The medium is the message…
As I sat in the library of Bridgewater State College on a cloudy, snow spitting day over thirty-five years ago reading Marshall McLuhan I could never have imagined how immensely profound his philosophy on media theory would be. The Canadian born philosopher’s 1960s studies of the effect of mass media on thought and behavior postulated that the form of a message be it print, visual or musical, determined the ways in which the message would be perceived. McLuhan argued that; modern electronic communications including radio, television, films and computers would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we experience the world.
A key event that helped shape McLuhan’s thinking was the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Leading up to the first-ever televised presidential debate held on September 26, 1960 which was broadcast on CBS to some 66 million people, Nixon had injured his knee winding up off the campaign trail and in the hospital for two weeks. He would loose twenty pounds by the time he tried to hit the trail running again looking weak, pale and exhausted.
Nixon campaigned right up to the afternoon of the debate held in Chicago, while Kennedy holed up in a hotel room in preparation the entire weekend before. When it came time to step onto the stage a refreshed, energetic and enchanting Kennedy, who understood the power of television, emerged.
According to Jordan Zakarin writing for Biography Kennedy was running as much on his telegenic image as he was on his enviable, seemingly picture-perfect family.
He goes on to tell us; Neither man accepted help from CBS’s makeup professional, but Kennedy brought his own team for touch-ups on a face that was already glowing from time out in the sun. Nixon, meanwhile, looked drained, had a terrible five-o-clock shadow, and was sweating profusely. His suit blended in with the dried paint on the set wall, making Nixon a literal shadow of a man on TV.
Viewers at home took notice, as did the people in the studio. Howard K. Smith, who hosted the event, said the difference between the two men’s presentation was stark.
It would cost Nixon the election, and he vowed never to do another televised debate again.
McLuhan died in 1980. He was already dead when I first read his theories. Fast forward to the future with the dawn of internet and I suspect McLuhan would be at once proud yet mortified by how right he was. The medium has gone from a barker standing on a soap box in the village square, to distributed print newspapers, to radio and television broadcasting each time dramatically expanding its’ audience. But, with the arrival of the internet the soap box has become a world stage. The medium has gone from one sided commentary with a limited audience to robust discussion fueled by incendiary comments by a potentially worldwide yet segmented audience all at the click of a mouse and the messaging has changed with it.
With the arrival of conservative leaning websites, like Breitbart News the populist anti-establishment messaging became more targeted. Founded in 2008, just four years after Facebook, the website that supported the tea-party and coined the alt-right movement would gain in popularity with more nationalist messaging after the sudden death of its’ founder Andrew Breitbart and the ascension of one Steve Bannon to Executive Chairman in 2012. It would catapult into mainstream attention when, thanks to Bannon, it backed the Republicans cult of personality in the 2016 election.
Meanwhile as reported by The Daily Dot in 2014, Facebook produced an obscure case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. According to an executive at the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster; “Where the ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t. Within that area people who saw the ads were 17% more likely to vote our way, than those who didn’t. Within that group, people who voted the way we wanted, cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.
Like most of our own realities, internet development has two eras, pre 2016 and post 2016. Further, there are two primary ways Facebook makes money. The first is thru advertising, specifically targeted advertising. The second is thru the monetization of all the data Facebook collects. In an effort to give people what they want Facebook’s algorithms are designed to predict what you’ll like, comment on or share and give you more of those stories through its’ News Feed in an effort to keep you engaged longer, thus satisfying advertisers.
According to Alexis Madrigal reporting for The Atlantic; The way Facebook determines the ranking of the News Feed is the probability that you’ll like, comment on, or share a story. Shares are worth more than comments, which are both worth more than likes, but in all cases, the more likely you are to interact with a post, the higher up it shows on your News Feed, with some two thousand kinds of data getting smelted in Facebook’s machine-learning system to make those predictions.
The downside to this is the creation of a “filter bubble” that ultimately blocks you from seeing the other side of issues, by personalizing the medium-ultimately distilling public discourse. “Black Ads”, (targeted ads that only a select segment receives), has made this even worse with the distribution of misinformation, conspiracy theories and flat out lies, that only one side of the aisle gets-thus solidifying their core, yet misguided beliefs. All of this has drastic implications for political campaigns and while some of it can be resolved through disclosure of who is buying the ad and who it is targeting, even Facebook was unaware of the magnitude of the problem as Russian bots and Russian purchased “black ads” trolled their site in 2016.
Now, according to Robinson Meyer-also writing for The Atlantic; In June2014 a researcher named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality quiz app for Facebook. It was similar to an app developed by Psychometrics Centre, a Cambridge University laboratory where Kogan worked. About 270,000 people installed the app on their Facebook account. But, as with any Facebook developer at the time, Kogan could access the data not only about the users, but their friends as well. And when Kogan’s app asked for the data it saved that information into a private data base. Kogan then provided that database containing information on some 50 million Facebook users to the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica who in turn used it to make 30 million “psychographic” profiles about voters. It then used that information to created targeted Facebook ads for the BREXIT “Leave” campaign, Ted Cruz and ultimately what became the Commander of Conspiracies.
This is where the waters get a little murky. Sitting on the board of Cambridge Analytica was a co-owner of Breitbart News, one Rebekah Mercer who-along with the help of Steve Bannon-convinced her father Robert Mercer to invest $15 million in the company.
Now, after an FCC investigation into Cambridge Analytica that ultimately shut the company down, and numerous congressional hearings involving Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, when Facebook finally decided to take action against “black ads”, disinformation and ultimately “fake news” Rebekah decided it was time to finance and develop a medium that wouldn’t shut out conservatives for posting hate speech, conspiracy theories or the like. Enter Parler, marketed on Fox News, OANN and Blaze TV as a non-biased, free speech social media platform focusing on protecting user’s rights.
The irony here is that it is unlikely, considering where the app is marketed and who is behind the creation of the “belief bubble” that it is anything but unbiased. However, according to developer John Matze, “There are no third-party libraries that share data on the site, where you can speak freely and express yourself openly without fear of being “de-platformed” for your views.” While launched in 2018, on the weekend of the election of 2020, it became the most downloaded app.
I for one am glad that the so-called “free speech” platform is a hit among conservatives, giving them a home on social media where they can; fuss and fume over the radical liberal agenda, share conspiracy theories, wallow in a sea of fake news laced with fear mongering lies while praying for the demise of their liberal enemies, and stoking the fear and anger they hope will lead to a civil war all in the comfy confines of their like-minded community.
Having neatly rounded themselves up in one place for the rest of us to observe, they can be assured we see and hear them, as does the rest of the world. Proving, once again, that the medium really is the message.