Editor’s note: Martin Moore book, Democracy Hacked, shows us how democracies across the world are mutating and during the election cycles, how various governments and elites are using social media as the new political battlefield. Moore, who is the director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, and a Senior Research Fellow in the Policy Institute at King’s College London, observes in his book that Facebook, Google, and Twitter – where political dialogues now takes place – have lost control of how to handle it, and are struggling to claw back.
Here is the excerpt from the book.
By 2018, across various democracies, you could point to whole cities or regions where there were ‘news deserts’: places where few if any, dedicated reporters regularly ventured. In the US, as Philip Napoli and his colleagues at Rutgers University discovered, these often correlated with areas that were poorer or more remote. Newark, a city of 300,000 in New Jersey, in 2015 had less than a tenth of the local news sources dedicated to the 19,000 residents of wealthier Morristown, twenty miles away.
In Britain in 2015, over half of the parliamentary constituencies – 330 out of 650 – were not covered by a dedicated daily local newspaper. Whole areas, such as the eastern part of Northamptonshire, had no local daily paper and no regular local digital news services. Even large cities had lost their dedicated news outlets. At the beginning of October 2017, the Makedonia newspaper in Thessaloniki, Greece, closed down. Its competitor, Aggelioforos, had already shut in 2015, meaning that by 2018 Greece’s second largest city had no newspaper of any significant size dedicated to reporting it.
Into the reporting vacuum stepped public authorities and PR professionals. By 2015 in the UK, there were about the same number of communications staff at public authorities as there were local journalists. Local councils employed 3,400 communications staff; the police employed over 775; and central government 1,500.73. This did not include communications staff at other authorities, hospitals, schools or commercial organizations. The dominance of communications professionals over journalists had become even more pronounced in the US. In The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols found that the number of people employed in public relations in the US doubled between 1980 and 2008, while the number of journalists dropped by a quarter, making almost four PR people for every journalist.
Social media accelerated this process. “In the shift from old to new media,” the Washington Post reported in 2015, “the White House has essentially become its own media production company,” posting more than 400 videos to YouTube and 275 infographics in the first half of the year alone. These official reports were, however well-intentioned, essentially propaganda. Worse, for the most part, they were dull propaganda. Public authorities are not wont to criticize themselves. When they report on their own performance their reports are, at best, plainly factual, and at worst, gnomic and misleading. This is more often a consequence of what they leave out rather than what they put in. Embarrassing details are quietly overlooked; internal arguments are airbrushed from minutes; resignations go unremarked upon. For the general public these releases, deprived of context and interpretation, and presented with as much flair as your average company annual report, might as well be published in ancient Greek.
To have a chance of being noticed, especially in the hubbub of social media chatter, political communication needs personality. This is especially the case for digital media natives, who look for online cues as to what is noteworthy and worth paying attention to.
In practice, this means looking at what other people – especially opinion formers – say and do. When academics from Gothenburg University studied the news habits of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds in Sweden, they were struck by the importance of opinion leaders for how they navigated news. The opinion leaders, they wrote, “are perceived [by young people] as central or even crucial to the news-gathering process”. In politics on Twitter, those gaining the most attention – and having the greatest influence –were those making controversial claims, decrying the status quo, hurling personal insults and picking fights. Enter Donald Trump, stage right.
Trump’s decision to join Twitter, in March 2009, was not politically motivated. Trump saw it as a way to promote his new book, Think Big. For the first couple of years, as journalists Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts chart in their analysis of Trump’s tweets, the posts were about commercial self-promotion. It was only after mulling another presidential run in 2011 that he found his distinctive political voice. Out came the controversial claims (“Made in America?” he tweeted on 18 November 2011. “@BarackObama called his ‘birthplace’ Hawaii ‘here in Asia’ ”) along with frequent tweets disparaging Washington politics inside the beltway: “It’s easy to see why Americans are sick of career politicians and both parties.”
These were coupled with personal insults aimed at the president – “@BarackObama played golf yesterday. Now he heads off to a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Nice work ethic” – and taunts aimed at media commentators and public figures: “Bob Beckel, a commentator for FOX is bad for the @FoxNews brand: @BobBeckel is close to incompetent.”
Donald Trump was not the only politician to benefit from the transformation in the public’s news consumption habits. Like him, India’s Narendra Modi used Twitter to bypass mainstream media and speak directly to the people, presenting himself as the voice of a silent majority. “If you want to listen to Modi,” one analyst of his tweets wrote in 2015, “you go to his social media feed – whether you are a citizen, a print reporter or a television channel.”
The following excerpt has been published with permission from Imprint Context. Written by Martin Moore, Democracy Hacked costs Rs 699 (hardcover).