Media critic Robert McChesney unravels a web tangled in capitalism

September 13, 2013
Robert McChesney: "Had the matter been left to the private sector, the internet may never have come into existence."

Digital Disconnect:
How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy

Robert W McChesney
Spring 2013

When award-winning author Robert McChesney wrote a much-needed political and economic analysis of the internet, the reaction from his peers was not quite what he expected.

"My main ambition was to simply get a political economic critique of the internet into play, to have it regarded as a legitimate position and a necessary one for a healthy debate," he tells Green Left about his latest book, Digital Disconnect.

"For the most part that has happened. But I have been somewhat disappointed on a few occasions in the United States, mostly by the responses of writers who are deeply invested in the notion that digital technologies will trump economics and solve our problems. Two prominent writers refused to endorse my book because they disagreed with it. These were authors I had specifically included in an edited book I compiled recently on the future of journalism, whose positions I respect, although I often have disagreements.

"These scholars present themselves as open-minded liberals, yet when my book showed up, they suddenly became commissars. It was their right to blurb a book or not, of course, but the point of the book was to open up debate, not end it, and that apparently was not appealing to them. My position was outside the boundaries of legitimate debate, at least in the US.

"Another wrote a review saying people should not read my book, primarily because I was critical of capitalism and was a radical, which made anything I might write illegitimate in polite society. This came from a pronounced liberal, not a conservative or free market fundamentalist. It was a reminder that the bad old days of red-baiting are not in our rearview mirror, not at all."

Such a reaction merely adds strength to the book's main argument, that the internet is consolidating capitalism, rather than criticising it. Ironically, it also proves another point made early on by McChesney, who is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. In Digital Disconnect's opening pages, he writes: "[The] respectable left... sees its role as humanising capitalism, not questioning it... Whenever scholars examine their own society, it is generally taboo to challenge the prerogatives and privileges of those who stand atop it and benefit from the status quo, even in political democracies."


McChesney notes the work of Robin Mansell, who posits that internet analysts fall into two broad camps: celebrants and sceptics. Both fail to place the web in a political economic context, yet the web has taken a twisted political path.

"Had the matter been left to the private sector, the internet may never have come into existence," writes McChesney. "In corporate-think, the proper role of the government goes like this: make the massive initial investments and take all the risk. Then, if and when profitable applications become apparent, let commercial interests move in and rake in the chips, soon followed by shamelessly denouncing government taxation and regulation as interference with the productive work of the private sector."

It's a phenomenon that hit the headlines again this week, as France was urged to abandon plans to tax global web firms. Yet the internet was initially immersed in anti-commercial idealism.

"Nothing enraged the internet community more than advertising and commercialism," writes McChesney. "The first commercial e-mail message... was flamed by countless Usenet users, meaning that they clogged the advertiser’s inbox with contemptuous messages demanding that the sales pitch be removed and such conduct never be repeated."

Of course, the net etiquette didn't last long. Market forces yanked the web rightwards, resulting in the technology and capitalism feeding off each other. "Technology is central to growth, and growth is central to capitalism," writes McChesney.

Celebrants and sceptics both fall for the catechism that capitalism is all about level playing fields and the survival of the fittest. They believe the web is a democratising force that can only help free up competition. But McChesney is firmly rooted in reality. "Capitalism tends to promote inequality, monopoly, hypercommercialism, and stagnation, all of which are corrosive to political democracy," he writes.

The professor notes in particular how the internet magnifies monopolies, making it far harder for smaller players to enter the market. "Google search is an example," he writes. "The quality of its algorithm improves with more users, leaving other search engines with a less effective and attractive product."

Discussing Facebook, McChesney quotes The Economist: "Those who sign up (and it’s free) have access to a wider circle. Those who don’t can feel excluded. This powerful feedback loop has already made Facebook the biggest social-networking site in many countries. It accounts for one in seven minutes spent online worldwide."

Monopolies and duopolies can be seen in all aspects of online industries, from Microsoft's war against Apple, to the Android system's battle with iPhones. Just like the internet itself, such industries have been pulled from left to right.

"It is true that with the advent of the internet many of the successful giants — Apple and Google come to mind — were begun by idealists who may have been uncertain whether they really wanted to be old-fashioned capitalists," McChesney writes. "The system in short order has whipped them into shape. Any qualms about privacy, commercialism, avoiding taxes, or paying low wages to Third World factory workers were quickly forgotten."

Similarly, the internet was once seen as the saviour of quality journalism, but has instead become its nemesis. It is here that McChesney can draw on his extensive research, a body of work that once led historian Howard Zinn to say: "Robert McChesney is one of the nation’s most important analysts of the media."

