In the second part of this article, we will explore how the economic system affects the media we “consume.” Inspired by The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a poem composed by Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, this article lays out the limits of mainstream (and social) media to empower the broad masses of people to take part in a democratic society. In the last section, we will show how to take action today to make a change for the better.
This article has two parts.
- For Part 1: follow the link.
- For Part 2: continue reading.
Table of Contents
- Mainstream (and social) media follow the rules of the system: they seek to grow their profits, increase shareholder value, and protect the interests of their investors or shareholders.
- For the majority, taking part via social media to advocate for a political cause or change in society is like standing on a digital soapbox, it will have very limited reach and effect.
- Ownership matters and we should strive to support ad-free and member funded journalism such as the current blog.
I want to take some action! What are some things I can do? For a start, go to the bottom of the article to learn more.
To learn more, please continue reading Part 2 of the article below.
If The Economy Focuses On Growth, Business Focuses On Profits
There cannot be a premise on infinite growth on a finite planet. Our current economic model and incessant focus on growth is like tumor cells for a human body. As long as there is food, cancer cells will produce even more tumor cells. Either has to give. Either the body will fight off the cancer and tumor cells or the cancer will consume the human.
The issue we as a society face is that we celebrate the biggest and the richest as the most successful ones. Basically, the companies and enterprises that are emblematic of the type of growth-focused economy and society that we live in.
Just like other businesses, media is also a business industry. The mainstream media, just like the overall economy, focuses on growth, rather than development. Professor Edward D. Hess from the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia produced a class on entrepreneurship called “Grow to Greatness” on the popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, Coursera.
In the course, Professor Edward D. Hess dispels several common myths of the “American mindset” about business. He bases his counterarguments on principles observed in nature. For some, these myths will also seem illogical, but let us go over them. The first common myth is that “bigger is better” and the second common myth is “grow or die.”
Regarding the first myth, “bigger is better,” he gives the example of a tiger. In its natural size, the tiger is the perfect predator. However, if he grew to the size of an elephant, he would not be a “better predator.” He would not be a tiger, nor an effective predator. What does this mean for business?
That point brings us to the second myth: “grow or die.” Again, the primary aim should not be about growth. A business can stop growing, but continue to develop. Rather than focus on size, we should focus on the human and problem-solving objectives of starting a business.
The aim should not be on growing revenues, profits, number of employees, offices, or if we talk about the media industry, the number of articles, shares, likes and so forth. We need to account for our overall well-being, such as our physical, emotional, psychological ones when growing and developing a business.
This is not a call that all companies should be small. Inevitably, some will be small, others medium, yet few will be veritable giants. This is a call to rethink how we measure the performance and success of businesses and our economy.
Fortunately, not every human, not every businessperson is interested in infinite growth. Just like our “giants,” we also need to celebrate the small businesses and hear their stories too. In fact, most businesses are small. Most challenges that people face daily are the same for people, regardless of how deep their pockets are. Not every business can and should become a unicorn (a financial term that refers to privately owned companies that have a $1 billion valuation).
The pandemic has taken our growth out of the economic equation, and we immediately fell into a recession. It shows how fragile our economies are when the growth mechanisms stop. Politicians and economists discuss the return to the new normal, meaning when the growth is back or exceeds its pre-pandemic level. The holy metric for mainstream economists is the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
As a society, we need to understand and question the merits of infinite growth. This focus on growth affects how we operate businesses (workplaces). Our workplaces become areas of stress once we do not achieve these growth targets, regardless of the cause of the failure, be it internal (e.g. poor management) or external (e.g. natural disaster). It also dictates the research and development projects we focus on as society, not always in the best interests of our overall well-being.
In the world of media, where most of us get information about others and the world, the temptation to fall prey to technologies that exploit human attention is too great to resist. I refer to these tactics as “black holes.”
Technology And Its Attention Sucking “Black Holes”
If during Gil Scott-Heron’s time, TV was the biggest media, now social media is one of the largest and most dominant media outlets that occupy the leisure and non-leisure time of its “consumers.”
