Your opinions are no longer important. There’s a new type of cut-throat marketing mentality, one which exploits you regardless of your political stances or your emotional response. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, they used to say (and maybe they still do). But this is not just publicity, it’s identity. There’s a growing selection of websites, posturing – some more successfully than others – as news sites, with their eyes on just one prize. They want to polarize you to exploit the magnetic repulsion. They’re generating dirty energy just by making you angry.
Ad revenue is a numbers game, but this is not the telling element of a phenomenon which tilts the pinball machine that is the Internet. No, the real factor at play in crafting this new end-goal is search. Search relies heavily on one popularity factor – links to an article – and depends increasingly on another – social shares. The problem is that these metrics don’t, actually, measure popularity. For one, Twitter is a swirl of information where presentation trumps substance. More crucially, though, the amount an article is talked about does not correlate with the extent to which it is agreed with.
Hence, the rise of provocative journalism as a deliberate means of upsetting and causing fury. News and opinion are separate things. We can agree that neither should be dull, but the conflation of opinion and news has meant that we no longer treat blog rants with the disdain they deserve when posted on the website of a major news publication. On top of that, we have begun to rationalize that for news to be interesting, it must (or should) be controversial. These things play into the hands of those who play the pitchforks game.
They’d argue, of course, that they’re causing debate, in the same way that fringe political parties say or do something enormously offensive just to get people talking. It would be similarly demeaning if this were the case, but it’s not. Oftentimes, there’s no argument or dispute to be played out – just unmitigated, rightful fury at the content of an article. Usually, the writer will stray into some sort of bigotry to find this reaction; frequently, it’s homophobia or racism, but we’ve also seen it with a pathological hatred of prostitutes, disabled people and fat people.
We live in what is largely, theoretically, a free information market, where pertinent information floats to the top. But the reality is that nothing enters the public consciousness without one of a select handful of public figures or news outlets pushing the story. The rest – a category, incidentally, into which these provocative stories fall – is an undercurrent of gentle ripples, of which we absorb the themes and little else. We forget about the number of times we’ve read obvious lies; we just remember the faint insinuation that marginalized group X aren’t as nice as they might seem. And so on.
Calling people out on their ill-judged, reactionary and offensive rhetoric is part and parcel of free speech. But so is an awareness of the dynamics that govern our discourse. These sites have the right, certainly, to publish controversial opinion pieces. But in the absence of their diligence and, indeed, in the presence of their deliberate and conscious aggression and their willingness to offend, it falls to their target audience to find some sort of restraint in their readership. In short, if you see something wantonly offensive online, you should consider whether the best option is to rally against it, or just ignore it. Big companies don’t like being ignored.
The question is whether this strategy will last. Social signals as search ranking factors are at the very least in their youth. if not still in an incubator. If the web can develop an up-vote/down-vote intelligence, to understand the complexities of social sharing, we could begin to see unpopular articles penalized. That’s a whole new can of worms, man.