Factoid. Validation by dissemination

In their newsfeed, everyone can occasionally get videos of a bear swimming in a backyard pool, a husky dog teaching a human baby to crawl, or a bunch of school bullies harassing a classmate. The video format certifies that those videos are likely to be real. However, after they became a widely shared item of content, what is significant about them is not the value of the reality of their content, but the value in the dissemination of that content.

Contemporary news media and news critics have become obsessed with fact-checking or reality checking. However, it is not reality-matching that creates use-value of any disseminated news. It is not even selection (nobody preselected that bear, husky, or bullying video on social media). Social significance in media is not a function of reality reference or selection; it is a function of dissemination, of a scale of reach.

The newsworthy social significance of a husky teaching a baby, or even of the harassment in school, is not defined by the recording and reporting of the fact. Countless similar videos are recorded and reported but do not become significant news. The social significance of fact is vague until the fact somehow, in some mystic way, hits a threshold of dissemination.

At some point of dissemination, the news gains a certain momentum that defines its significance because of its dissemination. Its further spread is predetermined by the previous dissemination. Basically, this means that the dissemination of news is based on the significance it gains through dissemination. The dissemination actualizes the news’ potential significance.

According to assumed standards of journalism, news is disseminated because of its significance. But, in fact, news becomes significant because of its dissemination. The quality of newsworthiness rests on the quantity of newsworthiness. This postmodernist self-sublimation of news content accounts for the ability of the media to create a parallel reality, which somehow refers to the objective reality, but is mediated by a peculiar sort of significance gained through dissemination.

***

The validation of news by its dissemination instead of significance resembles a phenomenon referred to as a “factoid”. The term was introduced by Norman Mailer in Marilyn Monroe’s biography in 1973. According to Mailer, factoids are

…facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority. (It is possible, for example, that Richard Nixon has spoken in nothing but factoids during his public life.) (Mailer, 1973, p. 18.)

Important is the context in which Mailer introduced the term. By the time he wrote this book, there were two biographies of Monroe that had attempted to build a factual life story of the pop-idol. However, her life was so full of legends, speculations, and rumors – because of her vast media coverage, of course, – that it was hard to tell facts from speculations. Even the people surrounding Marilyn, who seemingly should have been able to testify with facts, instead told legends that would fit the image of her, already created in the public and media perception. She was a media being, a legend, and this, not the real life of the real woman, was what attracted the public to her. In that sense, her real life did not exist; the only life she lived was the life in the media reality, including secrets and omissions, which became facts (factoids) of the media reality, too.

Hence came a genre and approach picked up by Mailer himself. He did not end up producing a historiographic documentary. After digging into biographies, movies, and memoires about Monroe, he used his authorial self to speculate about her and her feelings and the circumstances surrounding her life and death. As his book contained a number of factual controversies, he explained a genre as a “species of novel ready to play by the rules of biography” (Dearborn, 1999, p. 316).

On another occasion, when answering the question of whether it was he who coined the word “factoid” to label “this sort of thing”, he said:

A factoid is a fact which has no existence on earth other than that what’s appeared in the newspaper and then gets repeated for ever after. So people walk around as if it is the blooming lively fact. There is all that about her too. She lived in a swamp of legends, lies and factoids. (Mailer, 1988, p. 194.)

***

Since then, the word ‘factoid’ has entered the lingo of the media and politics. Some new connotations have sometimes been used. Observers have marked out such meanings of factoid as a “quasi-fact”, “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact” and “a brief or trivial item of news or information”[1]; “a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data”; and “a brief interesting fact.”[2]

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, however, underlines that the suffix ‘-oid-’ traces back to the ancient Greek word eidos, meaning ‘appearance’ or ‘form’.[3] Morphologically, a factoid is something in the guise of a fact, instead of a fact.

Such was the intent of Mailer. In his definition, three aspects are important:

1) Factoids appear in the media and thanks to the media

2) A factoid is a fact of a media reality

3) A factoid is born out of its attraction; it is “a product to manipulate emotion”

Nothing in the definition of factoid refers to the ‘real’ reality, except for the root of the word itself. It is a fact created by the media, for the media, and validated as true by its dissemination, when ‘everyone knows it’. All the reality parameters of a factoid end up in media dissemination. Media distribution is the only reality of a factoid.

***

The factoid was an inevitable environmental outcome of the commodification of news.

Mailer highlighted the factoid’s appeal to emotions. Before a factoid is born out of dissemination, it is ‘wanted’. Describing how readily Marilyn collaborated “with any near reporter” and supplied them with stories of doubtful veracity, Mailer implied that she unconsciously responded to “the American obsession with factoids” (Mailer, 1973, p. 32). She gave what they wanted. Not just reporters – the public as well. Factoids appeared to satisfy a demand.

In a sense, the actress’s life in lies continued the life of her personage created in movies and by the media. As Mailer put it, “For an actor lives with the lie as it were truth. A false truth can offer more reality than the truth that was altered” (Mailer, 1973, p.194).

This maxim works well not only for acting but for the media, too. A factoid is better than a lie and better than reality.

The problem of the media constructing a false reality is not that a factoid is bad. The problem is that a factoid is good; too good for the audience to want truth instead. The truth is not as good as a factoid is.

Therefore, factoids are good for profit. Being an industrial capitalist enterprise, the media produce a reality that is supposed to be relevant but also has to be marketable. Even non-profit media do this, as they must compete for the public’s attention. Thus, the supply of reality in the media is impacted by the necessity to meet the demand.

The commodification of news made the emergence of factoids inevitable. A potentially interesting piece of news becomes tested when disseminated. In many iterations of this process, the media achieve an understanding of what news will become significant when distributed. The media know what snippets of reality are good enough to beget saleable factoids; this is basically the business and the profession of journalism. The media were supposed to make the important interesting, but, instead, they made the interesting important. Having learned to sell factoids, the media reversed public interest into public curiosity. Being pieces of news commodified in the media, factoids got detached from reality and obtained their own use-value that cannot be disproved by fact-checking or reality checking, because the reality of a factoid is its dissemination. The use-value of a factoid is defined by the relations of demand/supply, not by compliance to reality. In their swirling chicken-or-egg tango, readers want to read what they want, and the media define and supply it. Factoids are the news that is wanted. Journalism is the mastery of factoids.


Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

[1] Marsh, David. (2014, January 17). “A factoid is not a small fact. Fact.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids

[2] “‘Factoid’ doesn’t mean what you think it does.” NPR Ethics Handbook. http://ethics.npr.org/memos-from-memmott/factoid-doesnt-mean-what-you-think-it-does/

[3] Factoid. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/factoid



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Emancipation of Authorship, Future of journalism, Future of news, Media ecology, Post Truth Fake News, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news

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