When we base our economy on infinite growth in a finite planet, social media companies logically would develop features to reflect that in their apps. They boast features such as “infinite scroll,” “related content” and others to ensure users’ continuous engagement and addiction to their platforms; a black hole sucking attention.
Capitalism’s focus on incessant growth does not allow our minds to rest. Even when we rest, we need to think of our rest as a “commercialized” activity. We need to consume. The language we use reflects that: “to buy time,” “to consume content” and so forth.
With the pervasiveness of social media, there is limited discussion about enlightenment, empowerment, or simply relaxing and enjoying. A “free” walk in the park is a “lost economic opportunity” to increase the growth rate of some individual entrepreneurs or business and thus contribute to the overall GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the economy.
Although there is no such thing as “free lunch” and each of us needs at least some money to get by and satisfy our necessities, there is a point after which each added dollar does not add additional value. According to a Purdue University study, the ideal income for people in North America was about $95,000 a year. Beyond this amount, there were little gains in terms of happiness of emotional well-being.1Service, Purdue News. Money Only Buys Happiness for a Certain Amount. https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q1/money-only-buys-happiness-for-a-certain-amount.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.
This is the law of diminishing returns. Collectively, as a society, we need to consider taxing those dollars that are causing diminishing returns at higher rates to ensure the more fair distribution and help those who may struggle to meet their basis human needs.
Mainstream Media Is Turning Into A Reality And Entertainment Business
With the introduction of the infinite scroll and the “news feed” social media is using its ever-improving algorithms to serve content that resonates with the user. The infinite scroll was designed to addict people.
To spicy up the addiction, content matters. Infinite-scrolls combined with click-bait content aimed at grabbing and keeping attention does not really make up for praise-worthy endeavor. Some developers express regrets to have worked on addicting features on major social media platforms.
The content resonates with the impulses of breaking news, just sending signals and appealing to emotions, but not really educating or empowering the readers for what matters. It is content that elicits a knee-jerk reaction without understanding the underlying causes of the social or economic problems.
Rolf Dobelli, a writer, has published an elucidating article on improving mental well-being by cutting out news (those focused on “breaking news”) from the daily routine. Even though he spent years reading newspapers and watching the news (“consuming”), he felt like he grasped nothing. Probably he is not the only one who feels the same.
His brain was filled with information with no understanding of the underlying issues. This is a big problem in democratic societies, because adept and charismatic politicians exploit can manipulate people and even convince them of facts that are contrary to the truth.
For example, in a 2016 interview with the CNN, Newt Gingrich, a popular US politician, stated that “people feel more threatened” in the US. The interview was about crime and violence in the United States. Statistical and factual evidence showed that violent crimes have been in decline in the United States for over two decades.2 (2016, August 29). The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich’s “Feelings Over Facts.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2o0mAdRUpo However, Newt Gingrich insisted that the American people felt more “threatened.”
Regardless of political convictions, we need to discuss and debate with facts. Feelings matter, but feelings can be stirred up with misinformation and can distort the truth. We need to have discussions on solid footing. Unfortunately, feelings appeal more to people. It is feelings that win people’s hearts. It is feelings that cause a lasting change of mind.
Content makers appeal to feelings when producing and/or promoting content; often losing sight of what is valuable and meaningful, while focusing on what is entertaining.
News stories such as Melania Trump, the First Lady, pushing away former US President Donald Trump’s hand received more attention than a substantive debate about health care in a country that considers itself as “the greatest country in the world.” The United States has over 13 million uninsured people.3 Inc, G. (2019, January 23). U.S. Uninsured Rate Rises to Four-Year High. Gallup.Com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/246134/uninsured-rate-rises-four-year-high.aspx In 2020, according to Pew Research, over 63% of Americans preferred a single government program to provide health care.4NW, 1615 L. St, et al. “Increasing Share of Americans Favor a Single Government Program to Provide Health Care Coverage.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.
