The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Two Minutes Hate

I’m so angry!

The world is full of bigoted idiots who are beyond comprehension!

How could they do this to those poor people WHAT WERE THEY THINKING IS THIS 1950?!!!!!

And so on.

Such, such are the joys of the internet news cycle, deliberately outraging humans for over ten weeks, or however long some of these ‘publications’ have been around. Articles and headlines designed to pick up and amplify any departure from an arbitrarily set orthodoxy, regardless of how trivial or irrelevant the information is, appear to be the order of the day. Patiently working through articles about racist police, bigoted workers, ignorant politicians and sexist everything-on-the-face-of-the-Earth is not a rewarding activity. We find articles that are retracted as fabrications, articles that are clearly not even tenuously related to their headlines and, the most common, articles that entirely lack context, balance or research. A moslem person complains about discrimination and the right runs headlines like: MOSLEMS DEMAND CHANGES TO LAWS, while over on the left we get something along the lines of: SHOCKING MISTREATMENT OF MOSLEM WORKERS THAT YOU WON’T BELIEVE. In the tabloids, of course. Respectable broadsheets don’t sully themselves with this sort of thing. They just report that the tabloid stories have been reported, and that such reporting is outrageous.

I’ve heard it argued that this kind of crap is healthy – cathartic and ‘good for the blood’, whatever the hell that means. I can certainly agree that it is a lot of fun. Outrage is such a liberating emotion. It allows us to shed any notion of a multipolar world, turning everything into clear, easily comprehensible, binary black and white. Good and bad. Left and right. It’s a revival of the simple days of childhood when everything came down to goodies and baddies and when a facility for effective argument and a talent for name-calling were one and the same thing. So, okay – it feels good. But so does most childish idiocy.

In the early days of internet news I found this sort of thing amusing, but now, like most childish things that people fail to outgrow, it’s sinister. Sure, on a pragmatic level we know that outrage is one of the very best ways to drive traffic to a news website, along with titillation, sickly feelgood sentiment and humour. So it’s understandable that so much of our news content contains the words ‘shocking’, ‘naked’, ‘perfect’ or ‘hilarious’. The emphases on sentiment, skin and comedy are probably pretty harmless beyond their trivialising effect, but the outrage card is worrying.

What constant promotion of outrage does is to divide the world into mutually incomprehensible, incommunicado warring camps. The world sharply divides into a binary system of orthodoxies, constantly at war both with each other and themselves. The destructive impact is double-edged. On the one hand, people from the other orthodoxy are known to never say anything that should not immediately be ridiculed. It’s possible, for instance, for a right wing commentator to be mercilessly lampooned by the left for saying that welfare benefits should be increased. The pointy-headed, shouty solution is simply to accuse them of not wanting enough of an increase. And then be outraged by that. Internally, loud and verbally violent attacks are levelled at people who dare to have shades and nuances of belief outside the absolute partisanism that seems to be required by the online environment. Which means that for some reason, being in favour of interventionist government and social welfare comes, for no reason, with an expectation of virulent anti-hunting sentiment, atheism and organic living. Which is ridiculous for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that none of these ‘extras’ has anything to do with leftist or rightist politics.

While I am aware that a big part of this phenomenon is driven by a multilateral experiment with user-driven content, I also think that the time has come to pronounce findings. Basically, the ‘user’ as a collective entity is a hapless, brainless idiot. Letting it decide what it wants to read is like putting a puppy in charge of its own feeding regime. It’s time to experiment instead with professionalism and purpose, where journalists choose and research material based on their duty to inform and editors check and publish accordingly.

 

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