regarding nuance and complexity.

1. Ephebiphobia: fear of youth. We are scared shitless of the people we put on this earth to replace us, so we project all our fears about dying and having lived an utterly replaceable life onto the next generations with their silly gadgets and dumb behavior and irresponsible whatever. Get over it: once you're over forty, you're on your way out, and that is a good thing. Deal with it. I am way over 40.

2. The Influencing Machine: Ever since the mechanical evolution coinciding and correlating with the Enlightenment, we have projected all our own vulnerabilities and anxieties onto the machines of our time. Today its Facebook and an iPhone, in the 50s and 60s it was the TV set, in the early 1900s factory machines, and so on. Projection is so much easier than taking responsibility, because it makes us feel SUPERIOR and that is nice.

3. Media and Communication Scholarship: people who lament the impact of media and mediated communication on (other) people and society generally read a lot, EXCEPT the dedicated and sustained research done by scholars who study and understand media and (mass) communication. If they would, they would learn that filter bubbles - if these exist at all - tend to be temporary, that people - kids and teenagers alike - have complicated and creative and interesting relationships with their media but are definitely not programmed by them, and that the MAIN REASON why people are upset about powerful media is that these technologies enable those outside the mainstream (that is: youths and all minorities) to threaten and challenge the SOCIAL ORDER of things. That last insight is the legacy of the late and great Denis McQuail, one of the founding scholars of media and (mass) communication research in the world.

But hey, why would you deal with history and scholarship and critical self-reflection when you can blame machines, Silicon Valley and (your) kids for everything that is wrong in the world?

Comments for Debate on the Media and the Charlie Hebdo Murders

On Tuesday February 10 (2015) I will participate in a debate with researchers Marieke de Goede, Francesco Ragazzi, Jolle Demmers, and Julien Jeandesboz to discuss the role of the media, Islamophobia and the temptation of vigilantism in Europe in the aftermath of murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7th of 2015. The debate takes place at SPUI25 in downtown Amsterdam, The Netherlands (this is a debate center operated by the University of Amsterdam).

My contribution to this debate focuses on two particular issues: the attacks on journalists as exemplary of the mediatization of society, and the problems  white, middle-class Western news media have covering an increasingly diverse, complex global culture in their societies. 

The Charlie Hebdo attacks signal the significance of singling out media in general, and individual media professionals in particular, as victims. See also the horrific beheading videos featuring freelance journalists by jihadist groups (since 2002). This fits in a broader 'mediatization' of society, where media as institutions have become central to the way we live our lives and, in particular, how we see ourselves and each other live. As Zygmunt Bauman commented after the Hebdo attacks: "In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played."

A second observation deals specifically with the role of journalists covering such events: the problems western media have effectively (and with nuance and credibility) covering topics such as religion (in general, Islam in particular), minorities, migration, and class struggle. As a report by the Dutch NRC Handelsblad on February 3, 2015 showed, Dutch newsrooms employ almost no minority reporters and are otherwise extremely homogeneous, failing to address and reflect the complexities of today's society.

Looking forward to the debate and seeing you there.