In general, we think of digital media as digitally encoded and machine-readable data that has been created, viewed, distributed, modified, listened to, and preserved on some sort of electronic device. At its base, the term digital means an electronic signal expressed as a series of digits: 0 + 1. It is electricity switched “on” and “off”, creating Ada Lovelace’s electronic software. These (+) and (-) represented an electronic-physical quantity such as voltage or magnetic polarization. They created data and digital media.
We see data as a series of digits. Meanwhile, media refers to methods of broadcasting or communicating information. Together – digital media – means digitized information broadcast to us through a screen. This can include text, audio, video, and graphics transmitted over the internet. Digital media platforms, such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Twitch accounted for viewership rates of 27.9 billion hours in 2020.
According to a recent report, one of the most interesting changes that occurred in the last few years in the area of digital media is that the rift between the “best” – quality media like the New York Times, etc. – and the “rest” (for example, tabloid newspapers) has grown.
In other words, the dumb is becoming dumber. Meanwhile, quality journalism has maintained its standards. Yet, at the same time and not unconnected to the Covid-19 pandemic and despite a rise in right-wing conspiracy fantasies, most people still trust the news. Trust has actually increased in recent months.
In this regard, Finland, for example, is not only the country with the highest happiness ranking, but also remains the country with the highest level of overall trust in the media (65%). Meanwhile, the USA remains at the lower end – it has one of the lowest levels of trusting the news (29%).
Yet, despite the rapid advances of digital news and online platforms, television news continues to perform strongly. TV remains the world’s foremost news medium. At the same time, printed newspapers have seen a further and rather severe deterioration almost everywhere. The looming end of the newspaper was accelerated even further as the Covid-19 pandemic, with induced lockdowns, impacted greatly on the physical distribution of printed newspapers. This fast-tracked the shift towards online subscriptions and a digital future.
Perhaps less because of the Covid-19 pandemic but more because of the departure of Donald Trump and the election of a new, vastly more sensible – but also a bit more boring – new president: Joe Biden, overall interest in news has fallen sharply in the United States. The drop in interest in the news was the sharpest among right-wing groups: their man had lost.
While 74% of all Americans say they still prefer news that reflects a range of different – non-partisan – views, the way Americans get their news increasingly takes place via so-called social media run by powerful online platform media corporations.
Perhaps not totally unconnected to the stratospheric rise of social media, there remain recognizable global trepidations about false, misleading information, and even disinformation. Misinformation and disinformation worries have edged higher during the year 2021 compared to previous years – ranging from, for example, 82% in Brazil to just 37% in Germany. Unsurprisingly, Facebook remains the main channel for spreading false information almost everywhere. Yet, messaging apps like Facebook-owned WhatsApp as well as Telegram are rising fast in the sphere of misinformation and disinformation.
At the same time, the way we access digital news is constantly moving away from desktop computers and laptops and towards smartphones. In some countries as many as 73% accessed the news via phone in 2021. This has grown at a very fast rate for the last few years.
Beyond accessing news via – potentially addictive – smartphones, watching news on TV remains high. Across a number of European countries, consumption of television news is significantly higher compared to a year ago. Many argue this is a temporary blip. This does not, however, change the long-term decline in watching TV news, which fell from roughly 80% in 2013 to about 65% in 2021.
In addition, emphasizing the rather short-term impact of what became known as the Trump Bump has become highly questionable. Still, the Trump Bump marked a short but sharp increase in TV consumption. This is flanked by the relative clarity with which the longer-term upward trend towards digital sources is accompanied by a marked downward trend of TV usage. Interestingly, the overall interest in news in the USA declined from 77% to 56% among people holding right-wing attitudes after the end of the Trump presidency.
Worse for those believing in the hallucination of a stolen election, Joe Biden received more votes than any other president before him. As CBS News noted, Joe Biden broke Obama’s record for most votes ever cast for a U.S. presidential candidate.
