Click on this f**cking outrage (that is not at all what it seems).
This is not a thinkpiece about fake news.
Fake news is the worst. But I’d like to take a moment to look at one example of how our new and exciting “real” media model can skew a message. If you prefer to read a preachy thinkpiece about the state of digital news, you can scroll down, but I am going to lead with the substance and close with the fluff.
Let me get this out of the way first. I am biased in this example. You couldn’t unskew me with the jaws of life. But by the time I finish, you’ll agree with me.
My boss, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave an interview to the Today Show to promote The New Celebrity Apprentice.
<THE SOURCE MATERIAL>
<ALL SET? INITIATE ANALYSIS>
As far as an interview about The New Celebrity Apprentice that veers into a political discussion goes, it seemed nearly perfect — maybe even a message our fractured country could use. It wasn’t fueled by partisanship or divisiveness, but it also wasn’t without criticism or advice.
A few hours later, this was what Google Alerts delivered.
A non-partisan message came out at the other end of the filter as partisan bullying.
Overwhelmingly, people who discussed the actual interview on social media shared positive sentiment. Overwhelmingly, people who discussed articles about the interview shared negative sentiment.
I want to unpack one of these articles and look at how a narrative can be built. I’m choosing CNN, not because I’ve ever called it the “Clinton News Network,” but because on the rare occasions that I tune into cable news, I normally start there. It seems like a reasonable choice to me and millions of others.
In the interview, Governor Schwarzenegger said it is important that “we” stop whining. The headline, instead, treats the quote as an imperative: “(You) Stop whining.” But it was not a command; he included himself in the group.
A command to the “other” side creates divisions and quickly separates readers into two teams — outrage follows easily. A plea for unity puts all of us on the same team, and what is there to be mad about?
If you did not know that Governor Schwarzenegger announced he wasn’t voting for the President-elect (which is easier than you would think despite his announcement being among the most shared — very smart people like Robert DeNiro obviously missed it), you could read this headline and assume a Trump supporter is telling non-Trump supporters to get in line behind their new leader. That’s going to piss you off. You might even share it before you read, or watch.
First, the lede is no better than the headline. We still don’t know that this man who appears to be commanding us did not support the man he wants us to stop whining about.
More interestingly, if you watched or read Governor Schwarzenegger’s actual answer during the portion quoted here, you see two references to President Obama. He properly gives the President credit when he discusses the famous red and blue states quote, and then he points out that he felt the same way he feels now when Obama was elected — that when a campaign ends we must come back together. Removing both of the references to our Democratic President takes any bipartisanship out of the message.
Further, Governor Schwarzenegger’s reference to the letter from President Bush to President-elect Clinton doesn’t make the cut. In his full quote, the letter is a graceful story that also subtly indicates that this is how our history works—elections end and we root for the new President because we want the country to succeed. Removing the reference to the letter deletes the history out of the Governor’s message, and thus makes it something less normal. We don’t feel outrage toward things that are absolutely ordinary.
Taking those two bits of context out of the quote weaponizes the partisanship of many readers while at the same time rarifying a statement that’s been made after our elections for centuries.
And in the third paragraph, we are finally told Governor Schwarzenegger did not “originally back Trump.” But that’s vague enough to make me wonder, “Did he possibly back him when Kasich dropped out? Did he change his mind?” “Schwarzenegger, who did not back Trump” would also be a true statement — why add “originally” and muddy the waters?
On Friday, December 9, Kellyanne Conway apparently suggested that President-elect Trump may remain involved with The New Celebrity Apprentice. If you actually watch the video in the “related” article CNN links, I‘d disagree with their characterization that she “told CNN he would focus on it in his spare time.” CNN’s headline on that piece is “Conway on Trump ‘Apprentice’ role: He’ll do it in his spare time”, but her actual quote is “If this is one of the approved activities, then perhaps he will consider staying on.”
I’m not going down the rabbit hole of breaking down every story online today, but I do want to quickly note: in less than a week, a headline that (possibly mis)interpreted a quote by Kellyanne Conway was cited to offer context in a news story about this issue instead of her actual quote.
Since I don’t want to do this exercise to the entire internet, let’s just assume Conway, the President-elect’s campaign manager and frequent spokesperson, did actually say he would be involved, and in fact, focused, on the show (which is amusing in its own way, since the show, besides the finale, has been wrapped for months, something no one is hiding).
The President-elect himself said more recently he would have zero involvement.