Being one of the most developed industrial countries without affordable and universal healthcare is not exactly praise-worthy. The United States is great for many things, but it is worthy to note where it falls short. It is not for lack of money, skills or talent to provide adequate health coverage for the uninsured, but for lack of will. Probably the uninsured feel the same way.
The media should focus on making discussions about core issues, such as healthcare more engaging. With all the green rooms and simulation technologies, with its armies of top developers, the mainstream media has not kept conversations about key issues engaging. This does not mean that we should all talk about core issues such as health-care, but the major media outlets spend too little time creating and sharing engaging content that empowers people.
Just like people are increasingly becoming aware about healthier eating choices and there are countries and states that consider taxing soda, I believe that mind-numbing (or “junk” content) should also be taxed at higher rates than content that serves to do public service. The difficulty about implementing this proposal would be what would make up “junk” content and who would judge it? At least we should think about the idea.
Entertainment is important, but the balance is skewed towards attention grabbing “innovations” such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and others, while discussions about alternative are considered taboo.
In defense of mainstream media and social media startups, they just follow the rules of the game. The system incentives and awards profit-maximizing behaviors. Therefore, we need to rethink our performance metrics and reimagine the ownership structure of businesses.
Whose Interests Do Being “Televised” And Social Media-zed Serve?
To understand the interests, we need to understand the ownership of media companies. The media and entertainment industry is big and growing. There is plenty of interest to have a piece of this large and ever-growing pie.
In 2020, the US media and entertainment industry was valued at about $720 billion, almost as much as the military budget $730 billion.5U.S. entertainment and media industry 2011-2020. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/237769/value-of-the-us-entertainment-and-media-market/ To put it in relative terms, the United States spends more on military than the next 10 countries combined.6Ranking: Military spending by country 2019. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/
Part of the overall rise in the media industry can be attributed to the rise of social media. Some hailed the rise of social media and saw it as a force of spreading and deepening our democracies.7 Ritu_Sharma, ContributorCEO, & Nonprofits, S. M. for. (500, 12:21). Social Media as a Formidable Force for Change. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/power-of-social-media-dem_b_6103222
Social media can help give voice to the disenfranchised. As a tool, social media can help grow social movements. For example, social media helped galvanize and organize supporters during the Arab Spring in 2011.8Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (n.d.). Social Media and the Arab Spring. 23. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1940161212471716 Just to clarify, it was not social media that generated the support for these movements. The people were frustrated by the poor governance across the Arab countries. Social media was a tool that helped them organize.
But we need to know the limits of social media. Even though they can mobilize people quickly, the sustainability and impact of these movements can be limited.9Malchik, A. (2019, May 6). The Problem With Social-Media Protests. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/ Protest movements tend to fizzle out quickly.
Social media is in the entertainment and marketing business. It has not purpose in promoting and fostering stronger democracy. If it helps foster, it is a positive side-effect of its work.
The underlying driver for social media companies is the same for all traditional companies, creating value for their shareholders. Each employee in the company needs to ensure the company’s profitability, either by producing goods and services that add surplus value or by creating an enabling environment to create surpluses.
Yes, some social media companies may start off with solving (and actually can solve problems for people and businesses), but afterwards the choices the business makes are heavily influenced by the metrics that businesses need to achieve and as agreed during board meetings, growth, profits and market share.
For Most, Social Media Posting Is Like Standing On A Soapbox
When it comes to social media (owned by an affluent minority), we are given the illusion of participation. Anyone can make a post “public.” The entire world can see it (at least half the world that is connected to the internet and social media, because the other half has no internet access)!
Most of us know that our posts are mostly seen by our small circle of family, friends and acquaintances who follow us, but there is this hope that our “post” will become “viral.” If we pick the right keywords, maybe, we will achieve some “internet fame.”
The challenge is that, for movements organized by people, there is no consensus that can easily be built on social media. The Arab Spring of 2011 did not lead to transformative lasting changes. Little has changed in substance.
