In 2008, while attending the annual SHSMD Conference, I saw Andrew Keen deliver a provocative keynote about how Web 2.0 was assaulting our culture and undermining traditional authoritative sources of news and information. Andrew is the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and is known as the “The Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley.” At the time, his presentation seemed a little over the top; but I’ve got to tell you, the more I watch the assault on our traditional media authorities and the spread of disinformation via social media, the more I think Andrew was foretelling the future.
That day, Keen spoke a great deal about the assault on expertise that was enabled by the development of Web 2.0, social media and citizen journalism. He felt that the experts and authoritative sources were going to be swept away in the Tsunami made possible by the democratization of information. He referred to the “corrosive, democratizing effect of Web 2.0″ and the impact of “digital narcissism.” Is this starting to sound relevant? Remember, this was in 2008. I’m not sure he anticipated the strategic manipulation of social media platforms to disseminate disinformation and to stir up the passions of people within our country who feel disenfranchised and otherwise alienated, but his notion of the “crisis of authority” certainly left room for that.
We live in an age where conspiracy theories are disseminated online after every mass shooting – in some cases challenging the fact that these shootings ever took place at all. You know the stories: The students at Parkland weren’t really students at all. Sandy Hook was fake. The Vegas shooting was carried out by multiple shooters. The school shooting in Santa Fe was staged by the “deep state” as pretext for seizing guns nationwide. The stories go on and on. And the Internet makes this possible. However, it would seem that the right environment has to be in place for these untruths to take hold and find an audience. I guess it could be argued that the conditions were always in place, it is just now that trolls have learned how to manipulate the masses using untroths and disinformation.
According to Keen, “We are doing away with the gatekeeper (meaning traditional authorities and media). When we do away with editors and reporters, everything becomes advertising and, therefore, nothing is advertising.” This certainly fits with the assault on the traditional media that is taking place today. For the most part, large media outlets (newspapers, TV Networks) have lost their authority and are seen as supporting a specific political agenda. Therefore, they are seen as only telling part of the story – or telling the story from one vantage point.
Of course, you can’t pin this all on the Internet and bad actors operating online. Some of the decline of the media’s authority is of their own making. There’s no doubt about it. Key national political figures have also played a significant role in vilifying the media and positioning them as purveyors of fake news.
I recommend reading Keen’s book. It puts too much blame on the Internet, but accurately points out the challenges inherent in a democratized platform where there is no quality assurance of the information that is shared. Food for thought from a citizen journalist.