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Who controls the media?

John Hunt

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There was a thoughtful post recently, which got me thinking, that included the phrase "who controls the media controls the narrative."

Which of course is broadly true - around the world new autocrats' first step is to seize control of the media.

Might I respectfully suggest an alternative view though, that perhaps current political problems are because the media are out of control.  

I think it was back in 1987 that Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which required media to report both sides of an argument, if they weren't just reporting straight news. Then in 1991 web servers became publicly available. Local news reporting, providing verifiable information about your own community (but was expensive because you had to pay people to find and write about it, rather than just provide a platform for people to say whatever they wanted), gradually started to disappear. People started to retreat into their own news bubbles, being fed whatever confirmed their prejudices (on both sides, sure). Huge corporations now make vast profits from algorithmically privileging deliberate disinformation. They have no legal liability for the consequences of what they publish. The situation is particularly acute in the USA because of the extreme freedom of speech - much of the "hate speech" communicated through social media there would be illegal in most other Western democracies, as I understand it. In fact, much of what would fall under that category is constitutionally protected.

Deregulation has led to a situation where democracy is ceasing to function. Coming up to half the electorate now believes that this election - in contrast to all the others - was stolen. Even in Republican states where the election officials completely deny that. A significant proportion of the electorate is now never going to believe in an election result again, if they don't like the outcome. Anything they don't want to hear - it's "fake news." Easier to believe in conspiracy theories like Covid is a hoax, or no worse than the flu, or that the government is actually run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles, than in a fair election. 

Given that this is a "christian" site, of whatever sort, it's a particularly relevant issue. Protestors/rioters/seditionists, whatever you want to call them, stormed the Capitol with some banners saying "Jesus is my savior and Trump is my president." Both, in my opinion, based on hearsay, rather than "truth." There is no "evidence," of the kind that would be allowed into a courtroom, that Jesus is the savior of the world, any more than there is of the election being stolen.

But the genie is out of the bottle. Trump said many times over, before the election, that if he lost, it could only be because it was rigged. And he still says it was. Most Christians believe him. So it's unlikely they'll ever accept a Democratic president again. So it's hard to see where "unity" is going to come from. 

"Accountability," getting some regulation into these publishing platforms, is the only way forward that I can see.


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In my opinion, media is a product and not the cause.  Although I can imagine it being the other way around, I just don't think that is the case.

For instance, Fox news didn't promote a Trump bias but rather, I believe, it tapped into an existing market.  CNN didn't make Democrats form certain views, it catered to them.  But in that 'tapping in' and 'catering' to a certain audience I agree that media can 'feed' certain mindsets and influence cultures.  Add to these the many 'dark web' sites, chat groups, forums etc, and it is easier nowadays for anybody of a particular mindset to find support and agreeable views.  Religion does it all the time.

I don't think democracy is ceasing to function, but I think that there are cracks showing, particularly (mainly?) highlighted in the US.  I don't see any other genuinely democratic society as divided and angry as the US seems presently.  And yes, views are being fed by media outlets to a large degree but ultimately it is society who is making the decisions about how and what they think, and why.

But where do you draw the line?  Who would be the arbiter about what a media organization can and cannot publish?  Certainly an autocrat would be eager to step up, so are we at risk of being autocratic ourselves by suggesting media outlets must conform with, well, whatever it is one might suggest they need to conform with.

I have no problem with community-based laws that say we won't tolerate things such as encouraging violence, or racism, or homophobic hatred, but that's just because generally they are culturally accepted norms for most of us and generally we are agreed they benefit society.  As frustrating as I find ignorant views that the Federal election was stolen from Trump (it wasn't), I believe we each should have freedom of opinion.  However, as you point out, freedom of opinion is not the same as freedom of speech where one is free to say whatever they like, no matter who it harms or offends.

Maybe it is a US thing, but the certainty of evangelical Christianity certainly seems to perversely influence the certainty of Trumpism.  It is hard to imagine the same sort of religious fervor for political leaders here in Australia.  That's not to say it could never happen - rather that I just find it highly unlikely and compared to the US, unimaginable presently.

The thing that would concern me about your suggestion of 'accountability' for publishing platforms is, who sets the bar and what does it look like?

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I don't know what the bar should look like. But I think a starting point would be that if you have a public site, you are responsible for what is said on it, if it breaks the law. And I realize that there's little limit on what you can legally say in the US compared to other Western democracies, but that could be a start.   

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13 hours ago, John Hunt said:

I don't know what the bar should look like. But I think a starting point would be that if you have a public site, you are responsible for what is said on it, if it breaks the law. And I realize that there's little limit on what you can legally say in the US compared to other Western democracies, but that could be a start.   

Yes, I would agree that should be a given and that is what I am used to in Australia.  But when you were referring to a 'media out of control' I didn't think we were really talking about the likes of Fox or CNN actually breaking laws.  It seems to me their transgression is that their focus is less on reporting of the facts and more on reporting with an opinion, even a bias.  They have become influencers more so than simply reporters of the news.  But if you are talking about smaller forums and discussion groups then yes I would agree, they may well need to be held to account if they are breaking the laws of their community.

But then again, and I digress, aren't laws a funny thing.  Things that were once illegal are today legal.  And others that are legal today, will be illegal tomorrow.  Can we trust the law?  Only so much as we trust the direction of the society making them I guess.

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