The challenge with these movements is that there are many visions and conflicting ways of measuring success. In movements that seek to deepen democratic representation, each person is “empowered” to share his or her own view. If the movement moves from the digital to the streets, then it can take a life on its own. But protests, either digital or on the street wear out.10Naím, M. (2014, April 7). Why Street Protests Don’t Work. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/why-street-protests-dont-work/360264/
Most people have limited free and vacation time. Either people will protest or work overtime to pay for their bills or children’s education. Either they will be obedient workers, or they will risk losing a job by building a movement around a cause they care. As shown in the graph below, from the first part of this article, the average person in the US has limited time to protest (see free time in red). Protesting is unpaid, voluntary activity and happens usually during the “leisure time.”
Fervent supporters who are willing to give up material (and emotional) well-being and are firm believers in the cause can help start and sustain a movement. The problem is that these people are rare. Governments know this.
Unless someone has a strong passion and money to finance people to be out of work, mass protests will eventually fizzle out. People need to go to work, feed their family, pay the bills. There were massive pro-democracy protests in Belarus that started around August 2020. However, they have started to fizzle. The protestors have failed to dislodge the standing president from power.11“As Belarus Protests Freeze over, Lukashenko’s ‘Terror’ Targets Journalists.” Newsweek, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/belarus-protests-freeze-over-lukashenko-terror-targets-journalists-1564148.
Mass protests are formed by an amorphous group of people who have different expectations for the outcome and different personal issues and needs. Governments and private interest groups can co-opt movements using the “divide-and-conquer strategy” because they have more time and money in their hands.
It is hard for hundreds, thousands or even millions of volunteers to compete against paid employees. Governments and media companies with their smaller numbers can often (not all the time) outmaneuver the people.
Paid employees in the government and media follow the instructions they receive and “do their job.” Media companies pay their employees to perpetuate ideas that serve the interests of their shareholders and customers. People who take part in protests volunteer their time, and if they get angry or disagree with some protestors, they can just stop showing up. However, for paid employees working in some state agency or media companies, getting angry at the employer may cause personal frustration and losing employment at worst.
Employees are paid full time for their work and efforts. Employers have the advantage because their employees are using their prime thinking to further their interests. If we consider that the attention is a form of a resource (just like energy) that diminishes over the course of the day, then employers (on average) are tapping into the best thoughts of their employees. It is difficult to come up with a grand strategy after eight hours of engaging work.
Therefore, it is difficult for someone who volunteers their limited leisure time for a societal cause to compete with someone whose full-time job is to “manage” a protest.
Without mass audiences and support, it is impossible to effectuate change. Those who control the creation, storage, dissemination and promotion of ideas hold power.
The revolution of the people, let us call them the “working class” will fail as long as the visions of their revolutions live within their own heads. As long as there are no shared standards (or indicators) how to measure the success of the achievement of a common vision, no revolution will succeed.
To have some chance at success, we need to support membership based media and journalism. We need to support media and journalism that is owned by the workers and the users.
How many times have you watched a channel and then the report said: “Sorry we have to go,” “We have to make time for ads” or “Let’s take a commercial break.” The mainstream media is too quick to skip to the next breaking news. The mainstream media is uncomfortable asking the important and tough questions around their employer’s interests and ownership.
Just like there are global organizations and associations to further business interests, there should be peoples’ organizations that advance peoples’ interests. Rather than have large, corporate monopolies, there should be a federation of news companies across the world that are funded by their individual readers (not corporate advertising).
We need to pay and own the media information we use (not “consume”). I understand that advertising is an important element and an important industry in business, but we need to rethink how we do it.
Some people may say that social media can help democratize access to information. However, it is important to know who owns social media? Who finances it? Whose interests does it serve? Do access to digital technologies and social media enable the disenfranchised to revolutionize the world in their interest?
Social media posting is like standing on a soap box on a busy street. Some passerbyers will walk by, few will stop, and even fewer (if none) will follow the advice given.