Since January 2021, right-wing US TV networks such as Murdoch’s Fox News have lost a significant number of their traditional (right-wing) audience. In short, many people located at the political right of the USA’s political spectrum have lost their appetite for news, gossip, outrageous nonsense, etc. after the – timely – end of Donald Trump’s reign in the White House. Yet – and this comes after an intensive debate – Fox is starting to broadcast the January 6th Attack on Capitol Hill hearings.
On the more enlightened end of the US political continuum, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 meant that a serious “surge” appeared in new subscriptions to papers like the New York Times and Washington Post. It was just as CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said about Trump’s 2016 election,
it may not be good for America,
but it’s damn good for CBS.
Yet, Trump’s election marked a strong growth in newspapers sales. This was accompanied by a shift away from printed papers and toward online subscriptions. And indeed, 31% of all New York Times subscriptions are online subscriptions; for the Washington Post it is 24%; and for Murdoch’s WSJ it is just 7%. Overall, online newspaper subscriptions in the UK are at 20% for The Telegraph, 19% for The Times, and 16% for The Guardian. In addition, many publishers have added or tightened paywalls.
Worse than all this is the fact that most online newspaper subscribers are about 50 years old. In short, older people read newspapers. As one young person – without a newspaper subscription – noted, my life revolves around my phone and whenever I have a free moment, I quickly check [some online] news and don’t see the need for any subscriptions.
As a consequence of a general shift away from newspapers – whether online or printed – many newspaper publishers and even academics in the field of media studies remain deeply concerned about the future of local, national, and international news. Yet, people in very few countries (e.g. Portugal) support the idea that public tax money should be used to prop up corporate media (41%). In Denmark, support for using government money is 16%; in Sweden it is 22%; and in the UK it is just 11%.
Meanwhile, the need for information during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a strong recovery of trust in the news. In Finland, for example, 65% of people trust the news. In the aforementioned Portugal it is 61%. Meanwhile, in Victor Orban’s Hungary it is barely half that (30%) – similar to the USA, at 29%. In the USA generally, we find more people distrust the news (44%) than trust it (29%).
Perhaps the ever-increasing political polarization of the USA is indeed cranking up scepticism of the US media. Those on the political right (conservatives and reactionaries) are more than twice as likely to distrust the news, compared with those on the progressive side of politics.
Worse, outright resentment is systematically engineered by polarizing TV networks such as Murdoch’s right-wing disinformation factory, Fox News. But there are also One America News and the Trump-support channel Newsmax.
Furnished with a daily barrage of propaganda, it isn’t at all surprising to find that 75% of conservatives feel that the coverage of their views is seen as unfair. Worse, in Germany, this problem has produced the comeback of an old Nazi term. Today, the use of super-Nazi Joseph Goebbels’ favourite term, Lügenpresse (lying press), can be heard in Germany again.
Of course, the rapid expansion of highly polarizing online media has encouraged news organisations to take ever more partisan positions than in the past. Simultaneously, journalism, and to a minor degree even some section of churnalism, seek to pretend to be fair by balancing different viewpoints. Yet, on many issues, this is a rather senseless exercise.
When the idea of balance is applied, for example, to the issue of global warming, it can quickly lead to a false equation. On global warming, one set of views is underpinned by strong scientific evidence. This simply cannot be balanced by views that lack significant support. The fact that the earth is round cannot be balanced by the hallucination that the earth is flat. The overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination works cannot be balanced by the phantasms and conspiracy fantasies of anti-vaxxers. The misunderstood insistence on trying to balance the news can create a false impression in the minds of the public.
Not unrelated, global concern about the rise of misinformation and disinformation has grown from 2% to 58%. In other words, almost 60% of all people are worried about misinformation and disinformation. Worse, people say they have seen more false and misleading information about the Coronavirus (54%) than they have about politics in general (43%).
Interestingly and somewhat unsurprisingly, the spread of false information about the Covid-19 pandemic is particularly widespread in Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria).
More importantly, the single most noted online channel transmitting Covid-19 misinformation and disinformation remains Facebook (28%). This is followed by news websites and apps (17%); WhatsApp and other messenger apps (15%); online search engines (7%); Twitter (6%); and finally, YouTube (6%).
