Mediarite over Russia, or Sick of the Internet

Who informed you about the meteorite and what did you say about the meteorite yourself? Why the free flow of information irritates the Russian blogosphere.

Alexey Sinelnikov, my friend and a journalist, was on duty as an executive editor at my own imaginary The Daily Me on the day when the meteorite hit the city of Chelyabinsk. A few minutes after the blast he posted on Facebook: “What’s up in Chelyabinsk? A friend just called, said there was a flash followed by a mighty explosion, and a block of flats was damaged. Windows are covered with some white stuff. Car alarms going crazy. Does anybody know anything?”
The first few of Sinelnikov’s posts got replies with a sizable number of video, photo and text reports. They came not only from The Daily Me reporters, but also from amateur experts who first reported that the meteorite was associated with an asteroid expected by NASA but later retracted that statement. The amateur media observers joined in; they posted summaries of whatever information about the meteorite appeared in news agencies in chronological order. A funny fact: some reporter from Kommersant daily was posting requests for any witness videos across all public feeds. Similarly, dashcam videos gone viral full of strong language. These videos spread notoriously around the world, and I was also informed about that fact via my copy The Daily Me later.
As a result of all this, I didn’t even need to look up the websites of the news agencies or any mass media agencies. The Viral Editor, a tool for collective editing, an editor-in-chief for my own The Daily Me, provided me with as many recent evidence reports and photos or videos as I needed right from the news feeds. I myself posted a few comments saying there’s too much of bad language coming with the dashcam videos; then I read eyewitness accounts and idle comments of some “comet experts.” By the power of my old habit, I took a look only at the RBC agency’s website just to see their slow progress. And I looked up the website of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, too; and by the way, I found that the Ministry responded to the event fairly quickly (for a governmental institution), although the message itself was quite funny saying something like “due to the destruction of the window panes.” I went on to add this info to the Viral Editor acting practically like a Viral Editor’s eager intern reporter, and that’s because the media usage nowadays is not only about the consumption, but also about the contribution.

daily show


See: How I Meteored Your Motherland. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. February 19, 2013

Comments were piling on along with the news; some said that the conservative politician Zhirinovsky and the democratic journalist Latynina talked about the military origin of the meteorite and demanded an investigation to find its “tail number,” although their opinions differed in that Zhirinovsky expected to find it in Latin script, while Latynina was sure it would be in Cyrillic. (There was also a theory around Decepticons encoding symbols.) All in all, the bulk of these accounts gave me an entire range of all possible interpretations and theories including the political satire, something that the official media outlets would either not dare publish or perhaps get on to it no sooner than the next day. However, I don’t even know if they ever did get to do it because I never got to use their news portals.
If people ever looked up the mainstream media it was only to wonder about how they’re doing covering the story, but not in order the get the news on the story. What interests the public now is how quickly the official media will confirm what is already obvious, what will they miss or mess up this time.
And even the validation by the mainstream media is somehow not what it was before. It became absurd: the regular media covered the occurrence in Chelyabinsk by referencing Internet witness accounts. In other words, they reacted to events happening on the Internet rather than in Chelyabinsk. They have to chase the tail of someone who has already scooped the news and posted it first. That is a new kind of humsterization of journalism (the term “humsterization” was coined by Dean Starkman in his critics on journalists’ fight for the readers’ turnover: “The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is a copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics”. Columbia Journalism Review, 2010)

