Gavan Titley: Filter Bubble – When Scepticism of the Mainstream Media Becomes Denial of Atrocity

Broadcasting tower in Trondheim, Norway
Broadcasting tower in Trondheim, Norway

Years ago I stopped including Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) in my undergraduate teaching of political communications. This is not because I am particularly critical of it; I have taught it at MA level, and frequently screened the (1992) documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. In general terms I value it as a detailed and historically embedded study of media power. What I noticed, though, is that it has a life as a cultural stance far beyond its status and limits as a book.

When I began teaching the sociology of media, and political communications, in the late 1990s, I noticed how Manufacturing appealed to a certain kind of student, finding their feet in or orienting themselves towards the Left, (rightly) disillusioned with the general passivity of Irish student life, and possibly just relieved to be in a course where political ideas were not regarded with – at best – polite disdain. But, all too often, this appeal hardened into a rote mode of denunciation – the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media) were a homogeneous bloc, and the MSM were ideological indoctrinators, and the question and answer of media analysis was solely the problem of ‘MSM propaganda’.

This is not the place to evaluate either my limitations as a teacher or the political-economic and institutional insight of Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, which, like any influential intervention, is both considerable and debatable. And, it is certainly the case that in presenting their analysis as a ‘propaganda model’ they invited its modularisation and misapplication across time, context and media system. But what I am recalling here is not their analysis but its uses, those instances where the discovery of the ‘propaganda model’ and its ‘five filters of bias’ became the end point of thought, not the starting point of analysis. The ‘model’ provided an ideological crutch, a doctrine whereby anything contradictory or particular could just be dismissed as the exceptional proof of the rule. And this was before such students had access to online counter public spheres that gave a structure and practice to this mode of thought, and the advent of a digital media environment that radically relativizes the authority of any source, and the veracity of any image.

I was thinking about this particular kind of response over the last days, experiencing, like so many others, the reflexive helplesness of witnessing slaughter unfurl and communicative noise rebound along social media timelines. And, at the same time, witnessing Leftists I previously had plenty of time for dismissing every report of slaughter as propaganda, every image as fake, every source as embedded, every voice from Aleppo as compromised, and every external expression of helplessness or anguished humanity as the halo polishing of bourgeois moralism. For the sworn, realist enemies of postmodernism, there are simulacra to be found when you really want them.

Offered instead, as an objective rebuke for the moralists and triumphant confirmation for the Woke, is a set of ‘alternative’ media sources that, apparently, evade all the issues that correctly inform left scepticism towards traditional news sources (and particularly so in time of conflict). The compromises of ownership and geopolitical orientation are no longer assumed to influence an editorial line. The immanence of ideology is cured through the magical restitution of objectivity. The constructedness of the image solved by trusting gut instinct. The embeddedness and partiality of sources squared by vouching for the authenticity of these voices, but definitely not those. In other words, systemic distrust of the western ‘MSM’ results in nothing more than displaced fidelity to its ‘alternative’, mirror image.

The aftermath of the Trump election has seen the rapid circulation of placeholders for the serious analysis of networked political communication – the ‘post-truth’ era and its material expression in the circulation of ‘fake news’. What is often missed in this discussion is that the problem with fake news is not just that some stories are not true, but that every story can be treated as untrue.

Mediatised Aleppo offers its witnesses a compressed lesson in this; ‘their’ news is fully fake, ‘ours’ is, as a consequence, fully objective, But this is not solely or mainly a product of news dynamics in the digital era, and has little to do with that other fashionable red-herring, the ‘filter bubble’. It is a product of good old-fashioned ideological insistence. That elements of what is being reported in Aleppo may be false is more than enough, for some on the Left, to prove that none of it is true, and all of it can be denied.

Chomsky and Herman, writing after the atrocities of Vietnam and East Timor, and at the end of the Reagan era, identified five ‘filters’ that determine what counts as news, and makes the news. If I were to try to teach it again, after Aleppo, that the problem of dominant filters begets the problem of ‘alternative’ filters would constitute filter No.6.

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