In response to ProMarket‘s debate about the Twitter Files and the roles of social media and traditional media, Surya Gowda argues that a more unified narrative helps the government serve the public, while a polarized media environment undermines the government’s ability to carry out its programs effectively.
Stefano Feltri correctly observes that allowing Twitter to interfere with the content its users share means giving its employees the opportunity to uphold biased narratives and present them to the public as objective fact. He is wrong, however, to take this consequence as an indication of the digital platform’s failure rather than its success.
To be sure, the Twitter Files do show that the company’s staff were in the wrong when they diminished the reach of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story. But this does not mean any and all manipulation of the information environment that maintains the primacy of a particular worldview is immoral. In fact, the media landscape in its entirety functions best when it can produce unified narratives that critics often claim are biased toward the interests of political and economic elites. To see why, we must begin by asking ourselves this crucial question: what are the media for?
According to Feltri, the Fourth Estate’s duty is to act as a check on government and, presumably, powerful people and institutions generally. But, as Feltri acknowledges, the media also serve other important functions. Namely, they can create unifying narratives for the entire population and, thus, allow the government to carry out its programs effectively. How else would they allow the polity to “pursue some common ground on historically controversial issues such as climate change and vaccination policies”? Our information environment on the whole is dysfunctional today primarily because it does not carry out these latter functions, i.e., it does not uphold narratives that are loosely in line with the state’s interests and present them to the public as neutral.
While it may be hard to see the benefits of a more constrained information environment in times of social peace, we would be wise to remind ourselves that the false neutrality of media narratives saves us from public conflict over values and conceptions of reality. Their bias toward elite interests also prevents citizens from taking up arms against the state, oftentimes on the basis of completely false beliefs. Moreover, it is, in all likelihood, impossible for the media to communicate the perfect truth. As Feltri puts it, philosophers have been debating the nature of truth for ages without coming up with definite answers. If the truth is incredibly difficult or even impossible to attain, it would be best for the media to collectively give people an approximation of the truth that creates harmony and stability within the polity. Taking a closer look at what happens when the media fail to do this may help further illuminate why we should prefer an information environment that creates unified narratives.
While it’s true that one reason conspiracy theories are so widespread today is because public institutions have lost the people’s trust due to past malfeasance, we can also attribute their proliferation to the rise of the internet and social media and the resulting shift in the business model of traditional media companies. What we have now is an incredibly polarized media environment.
Not only can individuals spread disinformation incredibly easily on digital platforms, but companies now have economic incentives to divide up the public among numerous media “silos” and feed them various different misleading political narratives. Writer Matt Taibbi describes this trend in his 2019 book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, which styles itself as an update to economist Edward Herman and linguist Noam Chomsky’s well-known Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Herman and Chomsky argued in their 1988 work that the U.S. mass media of their day tended to converge on seemingly neutral narratives that, in reality, “manufactured consent” for the ill-advised ideas of the ruling class. But as Taibbi explained in an interview with University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales and Vanity Fair editor Bethany McLean on their podcast “Capitalisn’t,” the media no longer have economic incentives to create unifying myths for the whole country. Now, the media profit by creating myths that divide it.
I saw how this siloing process occurs first-hand when I worked at Newsmax Media, a company infamous for spreading former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated fraud claims during the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Soon after starting my job as a copy editor, I realized that much of the bias in breaking news journalism comes not from the dissemination of outright lies, but from media companies’ ability to capture particular demographics and feed them only those news stories that support, or at least do not challenge, their worldviews. This filtering mechanism combined with biased reporting are what allow the media to manufacture anger, outrage, and a wide range of alternate realities. In moving away from the information environment of the Manufacturing Consent era, we have achieved anything but clarity. Far from keeping the government accountable to the public, the media contribute to the government’s failure to operate on behalf of the public by producing events like the January 6 Capitol riot and widespread COVID denialism.
Mending our fractured discourse by supporting efforts to counter misinformation must be our top priority because the success of the media as institutions depends on their ability to be conducive to a healthy and harmonious polity. The political discourse we ultimately hope to arrive at would neither be perfectly neutral nor the best at calling the actions of the government into question. But it would allow us to proceed as a functioning society by piecing back reality for citizens. An information environment that unifies the public by producing narratives that are neutral in the same, perhaps imperfect, way that the state is would maintain a diversity of viewpoints—we would, of course, still have the freedom of the press—while also allowing the government to do its job of acting in the public interest.
Where do we draw the line between the steps we must take to create this unified discourse and the unethical actions of Twitter employees in the Hunter Biden laptop debacle? That is hard to say. But it may be the case that we can only expect better behavior out of the employees of digital platforms once we restore the false sense of neutrality provided by a unified national discourse. That is, creating an information environment that produces unified narratives may be the first step in getting social media content regulators to stop viewing themselves as political partisans, as they currently do in our hyper-polarized age, and start seeing themselves as genuinely neutral actors. Only once this is achieved will the anonymous Twitter employee see himself as having the polity’s best interests at heart and attempt to live up ever closer to his commitment to political neutrality.
Read about our disclosure policy here.