It’s possible that it was my friend, journalist Alexey Sinelnikov who launched the meteorite frenzy virus on the Russian, or, possibly, even on the Global Web.
One could say that I have a pretty good deal on the news supply: my news and friends’ feeds are set up well, and I have many journalist contacts in The Daily Me because I am a collaborating media analyst. In other words, the important message is still fed to me by the professionals. Well, it would probably be more precise to say “by them, too.” They also contribute to the Viral Editor, and they actually do so more often than to their employing media agency. The best journalists report to the Viral Editor as much as they do to their news outlets, only with more gusto and enthusiasm.
The trend of journalists leaking the professional content to the Internet only confirms that there is no shortage of sources on the world wide web. There is no shortage of anything on it, for that matter. Among the contributors of the Internet, there are as many narrators, witnesses and experts as the entire mankind has to offer. And therefore, the number of Internet contributors cannot but exceed the number of professional journalists who are simply a subset of this multitude.
The best contributors make it to the top list of the re-posted posts, which is logical. Do the professional journalists ever make it on this list? Yes, why not, journalists have the appropriate skills and acumen. It is the Internet, the natural selection is administered here not by banning the least popular/interesting from publication, but by voting for the best ones after publication. The Viral Editor does not care whether you are a journalist or a meteorologist, all it cares about is if you make it interesting and relevant to the public demand.
The nature of the Viral Editor is that the distance from the ground zero to me as the user, of course, plays some role, but all the same, it can be a matter of a few minutes if the virus is strong. The meteorite story was a very strong virus. The epidemic spread in an instant. Whether it was started by Alexey Sinelnikov or maybe there were a few sources, the important thing is that the launch of the virus in such cases is inevitable, regardless of whether journalists will participate or not. When a critical mass is reached, the probable becomes inevitable. So it does not matter whether you have an “infected” journalist in the first circle of your contacts, you will get the news in any case if it’s worth it. Whether it will be delivered faster than by the mainstream media or not is also not so important anymore. The important thing is that the mainstream media now have an alternative.
When sanctioned sources (the authorities or media) are so clearly behind in communicating or providing commentary on the news, because they themselves know very little and – more importantly – are scared to take the responsibility, it is the Viral Editor which is not afraid of taking responsibility (and is in fact not taking it) that takes on this role.
The emancipation of authorship has this side effect: the audience itself becomes the author. The very same people, the peers with identical, equal statuses not only receive the socially significant information, but produce it. Informational peer-sourcing has gone beyond the limits of the communal sphere and reached the dimensions of public affairs.
But how can I trust someone who has the same status as me? How can I find out if they are telling the truth or not?

As I experienced it, the event of planetary significance was fully covered without the participation of mainstream media. After the fall of Tunguska meteorite (which happened one hundred years ago), it is the first time when the media organizations were not in fact needed for the coverage of such an event.
However, frankly speaking, it is not the first case. A similar story took place in December 2011 at the peak of the Moscow post-election protests. On the 4th and 5th December, the street protests still seemed to be minor; then there was a crisis, and on the 10th December they turned into a huge rally. The mainstream media, accustomed to following the agenda of the authorities, did not have the time to readjust and did not know how to cover these street protests. The ordinary people themselves had more responsive and adjusting media platforms at hand (i.e., the Internet).
Over the period from 4th to 10th December 2011, the newspapers in Russia practically ceased to exist. That is, they were published and circulated physically, but they didn’t report anything. The reality was unrolling in a totally different way. For the first time in two hundred years, the revolutionary events in Russia was unfolding without newspapers at all. That was the first shot across the bow. (The similar things, I have heard, occurred with the American media when the Occupy Wall Street movement reached its peak. At that moment, the guerilla media beat the professional media in terms of fast reporting, too.)
It is a paradox that the professional media fail to deliver exactly at the times when they should be in top demand, according to their own system of values. However, this demand is intercepted by another type of media, which is faster, prompter, more flexible, and has a huge staff everywhere. So the society is gradually getting accustomed to living without the good old mainstream media.
For now, we are still talking about a small part of society, the most digitized one. And even for this part of society, the old habit goes away very painfully.

It would seem that people should have been thanking the Internet for taking on the role of the mainstream media which turned incapable of providing the information on time. But that was not the case. People were irritated by both the abundance and the discrepancies in the information they were receiving about the Chelyabinsk meteorite. They would have preferred to get their information from a single source,  and they would have preferred it to be understandable, unambiguous, verified and validated by the authorized organizations.
In the collective mind, a departure from the mainstream media is accompanied by the withdrawal symptoms and culture shock. Every day, people turn for information to their own The Daily Me, quite skillfully sieve through it and use for guidance, however, they deny it the credit of trust.
Even on the Internet of itself, there is a strong belief that the Internet has given green light to liars and mercenary provocateurs i.e. the worst of the worst. In fact, it is not true, since the kind of a filtering mechanism innate to the Internet is the mechanism that it lets in those people who write, read, and are socially involved. A negative self-assessment of the digital population is a very curious phenomenon.

