Watching the recent White House Correspondents dinner in Washington reminded me of a chapter in my Building a Win-Win World (1996, now an e-book), where I identified the rise of “mediocracies” and their “attention economies” as part of humanity’s Information Age. These political/economic trends emerged in full view, partly as a result of Russian disinformation and “fake news”, in the US 2016 election. Media in all forms now dominate over political parties, finance, corporations, academia, science, government agencies and civic organizations. Attention is their valuable resource as competition moves to capturing eyeballs.
Whatever the official form of government: democracies, republics, federations, autocracies, kleptocracies or dictatorships —all societies are now “mediocracies”.
Even when politicians try to shut down media outlets, imprison journalists, assassinate them and their editors —information has become borderless. WikiLeaks, the Panama Papers, countless whistleblowers leaking on their blogs, in encrypted apps spread their stories worldwide on the internet. Politicians’ donors are exposed, corporations and financiers fear “reputation risks” affecting stock prices. US President Trump uses media tactics to bully companies even while he vilifies the media as “enemy of the people” threatening libel suits and other curbs on the First Amendment. Watchdog media, Transparency International, Global Witness, Greenpeace, and others expose wrongdoing of money-launderers, Volkswagen’s cheating on diesel emissions while United Airlines violent ejection of a passenger went viral on YouTube…. all affecting stock prices. Politicians now follow Trump’s use of tweets to bypass mainstream media.
Social media platforms used to claim they were only “common carriers” and had no responsibility to edit or verify postings by their users. This claim became threadbare as ISIS took to these platforms to recruit jihadis. Violent and hate speech proliferated and the algorithms used by these giants, Google, Facebook, Twitter exacerbated biases encoded in their programs. After Russia’s disinformation campaign which affected the 2016 US election, top executives of these new media giants had to take responsibility for the content posted by their billions of users and began efforts to filter malicious trolling, fake news, hate speech and the increasing use of “bots” (robots instead of people) on their platforms.
The public debate on which media can be trusted further divided the public and the focus on finding the truth became more contentious. This was on show at the White House Correspondents dinner, boycotted by Trump and nativist Breitbart and its key strategists now within the White House. Media self-examination predominated the dinner, of Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the traditional mainstream media, The Washington Post, New York Times, the New Yorker, The Atlantic and others. Meanwhile Trump created a media show by pitting his Pennsylvania rally in the same time slot, and lampooning the Washington event as “the elitist fake news media”. The Washington speakers fell into Trump’s trap by proclaiming that they were not “fake news” …a fundamental communications error which gave more legitimacy to these slurs.
Realization is growing that mass media are the most powerful education tool worldwide , as we see much good in informing the public and empowering democratic governance. Indeed, US founder Thomas Jefferson warned the young country that widespread suffrage required informing the consent of the governed. Yet, as young dissidents of the “Arab Spring” soon learned, the police used the same social media of the uprisings to crack down, jail or execute their leaders. Often these uprisings led to installing autocratic leaders in many countries. Indeed, the rise of mediocracies poses complex dilemmas in our global Information Age.
Big data, artificial intelligence and algorithms often based on biased assumptions employ our personal information. Media firms sell it to advertisers and insurance companies, manipulate our behavior, our voting patterns and buying habits. Polls attest to the importance people attach to privacy, yet these assaults continue as described by constitutional lawyer, Jon Mills in “Privacy in the New Media Age (2015)” and in our TV shows at www.ethicalmarkets.tv. In my “The Idiocy Of Things Requires An Information Habeas Corpus”, I covered the profit-driven overkill of the so-called Internet of Things( IoT) a marketing slogan covering the widespread move to connect every device from cars and locks to baby monitors, refrigerators and crockpots to the internet.
All societies use information, media and propaganda in governing. Many elites own or control media outlets to engineer consent. In market -oriented democracies, the content of news, programming and opinion is influenced and often steered by corporate advertising, a $570 billion global industry. Politicians’ ads, especially in the USA, drive voter choices, often with blatant misinformation—paid by political action groups and special interests with huge war chests, allowed by the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 decision. These ads, in turn, provide huge revenues to commercial broadcasters, even as they use the public’s airwaves. Driven by ratings and the quest for eyeballs, US broadcasters gave Trump some $2 billion of free airtime in 2016. Consolidation of media empires continues worldwide.
When criticized by civic groups for misinformation or violent, degrading content most media and advertising executives cite “freedom of speech”. Journalists must be free and fearless in following public issues and political figures, exposing wrongdoing and abuse of power. Many journalist die every year in their search for the truth, in covering conflicts, wars, money-laundering and malfeasance by the powerful.
Clearly, the issues of mediocracies and their attention-driven economies now merit much closer scrutiny and wider public debate. My concerns over ethical investing and corporate responsibility in my books over the years fell largely on deaf ears. So in 2004, I founded my internet -based global media company, Ethical Markets Media. Our mission is to reform markets (which cannot operate without trust) and correct metrics while helping accelerate the global shift from early fossil-fueled industrialization to the cleaner, healthier, more inclusive, knowledge-richer green economies now mandated by the United Nations 195 countries in 2015. I also founded the EthicMark® Awards for Advertising that Uplifts the Human Spirit and Societies, since raising the ethical bar on advertising is the point of the spear for reforming mass media, as I described in an interview in FORBES: “Reforming Markets, Metrics and Media”. See all our winning ad campaigns at www.ethicmark.org, most from around the world.