McChesney writes: "In the 1990s many Americans assumed the internet was a magical platform that let everyone have an equal right to speak, thanks to the technology. In fact, the democratic genius of the internet was the regulation that prohibited ISPs [internet service providers] from discriminating among legal internet activities, so a punk rock or vegan website got the same treatment as Microsoft’s website. The ISPs hated this regulation; if they could discriminate among users, they could effectively privatise the internet and make it like cable television."

The so-called "net neutrality" didn't last long. "In a world without net neutrality, the potential for increased ISP profits was and is mind-boggling," writes McChesney. "The Google search mechanism encourages concentration because sites that do not end up on the first or second page of a search effectively do not exist...

"As Matthew Hindman’s research on journalism, news media, and political websites demonstrates, what has emerged is a 'power law' distribution whereby a small number of political or news media websites get the vast majority of traffic. They are dominated by the traditional giants with name recognition and resources. There is a 'long tail' of millions of websites that exist but get little or no traffic, and only a small number of people have any idea that they exist. Most of them wither, as their producers have little incentive and resources to maintain them."


Yet even the big names are getting ever-more desperate. Today's corporate media newsrooms monitor their audience's reaction to their stories in real-time, adding more content to whichever articles prove most popular. Most employ Chartbeat, audience-analysing software used by 80 percent of the top US publishers and in 37 countries around the world. Editors are even encouraging reporters to write more positive stories, since research shows they are more likely to be shared on social media - though no more likely to be read. What results is a race down to the lowest common denominator that could degrade their products further.

Even Chartbeat's CEO, Tony Haile, admits that publishers are "unable to distinguish what is measurable from what matters". To illustrate his point, Haile even cites a parody by spoof news site the Onion, in which a web editor tells readers: "The more eyeballs on our content, the more cash we can ask for. Period. And if we’re able to get more eyeballs, that means I’ve done my job, which gets me congratulations from my bosses, which encourages me to put up even more stupid bullshit on the homepage."

Back in grim reality, the corporate media slash away at staff numbers, outsourcing wherever possible. McChesney notes that one news agency called Journatic outsources to the "Philippines, where Journatic hires writers 'able to commit to 250 pieces/week minimum' at 35 to 40 cents a piece". Others have dispensed with humans altogether: "StatSheet, a subsidiary of Automated Insights, uses algorithms to turn numerical data into narrative articles for its 418 sports websites."

As McChesney has previously noted in his award-winning book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, such journalism makes for dire politics. He says the answer lies in publicly-funded journalism. "What has been missing from the narrative is that the nations with the freest press systems are also the nations that make the greatest public investment in journalism and therefore provide the basis for being strong democracies," he writes. "As journalism subsidies increase, the overall reporting in those nations does not kowtow but in fact grows more adversarial to the government in power."

McChesney proposes a system in which members of the public are given an annual voucher to donate to a non-profit media outlet of their choice. In Australia, the odds are stacked against such a model, as illustrated when Julian Assange's bid for asylum in Ecuador threw a spotlight on that country's media model. It got a thorough, if thoroughly inaccurate, pasting from supposedly liberal commentators. McChesney is undaunted by such red-baiting, as shown by the prolific professor's plans for his next tome.

"My next book is on socialism, democracy and communication," he tells Green Left. "If one posits socialism in the classical sense, as the extension of democracy to the economic realm, then by democratic theory one would expect socialism to be centrally concerned with credible independent journalism. Otherwise it would not be functional. I am examining this issue, looking at history and at theory. Much of this work is inspired by tremendous writings by the Welsh writer Raymond Williams in the early 1960s. He was generations ahead of his time.

"I am also driven by what is happening with the elected left governments in South America who are making media reforms a central part of their political project. I posit that their ability to set up independent noncommercial news media will go a long way toward making it at all possible to see a democratic post-capitalist society."

Read a Green Left interview with author David Cromwell, of media-analysing website Media Lens, here.

Below, Robert McChesney answers questions about the fast-changing pace of the internet, publicly-funded journalism and more...

You write in Digital Disconnect: "I wrote with an acknowledgment that matters were changing so quickly and were so unpredictable that my analysis might soon be dated or need serious revision. Grasping the Internet was like trying to shoot a moving target in a windstorm." What are the main changes you've noticed in the short time since the book was published?

The main problem with grasping the internet, or at least doing a political economy of the Internet, until recently was that the commercial development of the internet was unclear. What firms and industries, what commercial applications, would be the "killer applications". In the past decade that has been settled. Some new giant forms and some new areas of commercial development may occur, but what we see now is likely to be the terrain for some time to come. Twelve of the 30 most valuable publicly traded firms in the United States today are internet monopolies - firms like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. By comparison, only three of the "too big to fail" banks are in the top 30, so that gives some idea how much political power these firms have. They are not going anywhere for a long while and they are positioned to dominate the internet and the capitalist political economy past the visible future.

