When having an opinion doesn’t equal power

What makes you powerful? Money? An army at your disposal? Powerful rhetoric?

The latter might seem as though it doesn’t qualify, after all we have a set idea in our minds as to what “powerful” looks like. However the ability to influence others, to mould them in our approach and way of thinking is an extraordinarily significant power. It’s one that needs to be wielded with responsibility (with apologies to Uncle Ben). Digital technology might have thought to shift power away from traditional media – who doesn’t have a blog, right? – but, in fact, what has happened is that the goalposts have shifted in terms of power and authority, and not in the direction you might expect.

Let me take a step back. The fear of the traditional print and broadcast media is that the changes in digital technology are happening so fast that they will be left behind. Tim Berners Lee’s original affidavit “This is for everyone” has become an ethos. Thus a generation behind the baby boomers – I think the newspapers call us generation Y – grew up with the commitment that everything on the Internet is free, access and principle. The first generation using the Internet was always going to be the one to invent WikiLeaks and WikiPedia, ideas based on freedom of information but trickiness in making actual cash.

A little further along the line and as traditional advertising falls down the wayside, readership shifts online and newspapers make a decision really quickly. They start to give their content away for free. The ramifications of that early decision are still being felt and the reason for it might seem naïve now but at the beginning the Internet was a beautiful, beautiful thing and we felt it truly did belong to everyone.  Only later did newspapers realise they had to monetise their content, in the same way they had when it was print. Funnily enough if you start by giving something away for free, undermine your own brand in the eyes of the audience and then ask people to pay for it they have a tendency to laugh in your face.

While this was going on in media land another change was happening among the populous. This Internet thing gave us something we hugely craved. It gave us a voice.

Big deal, eh? After all, what is a voice if you don’t know what to say? Voice is not just reference to writing and producing your own content, more so it is curating it. Shaping the culture you enjoy. The news media would want people to believe that we spend time online reading myriad news sites. Not true. Comscore’s last media briefing in February 2013 shows that in the UK we spend on average 34 hours online a month. Only 42.9 minutes of that time is spent on a newspaper site.

So what are we filling our time with? Well watching TV, films, browsing from site to site. We don’t spend long on news sites – around 1.5 minutes – but we spend up to three hours a day on social media sites (in the US anyway). We’re deciding the information we want to fill our online experience and social media gives us a platform to curate that efficiently and effectively. We post articles we like, pictures of our friends and family, we follow people whose minds we like and ideas and then we share them with our friends. We have fundamentally shifted how we interact with each other. And we did it entirely by ourselves.

This, I would argue, is far more terrifying to the media outlet than our desire to have everything online for free.

What news organisations have to have is trust. They have to be the dominant authority in the corner of our living room. Enough has been written about their tendency to terrify us so that we’ll listen for longer  – however if you want to bookmark it Fear in the News; A Discourse of Control by David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski from Arizona State University covers the principle points and is a good discussion. It is power and control that they want.

The thing about news is that it is a commentary. It is not intended to dictate how we live our lives and yet that is what it has become. How should you lose weight? Should your children be at nursery? What should I do this weekend? These are questions we have a tendency to rely on news outlets to answer, when really we have the nous to understand and answer them ourselves.

The problem is that as we increasingly curate our own social commentary for ourselves the media loses this position of authority. It suddenly began to look “bubble-like”. By that I mean largely out of step, not really representative of our community driven society. Suddenly when a murder happened and the press would travel to a town you’d see people, who previously had not been given to offer a response to what was happening in the media, expressing shock at their behaviour. The phone-hacking scandal might only have been conducted by a small section of the media fraternity but its tarnished brush has spread far wider. Increasingly, journalists vie for estate agents and MPs as people least trusted.

This is frightening. How can the media maintain its power and authority when it is being attacked on both sides by a reduction in power and influence as well as revenue through advertising and emerging online models?

My friends, they’ve already done it and you weren’t watching. We come back to rhetoric and voice.

If you are able to lead the debate, to shape what people thought and reposition yourselves as the only ones capable of dictating discourse what would you do? Well you’d shift your original model that provided a background noise and generate your own debate wouldn’t you? You’d make sure your views and opinions were at the top of the block and those of the populous were at the bottom, just so that everyone was reminded who was in control. To back that up you’d then make it bloomin’ difficult for the average Joe to get their voice heard in the same arena as yours. To do that you need to constantly remind people that your average Joe isn’t really worth listening to. You’d dismiss them as trolls, cranks, fools, jokers. Who wants to listen to a joker? You’d dominate the commentary so that the people at the top i.e., you are the sensible ones and the people at the bottom (who you kind of suggest have their own say but who you keep undermining) aren’t.

Then you need to promote it. You need to continuously emphasise how influential and important your voices are as a community and keep reminding people that they simply aren’t as vital or articulate. So you develop a one-way conversation. Ideally it looks as though everyone can interact with each other but in truth it’s just a one-way discussion with you pushing out your ideas and not responding to everyone else’s. This has the added benefit of a) making you look really influential and b) meaning you don’t have to acknowledge opposition.

A one-way conversation means that you and your pals can be judge, jury and executioner, leading and dominating the debate, whipping up whatever fury you want or need – whatever suits your agenda, to be honest – and manipulating the populous as you need to. They want to be you, you see, because you’ve constantly told the average Joe’s that you’re the only ones with the voice. And average Joe’s like having a voice so they want one. So they feed into your discussions and take part in the whipping up of the furies.

Sound familiar? The media elite essentially uses social networks like Twitter to dominate the conversation. The power they want to wield in terms of opinion and debate is in a place we all thought was focused on freedom of expression. But the revenue has changed. Instead of monetisation its currency is clicks and comments. Without a major media institution behind its back it’s far too difficult for average Joe’s to have anything like that kind of reach. Anyone who gets close – a celebrity for example – is knocked and cut down to size so quickly by the opinionators that few want to get into their own space. It is all corners of the media landscape doing this, not just a particular wing of the media, the liberal writers are more than capable of whipping up debate in their own direction with the same kind of indignation and outrage they criticise the right for.

Before anyone asks “what can we do” the only thing is to remove yourself from the powerful’s grasp. Marx’s argument that the only way to create an equal society is for those who are unequal is to demand their equality and rise up (yes, paraphrasing).

Opinion and commentary isn’t news, it is opinion and commentary, yet we give it far more weight than we do our own, simply because someone who works for an institution that we used to like when we were kids is employing them. Am I going to tell you what to do? Hell no. It’s time we started thinking that for ourselves.

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