Text vs. World Trumps

Decline of text in favour of videos means more Trumps and Berlusconis around the world. How can we save our democracies?

By Hossein Derakhshan

TEHRAN — Demagogues of the world, right or left, have got to love television. The linear, emotion-driven, passive, and image-centred medium has reduced politics to a reality-show. As Neil Postman showed in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” television has vastly downgraded the level of public discourse in most democracies. From US to Iran, from Venezuela to France, from Egypt to Russia, from Italy to Turkey, there is as much competition over viewers’ gaze as it is over their ballots. In many countries, gaze is automatically translated into votes.

Most alarmingly, the internet which was the last word-centred public space after the decline of print journalism, is capitulating to the television format. Social networks’ notion of the Stream, in Facebook, Twitter etc., is killing the web and thereby the word-based journalism. Facebook now is more like the future of television than how the web looked like for over two decades.

A recent research by Oxford University shows that watching online videos is on the rise in US and most parts of the world, except in northern Europe. Perhaps because they have a healthier work and life balance and also because their public education system still promotes reading and critical thinking.

Donald Trump’s mastery of television medium means he can turn every threat into opportunity, every waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant. He seems invincible in the age of television and video-dominated internet.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that soon videos will dominate its news feeds, for it “commands so much information in a much quicker period so actually the trend helps us digest more of the information in a quicker way,’ in the words of Nicola Mendelsohn. a vice president at Facebook.

This confirms my own speculation when I came out in of an Iranian prison in 2014 only to discover a whole different internet, where text is in decline and images, still or moving, on the rise. As a pioneer of blogging in Iran, what I realized after six years of isolation was that blogs, the best example of a decentralized public sphere, were dead. Facebook and Instagram had killed hyperlinks to maximize profits by keeping users inside and exposing them to more and more advertising. Thus they were killing the open web, which was founded on links. The internet had become more of an entertaining tool than an alternative space for public discussion. Worse than that, I noticed a strange unease among the youth to read anything over 140 characters.

Of course text will never die, but the ability to communicate through alphabet is now slowly becoming a privilege dedicated to a small elite in many societies. Quite like middle ages where only politicians and monks enjoyed the ability to communicate through alphabet. The rest are going to be the 21st century illiterates who can mainly communicate through images, videos – and of course, emojis.

The emerging illiterate class, hooked onto their old television sets or to their Facebook-centred mobile personal televisions (i.e. smart phones), is good news for demagogues. Look at how Donald Trump has mastered the formula of television to turn it into his free-of-charge public relations machine. His capture of the spirit of television has helped him transform all threats into opportunities, garbage into gold, and waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant.

Neil Postman perfectly explained why in his 1985 book. To him, the difference between 16th to 19th century public discourse in the US and now is that public opinion in the age of television is more a set of “emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.” He sees the entertaining nature of television as only producing disinformation, which “does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”

The recent EU referendum coverage on UK televisions has been a good example. While sticking to the UK media regulations on impartiality, some still believe that the numerous debates where both sides had equal time to argue for their cases, had not done justice to a complex and sensitive topic such as Brexit. Particularly now that some initial claims by the pro-Leave camp, such as the diversion of a £350m “sent to the EU every week” on the UK’s public health-care system, are denied by the very people who pledged it. There were already much debunking of such distortions and disinformation available on the web and in print. But talking about numbers and maths is always boring and useless on television. (A persian saying goes as “a stupid throws a stone down a well, but a hundred wise people cannot take it out.”)

Justin Webb, a former North America editor at the BBC, went as far to blame the existing impartiality rules. Last week he wrote in Radio Times: “One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counter-claim so that they could work out what was true.” He suggested that “media needs to look again at how it covers politics and the way it holds people to account in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union”, according to The Guardian.

The twilight of word-centred journalism, either in print or on the web, means oversimplified, emotional political discourse, uninformed political participation, and of course, more demagogy around the world.

It’s hard to say whether it was first the public who demanded more videos, or was it the media that, scared by the prospect of ad-blocking technologies, rushed toward videos, which drew more audiences, generated more advertising cash, and proven harder to block. Nonetheless, we face the grave consequences of such shift for the future of our democracies.

It is clear that for a healthy, representative democracy we need more text than videos, at least to resist self-serving demagogues. This is not an American or a British problem, this is a threat to our civilization.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save (Matter)” and the creator of “Link-age”, a collaborative art project to promote hyperlinks and open web.