The corporate media now monitor in real-time which stories are getting the most hits, then add more content only to those stories that are popular. They have little to no time to fact-check anything. They are even telling reporters to write more "positive" stories, since they are shared more on social media. It concerns me, because what I consider to be the best, most critical, serious journalism is never going to be hugely popular, and could therefore be disregarded entirely. Do your contacts in the media feel that they are hurtling towards the lowest common denominator?

What you describe is crucial to the book. There is a conflict between commercialism and journalism, between profit-making and the public service of news in a democratic society. In some historical moments the tension is beneath the surface and the problems associated with it not as severe as they could be otherwise. Specifically, government subsidies and policies that increase the ability of people to produce journalism successfully - like public media, postal subsidies or the Scandinavian public support for dissident newspapers - and that also lessen the dependence upon advertising can be and have been very helpful. In the United States, when monopoly newspaper markets were flush with money in the second half of the 20th century, it provided some leverage and autonomy for the journalism in certain areas. But now, with smart advertising that no longer supports content production online, the funds to support journalism are drying up. The immediate response of commercial owners and desperate editors is to seek ever greater ways to "monetise" the content. It is logical for the owners who care mostly about profit and understandable for editors and reporters who see no alternative and wish to earn a living doing what they love to do. It is both pathetic and tragic to see great journalists twisting themselves into pretzels to shake down enough commercial support to pay their bills. It is obscene that we are losing an entire generation of young people to the field of journalism because there are no funds. Waiting for Wall Street to solve the commercial problem is a dead-end street for journalism and for anything remotely close to a democratic society. American journalists are increasingly aware of the problem, but it is so heavily ingrained in American heads that journalism is first and foremost a commercial undertaking, they find it difficult to resist. My work is dedicated to changing that state of affairs.

You stress the need for public funding of media, ideally through a voucher system. We obviously need to make that part of the conversation in Australia, though we are up against it, since even the "liberal" corporate media here attacked Ecuador's public funding model when Julian Assange threw the spotlight on the country. Green Left constantly struggles with funding and it is getting worse. Until public funding becomes a reality, what are some of the smartest, most innovative ways you've seen non-profits use to raise funds?

I believe the job of scholars, and journalists, is to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. We cannot always let political expedience dictate the range of what can be considered the truth. Just because it appears that public funding or vouchers for journalism appear politically unlikely, for example, does not mean we stop advocating them if they are the logical solution to the problem, or a logical solution to the problem. Consider, for example, the gay marriage movement in the United States. Only a dozen years ago the conventional wisdom was that this was an issue that was generations away from popular support and political success. Sympathetic liberals told gay marriage activists to temper their demands because they feared right-wingers would exploit the antipathy to gay marriage to defeat liberals in elections. Gay activists refused, saying their position was correct and they had to explain it to people, to educate them. Eventually people would see the folly and unfairness of the anti-gay marriage position. And what has happened in the past five years or so in the United States has been nothing short of amazing. Only a few people could have predicted it in 2000. And the victory came so quickly because the organisers refused to water down or dumb down their demands to make it more palatable to ignorant people. They insisted upon setting the terms of the debate. The point is that we cannot predict the future, so we should not chain ourselves to the past. An experience I had in 1988 made this point crystal clear. I had a professor in graduate school who was a white South African. He opposed apartheid and emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s. His family all lived in South Africa and he followed closely the politics of his native country. I went to his office to say goodbye as I had finished my degree and was about to move to Madison. He said to me that all his family in Cape Town, all anti-apartheid, were selling their homes and leaving the country. The forces for apartheid were too strong and unwilling to compromise. Justice for blacks would require oceans of blood to be shed. My friend was deeply depressed but he agreed with their decision. This guy forgot more about South Africa than most people would ever know. Yet he was completely wrong. Two years later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and not long after that he was elected president of South Africa. Apartheid was dismantled with less violence than one might find late on a Saturday night in a bar near a dock in an American or Australian port city. Moral of the story - it is impossible to predict the future. What we can do is identify problems and try to think about how best to solve them.

In Digital Disconnect, you talk a lot about democracy and its erosion through the internet. I was wondering if you also see some hope there. For instance, what do you think of attempts to make democracy more accountable through technology, with parties such as Sweden’s Active Democracy Party and Australia's Senator Online party proposing to take electronic votes from the public on each bill to be passed? Do you think the crowdsourcing of Iceland's constitution might also point to the way technology can be used to strengthen democracy?

I believe that the digital revolution is here and can be an extraordinary force for democracy and for improving lives. So, yes, reforms along the lines you suggest, are worth discussing. That is why I develop a political economy critique and why I put so much emphasis on politics and policymaking. The internet could be very different under other auspices.

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