Yet, the way we access the news is changing. Globally, about three-quarters of all people are now accessing the news via their phone, increasing from 29% (2013) to 69% (2020) and even further a year later. Simultaneously, accessing the news via a computer has fallen slightly from 49% to 46% – never mind the fact that a smartphone essentially is a computer.
Rather independent of how we access the news is the fact that people in different regions feel differently about news. Those who live in the north of the UK, for example, believe they are unfairly treated by the news, people in the south less so. In Germany, this applies to two former East German states, Saxony and Thuringia. Meanwhile, in the USA, the areas where those who feel unfairly treated by the media – those Clinton called a “basket of deplorables” and Trump calls “the poorly educated” – live in the so-called flyover states.
These poorly educated are the ones whom Murdoch’s Fox News targets. The ideological and financial success of Fox News has shown how profits are made by catering ideology to a partisan audience. Today thanks to the internet, such partisan ideologies are more accessible than ever before. Worse, they are attractive to a rather significant share of the global audience. Still, 74% of people say that news should present different viewpoints and that it should be left up to the viewer to decide.
However, listening to the other side’s argument is becoming less likely. Perhaps largely because of Donald Trump’s barrage of false claims about a stolen election (and plenty of others), conspiracy fantasies about global warming and Coronavirus vaccinations, there seems to be increasingly less of an appetite to listen to the another side. Different viewpoints are seen as lacking validity.
Popular tabloids such as, for example, Murdoch’s UK The Sun and The Mail continue to attract big audiences online. Yet, at the same time, they are strongly distrusted. On the upswing, 62% of British people trust the BBC and 52% trust the UK’s The Guardian, but just 13% trust Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid The Sun.
Virtually the same can be said about Australia, where the most trusted news comes from the state-run TV station, the ABC. 70% of Australians trust the ABC. Australia’s second and much smaller state-run news station, the multicultural SBS, is trusted by about the same number of people (69%). At the lower end are Murdoch’s tabloids The Daily Telegraph (47%) and his Herald Sun (49%).
A similar story applies to Germany, where public TV is trusted while right-wing tabloids aren’t. 70% of all Germans trust the country’s prime public broadcaster’s ARD Tagesschau and ZDF heute (68%). Again, at the bottom of list is a right-wing tabloid called Bild-Zeitung – just 19% of Germans trust it.
The picture is somewhat reflected in the USA as well, where 58% trust their local TV news, 48% trust CBS and ABC News while 47% trust the UK’s BBC. On the lower end are Murdoch’s Fox News (35%), Yahoo News (34%) and BuzzFeed News with 30%.
In other words, the news that people trust and distrust is more clearly marked in the UK, in Australia, and in Germany. Meanwhile, in the USA the difference is less significant. Noteworthy in all three countries – UK, Germany, and Australia – is that people trust state-owned news stations rather than tabloids, Murdoch’s or otherwise.
Beyond all that, the fact remains that there is a clear trend towards online news, and this trend is global. Simultaneously, this opens the door not only for more partisan news – with the USA as the clear frontrunner – but also for more accidental misinformation, deliberate disinformation, more propaganda and right-wing ideology, the rise of echo chambers, and a further upturn in the numbers of global village idiots.
Yet, beyond all of that lurks media capitalism that has assigned two tasks to the media: the first task is the selling of goods and services. This is needed to maintain consumer capitalism. This task is called marketing. Secondly, media capitalism has created and constantly seeks to maintain an overall pro-business hegemony that ideologically sustains capitalism. After replacing the term “propaganda”, it became known as public relations. As the godfather of PR – Edward Bernays – once said,
I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you can certainly use it for peace and
propaganda got to be a bad word because of the German using it, and so what I did
was just to try to find some other words so we found a way to counsel on public relations.
Today – and thanks to public relations – we have learned to call it PR even as it spreads ever deeper into digital media. With the addition of digital media, global media corporations have established a gigantic PR/propaganda apparatus to which we all are exposed in one way or the other – with virtually no escape.
This article was published on 28 June 2022 at CounterCurrents.