If we, the people, want to have power and influence, we need to have meaningful participation in government positions and the private sector industries that impact our lives. Given the current economic setup, this is not feasible or practical. Therefore in this blog we will explore ways how to make democracy actionable in our daily lives.
Without people funded social media accounts designed to serve and promote the well-being of all people, social media will not be the tool for the people’s revolutionary transformation.
We need to understand that ownership matters.
Ownership Matters For Democratic Participation
Media is driven by supply and demand. What gets televised is what will attract the viewer’s attention, not necessarily what the viewers want or need to hear.
For example, Aunt Jemmima, popular US breakfast company, changed its racist branding because now popular support has shifted.12Business, J. V., CNN. (n.d.). The Aunt Jemima brand, acknowledging its racist past, will be retired. CNN. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/business/aunt-jemima-logo-change/index.html Media responds to popular swings. Tipping point. Aunt Jemmima change in marketing is as much opportunistic marketing as it is an attempt to rectify historic wrongs. But the time when it the company chose to do so, rings more of opportunistic marketing, than genuine reflection about the racial connotations of its marketing. As some say, better late than never.
Media that is owned in the hands of few generally has no interest to perpetuate democratic form of functioning. In the words of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, the mainstream media works to “manufacture consent.” It is not to empower.
Empowered media and empowered journalism means member-funded and/or worker-owned and directed media and journalist companies.
It matters who and how journalism is paid for. It matters who owns the companies. If we want to get our attention back, we need to fund the journalism we believe in and that serves our interests.
This blog is ad free. It’s user supported because it aims to serve its users. To ensure democratic access, there will always be free blog posts, while some additional features and researched content will be offered to the paying members to support the development of this blog.
Action Steps I Can Take
Now it is time to move to action. Here are some action steps you can take:
- SUPPORT member-funded journalism and blogs such as this one (or alternatives include, De Correspondent (Dutch), El Tiempo Argentino (Spanish) or The Ferret (English). For a comprehensive list of member funded websites, please visit The Membership Puzzle Project.
- LEARN MORE about the role of media in our daily lives by reading books by reputable authors such as Noam Chomsky.
- START a discussion club in your community. Agree to read relevant articles and books to discuss and create ideas how to make your community a more mindful place to live.
Hi! I am Stefan Ivanovski, founder of Lifestyle Democracy, a knowledge platform that empowers individuals and communities through sharing and teaching how to apply actionable democratic principles and practices, one day at a time.
- 1Service, Purdue News. Money Only Buys Happiness for a Certain Amount. https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q1/money-only-buys-happiness-for-a-certain-amount.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.
- 2(2016, August 29). The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich’s “Feelings Over Facts.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2o0mAdRUpo
- 3Inc, G. (2019, January 23). U.S. Uninsured Rate Rises to Four-Year High. Gallup.Com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/246134/uninsured-rate-rises-four-year-high.aspx
- 4NW, 1615 L. St, et al. “Increasing Share of Americans Favor a Single Government Program to Provide Health Care Coverage.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.
- 5U.S. entertainment and media industry 2011-2020. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/237769/value-of-the-us-entertainment-and-media-market/
- 6Ranking: Military spending by country 2019. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/
- 7Ritu_Sharma, ContributorCEO, & Nonprofits, S. M. for. (500, 12:21). Social Media as a Formidable Force for Change. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/power-of-social-media-dem_b_6103222
- 8Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (n.d.). Social Media and the Arab Spring. 23. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1940161212471716
- 9Malchik, A. (2019, May 6). The Problem With Social-Media Protests. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/
- 10Naím, M. (2014, April 7). Why Street Protests Don’t Work. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/why-street-protests-dont-work/360264/
- 11“As Belarus Protests Freeze over, Lukashenko’s ‘Terror’ Targets Journalists.” Newsweek, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/belarus-protests-freeze-over-lukashenko-terror-targets-journalists-1564148.
- 12Business, J. V., CNN. (n.d.). The Aunt Jemima brand, acknowledging its racist past, will be retired. CNN. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/business/aunt-jemima-logo-change/index.html