Is Online Greed Shutting Down Democracy?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of profit

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

The day the internet gave everyone a platform and democratized self-expression should have been cause for celebration. But instead of using cyberspace to incubate a better society and nurture ideas across borders, we buried common sense. The lure of instant lucre turned us into unstoppable misery mongers foaming at the mouth in pursuit of compensation for getting our “big feels” hurt by very bad other people and by life in general.

This, we are told by those who practice it, is called “confessional writing”, a discipline that seems to involve going from the universal to the personal, performing and staging victimhood for maximum financial returns to the insistent wails of “woe is me”. Traditional mainstream media may have invented sensationalism — aka yellow journalism — to boost circulation before it took over the internet but even Gawker was run by people with some standards and ethics, for those who remember its heyday and also its demise.

As grabby fingers attempt to outpace the mind by typing at breakneck speed in the hope of going viral, human empathy recedes a little more every day. Jaw-dropping copy with lurid headlines does not foster compassion or empathy, it just makes us a little more inured to human suffering.

Soon, pity becomes our default reaction and even tall tales encouraging schadenfreude eventually fall flat when they become caricatures of humanness. Vulnerability doesn’t take kindly to being blown out of proportion under the guise of authenticity, honesty, or whatever the latest personal branding buzzword might be.

Much to the chagrin of those who have turned airing their dirty laundry into a career, you cannot make people relate to something that sounds fabricated, even when it allegedly contains some vague element of truth.

Black mold has gone digital, exposing us all to moral rot but instead of taking a stand against it, we’re following suit and attempting to parlay yesterday’s humiliation into today’s pay check.

Who cares if it is distasteful and perpetuates stigma and echo chambers as long as our readership and bottom line grow? When intimate writing designed to foster our shared understanding of what it means to be a human in the world devolved into barefaced voyeurism, it began exhausting our hearts and minds with constant overstimulation.

And now fatigue is setting in as we’re losing the willingness to engage with one another across political, gender, racial, and social divides. Because servicing echo chambers by pitching one group of humans against another or pointing the finger has yielded obscene ROI for some practitioners, those who are still hungry and can type all want a piece of the online fame and fortune pie.

Forget about leading readers to reflection or encourage critical thinking and conversation, forget about editorial ethics, and forget about accountability. Those remain the preserve of people with media experience and expertise even though those principles are easy to pick up and apply with a modicum of curiosity, humility, and integrity. We could take social dialogue further through quality writing but are we even interested in the common good anymore?

Toiling in the trenches of the American attention wars is dirty business and the outpouring of misplaced emoting following the accidental death of Kobe Bryant is the latest example. Many are those who had nothing of import to say but couldn’t help themselves from riding the coat tails of other people’s grief because they spotted a timely opportunity to make bank.

Instead of asking themselves whether they were the best person to tell the story, they forcibly inserted themselves into the conversation and monopolized it. Loath to be ignored, they got loud. Louder. Instead of listening, they interrupted, took over, and tapped into the lowest common denominator: outrage, with zero consideration for the work carried out by justice.

In short, it was another instance of trial by social media without any thought for the deceased family’s or indeed those who looked up to him and were grieving. As befits shoddy internet typing from folks whose livelihood is predicated on harboring an opinion about everything, there was no nuance, no question marks, and no heart.

And yet, how many of us turned a blind eye to White folks lining up for digital reparations for sexual assault by vilifying a Black athlete as they “MeTooed” for clicks and bucks?

Outrage is a unifying force because it forces people to pay attention, as illustrated by one Donald J. Trump and his legendary twitter temper tantrums. Thankfully, tweets have a character limit and he doesn’t blog otherwise our collective reality would be a little more askew than it already is. Then again, the internet was already a hotbed of incivility before he came along and we were already proficient in the art of chasing catastrophes so we could hijack them for profit.

“Because I have it worse than you,” we say in unison, goading one another into validating our respective victim statuses in an equal opportunity index finger measuring contest as we point to the omnipresent other, apoplectic with rage. We’re all media now, behaving like celebrities minus the claim to fame or the gossip potential.

Day in, day out, people insulated by privilege shut down public discourse because they can, without bothering to do their due diligence first. Solidarity — when solidarity there is, something our capitalistic and individualistic culture doesn’t exactly encourage — often leads many to take sides, basing their decision on emotion rather than reason. Emotion, the internet quickly learned, is where the money is; tap into outrage, doubt, or fear and parlay it into power, cash, or both. And the 45th POTUS has the formula down pat, as do all other populists around the world.

“You spoke?! I’m offended and I’m going to tell the world what a bad person you are,” is of one of the many variations on the news beat that is self-reporting, delivered in tone-deaf fashion by echo chamber cave dwellers with a lexicon so limited they make onomatopoeias sound eloquent.

But aping Trump’s show-stopping internet ways will never command the attention he gets as it comes with the job. Rather, it’s likely to get democracy fired and the Constitution shredded into dollar bills.

So how can we learn to listen again? And how can we learn to take in information with discernment before processing it through a critical lens?

Relying on social media and the questionable editorial practice of stuffing one’s copy with bias confirmation backlinks doesn’t make us well-informed but traps us into our respective prejudices. To exit the cave and see the light, we need writing that fosters curiosity instead of propaganda bullying dissenters out of existence otherwise language will quietly go extinct, consigning all meaning to history.

The longer we focus on those making the most noise, the longer we tune in and allow our brains to tune out, the harder it will be to regain our ability to interact intellectually.

The internet has given us all an unprecedented chance to join forces and help define the message that will take society forward.

But unless we opt in, we will be left out.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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