If a journalist has the option between a quote from me or Governor Schwarzenegger, I know what they pick 100% of the time. Maybe a friendly journalist can explain this to me, but I can see no reason you would omit a statement from the source from Saturday, December 10 but run with an older statement from his spokesperson, especially when said statement happens to be directly contradicted by the more recent primary source quote.
In the ninth paragraph of this article that’s ostensibly a political piece, here are our first policy references. Thank you!
Again, don’t take my word for it: watch the video if you have seven minutes. Make up your own mind, and challenge me if you think I’m full of shit.
We can have a reasonable, respectful discussion that certain news outlets might describe as a barroom brawl.
But at least we’d get more attention?
Which leads me to…
<BEGIN PREACHY RANT>
Fake news has rightfully gained its trending status. It is an actual outrage in an age when manufactured outrage might as well be a global currency.
But I am worried real news may be a bigger problem.
Fake news has been around since the only way it spread was under threat that failing to share it with at least 10 friends would lead to failure, bankruptcy, and probably imminent death. It is a problem, but it also has a big spotlight shining on it right now.
The path of our real news industry could use some more light as we try to move forward in our country’s volatile digital climate.
The compact we make with our news organizations is that in return for their brave and tireless work finding information, we accept that enlightenment comes to us through a (hopefully gentle Tom Brokaw-like) filter.
The age of cable news changed our media distribution model by creating a 24 hour news cycle, which meant finding more information and more analysis (THE SUMMER OF SHARKS!) to keep viewers watching. The age of digital news has changed the distribution model in a much larger way: news consumers have transformed into news distributors, spreading the media’s work across their networks. It is a new and powerful dynamic, but instead of finding more information to share, media must optimize the way they present news so that consumers do their part and distribute it.
A click can mean more than an educated reader; a share can outrank an enlightened viewer; and outrage — outrage is the pinnacle, because an outraged consumer almost always clicks, but an outraged consumer always shares.
You can’t blame media outlets that suddenly find themselves in a world where a snappy headline writer may have more monetary value on a spreadsheet than an exhaustive investigative reporter. You do have to understand their challenge as you read stories, and especially headlines.
If a tree falls into an algorithm and never lands in my Facebook Newsfeed, did it really fall?
It’s a cutthroat world. Headlines are A/B tested, and it is survival of the most viral. 140 characters are almost never enough to convey a nuanced message. Whatever spreads from one consumer to the next becomes the narrative, and outrage has a huge head start on expertise (insider) and level-headed (boring) information and analysis.
Outrage is made to spread. When you’re outraged, you share it with your friends, family, and the kid who you remember had a pet tarantula in third grade but don’t remember the last time you talked.
There is probably an evolutionary reason for the virality of outrage, but I’m not a scientist, so I’ll use a simple, light example. Have you ever seen anyone scream at a sports bar or stadium full of strangers about a logical and sound referee decision?
Outrage encourages interaction and engagement, the fuel of our social networks. So outrage, too often, becomes the narrative — or at least skews the narrative.
There are amazing journalists and news teams that have avoided the narrative trap and doubled down on tough investigations to bring us information which we will never know how lucky we are to see. Like you, I don’t know the answer to solving this problem right now, and I’m not advocating boycotting any news agencies. Don’t do that. And definitely don’t scream profanity at a press pen like this is Gladiator.
My only prescription right now is for the rest of news consumers like me. It’s journalists’ responsibility to bring us information, and yes, to make money (remember, it is a job). In the digital age, consumers have a greater responsibility than ever before about what we share — our shares, likes, and retweets are the currency of the new digital age of journalism. Use them wisely.
First, before you tweet your anger at an article or share it on Facebook and wait to collect those red emoji faces, read beyond the headline. If you are rage-tweeting 1500 word Vox pieces 30 seconds after they were published, you’re probably hurting the narrative.
Second, if you’ve read the entire article and still want to furiously share it, try to find the source material. Check another source or two or ten to see how they’re reporting the same story. Be willing to check sources from the other side of the partisan line. If it’s a quote that enrages you, look for video to make sure it isn’t taken out of context. The least you can do before you pour gasoline on your social network is to make sure you have all of the information. Research. (Fortunately, this will also stop you from sharing fake news.)
Two steps. That’s it. Once you’ve done those two things, go nuts. Tweetstorm until the rage dies down.
In the digital era of journalism, we must understand that we are both consumers and distributors, and we hold a crucial responsibility in building the narrative.