The abundance of the “unauthorized” information about the meteorite caused obvious irritation in the Russian blogosphere. While everyone is free to credit weird witness accounts and crazy theories with any level of trust, be it even zero, the presence itself of such witness accounts and theories only makes the critics of the Internet firmer in their opinion that the Internet is a source of slander and that everything published on the Internet is rubbish.
The negative evaluation of digital information by its own participants is an extremely bizarre phenomenon. In essence, it represents a collective lack of trust in the collective self.
The critics of the Internet do not trust the collective self because, in the old world paradigm, the information source was not equal to the public in terms of its status. Mainstream media used to be a separate entity a level up over the public, entrusted with an imaginary sanction from the society to feed it important information in the interests of the society (or, well, at least the authorities and/or the establishment circles).
In this paradigm, an individual could not be the source of reliable publishable information. Whoever tried to deliver their personal opinion to a large audience immediately faced obstruction. So it’s not so much about differences in political views as about the resistance of the old media paradigm.
Proponents of the “Bad Internet” theory often do not see the logical trap they fall into. Any example of a lie, suggestive or idiotic publications would be actually a good example of the well-functioning immune system. Every lie pointed out to be a lie means that the truth has been revealed. By saying that the Internet does nothing but lies, these people deny their own ability to recognize manipulations and false information. In fact, they do recognize them, but believe that the others will unavoidably fail to.  They say it would be good to have the sources of information regulated by some proper sanction or status if not by censorship.

The idea is, by the way, not new. In Canada, an official proposed to license the professional journalists in order to be able to tell them from amateur bloggers and to give a signal to the society about who they may trust “right away”, and who probably not so fast. Buy vodka at a licensed store to avoid buying fakes. Yes, it is all mainly about comfort.
There are similar discussions going on in the USA around the Free Flow of Information Act. This act, which has already been presented to the Senate twice over the past five years, proposes, among other things, that journalists be given the right to refuse to reveal their sources in court. In essence, this is about special privilege for the journalists under the auspices of the concept of freedom of speech. What’s more, the act proposes defining a journalist as someone who works for the media organization.
Some fear that the act’s meaning will be turned inside out and that it will actually mean that the First Amendment only applies to media employees, while freedom of speech will effectively be limited for everyone else. This discussion became particularly acute after the exposing statements made by the NSA former employee Edward Snowden.
“A proposed ‘shield law’ for journalists is intended to protect them from government pressure and intervention. But what it really does is allow the government to define who gets to be a journalist and who doesn’t. And that’s dangerous,” writes Mathew Ingram. In his view, the proposed law innovation restricts the scope of the First Amendment and becomes “…a way for the government to legally regulate the press by including those it agrees with and excluding those it doesn’t agree with.”

It is all about the fact that there is no habit in the public mind that the source of information can be free from control and that any private person can be a source of it. On the contrary, over the previous 6,000 years of the written civilization, a strong habit has developed in the public perception that everything published has gone through a selection process, otherwise, it would not have been allowed to be published. The Internet emancipated authorship and everything gets published without undergoing prior selection. More precisely, the selection does not take place at the input point, but at the output point i.e. when a reader reads the publications of the Internet and processes them in their brain. It means that the readers actually have to take responsibility for the accuracy of the information received from someone else upon themselves. Dan Gilmore, author We the Media, says (as recounted by Mathew Ingram) “you are your own gatekeeper, and you now get to decide whom you trust for information.” It is unusual. Amid these fears, the mainstream media all of a sudden are credited with such qualities as “responsibility,” “veracity” and “reliability.” Journalists have never before heard so much praise.
Customization of the media feed by means of personal bookmarks, the Viral Editor and algorithms of relevance can make a real mess of things in the media business, and also both in the mass consciousness and in social life. The most acute problem is how can the integration, cohesion and general social gravity be provided if the conglomerate media space is being ripped into zillions of atomized interests? That’s what the good old mainstream media was responsible for – and not for just providing the information as such. Excessive personalization destroys social cohesion.
Possibly, new trustworthy centers of social gravity might grow within the digital environment, which over time will be given the new public sanction to serve as integrators and general guidelines. And then people will cease to be irritated by the flow of excessive and discordant information about a meteorite or whatever.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Categories: Emancipation of Authorship, Future of journalism, Media ecology, Viral Editor

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