Rage is both a subcurrent within and a by-product of the pandemic. However rage is also a tactic used by the news and media industry to maintain an engaged and profitable audience.
In an attention economy emotion becomes a compelling reason to pay attention, and rage or at least outrage is one of the easiest to evoke.
Yet whether this is a causation or a correlation is not clear. Hence the concept of media ecology. That these phenomena or responses are in dynamic relation rather than direct causation.
For example, decades ago, television executives would argue that their medium and content were interactive, because it reflected the interests and desires of the audience. Whether audience research or real time analytics, there has been a feedback loop going back decades that connects what people watch with the media content that is available.
It is with this in mind that we would approach any lament or anxiety about our current state of rage or rage economy with a reasonable amount of skepticism.
The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 underlined a disturbing phenomenon that has become undeniable at this point: the fragmentation of the American public into a multitude of angry factions, radicalized in different ways online and holding completely different baseline perceptions of reality. The problem of deliberate misinformation undermining democracy has received lots of attention, but in many ways, the power of fantastic lies to grab people’s allegiance is also a byproduct of a deeper problem: extreme polarization driven by news media monetizing anger in order to survive.
This phenomenon is at the core of what media ecologist and author Andrey Mir in a new book calls “postjournalism.” Mir’s book, titled “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers,” is a sweeping look at how the news media evolved and shaped the world over hundreds of years, from newsletters for traders published in medieval Venice, Italy, to modern print newspapers, television, and finally the internet. For pretty much everyone, the news media is the major force that shapes how they perceive the world outside their direct experience. During an era when the main technology for producing and disseminating information changes, the world changes as well. For better or worse, we are living through one of those eras now.
I find the phrase postjournalism to be both problematic and yet appropriate. Problematic because it evokes a golden era that did not exist and an idea that was never attained. However also appropriate as we’ve moved beyond journalism, and we need to conceive of what should replace it, especially in the context of a democratic society.
Yet I don’t buy the simplistic argument that extreme polarization was driven by news media monetizing anger. Rather I think the news media were merely chasing that polarization, like a lawyer chasing an ambulance, arguably making a bad situation worse, but not necessarily causing the accident in the first place.
Just as the advertising model incentivized news outlets to project a business-friendly view of the world, the new model requires readers to stay not just satisfied but also engaged enough that they are willing to maintain economic support. Unfortunately for society as a whole, one of the best ways to monetize engagement on the internet is by generating anger and hatred, usually directed at some other group of people. This rage-driven model is at the heart of what Mir calls postjournalism. In its most extreme forms, in venues where the old professional ethics and standards of journalism have been discarded or never took root, postjournalism will produce mobs whose rage is incomprehensible to those outside their bubbles, like the QAnon conspiracy theorists who sacked the Capitol.
“As postjournalism needs to amplify people’s frustration for profit, it spirals up into the amplification of extremes and, therefore, polarization. The outraged and polarized audience is a side effect of this new business model,” Mir told me in a lengthy email exchange about the book. “Seeking support from the audience in the conditions of fading attention, the news media are forced to amplify and dramatize issues whose coverage is most likely to be paid for. If the ad-driven media of the past tended to manufacture consent, the reader-driven media must manufacture anger.”
“There is no evil plot, nor ‘liberal bias’, nor ‘right-wing conspiracy’ behind this,” Mir adds. “Such are simply the environmental settings for a media industry that has lost its ad revenue and news business to the internet.”
Again there’s some truth in this analysis, but we must beware as to the larger agenda it serves.
I certainly feel a certain pressure to choose and title stories that credibly compete for attention, however I don’t think this translates necessarily to polarization let alone rage. Instead it reflects the range of choices that people now have on offer.
We’re in the midst of a policy shift back as legacy media uses the power of the state to secure concessions from digital platforms if not literal subsidies. The danger with this approach is that it entrenches an obsolete model and creates strict and political definitions of what is news and what is not.
Rather than have a mature discussion on the myth of objectivity and the dangers of subjective media, we’re pretending that these emerging realities don’t exist, and that people will somehow revert to perceptions that are long gone.
Often I think that the growing rage we feel through this society is targeted towards institutions that are either blatantly dishonest or cluelessly blind. There is a growing frustration that our society is fraying and that the institutions that hold it together are not up for the job.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and if institutions fail, new ones will take their place. What they are and who they are not difficult questions to consider, especially when we reflect on why the current (media) regime is struggling.