Refugees and the Discourse of Compassion

The image of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore has had a dramatic impact on the character of the refugee debate in Australia and elsewhere. Most responses from across the political spectrum have recognised the need for greater compassion in rethinking policy. Radical conservatives like Australian politician Cory Bernardi or media commentator Andrew Bolt have isolated themselves to a few limited talking points as I discuss below. What is clear is that the image of the little boy being picked up delicately by the soldier has managed to change the character of the debate so that instead of debating whether or not these people are ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ they have become subject to our compassion.

In media studies we call this a shift in the ‘discourse’, which means that there has been change in the normal social expectations that people have about what can and can not be said. Bernardi has clearly misunderstood the broader context of this shift and is still attempting to address a tiny minority of radical conservatives. The political talking points are now about the appropriate measure of response rather than whether or not those escaping trauma are refugees.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was attempting  to express his political party’s old policy position in terms of the new discourse as recently as four days ago. He stated that:

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East.

This is an attempt to frame the current policy in such a way that it responds to the overwhelming demand for compassion. The response to Abbott’s claim was swift. Refugee advocates had used legalistic mechanisms to try to force reluctant Australian governments to take more refugees. Abbott was responding to this version of the refugee discourse. Less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement. Abbott had failed to respond to the new discourse of compassion, which was not couched in a legalistic discourse.

The Australian government has today responded to the current refugee crisis by increasing the intake of refugees and funding contributing to the overall global cause. Abbott has changed the way he talks about the refugees, he has shifted from a legalistic discourse to a discourse of compassion. Note the change in the way he talks about those working to escape trauma for example (from various reports):

This is a very significant increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and it’s a generous response to the current emergency.

Our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.

I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.

It is a response that is now framed in the discourse of compassion.

Media Events as Focusing Events

The power of a single image to cut through and develop into a much bigger media event was explored by McKenzie Wark in his book Virtual Geography (here is a super-condensed version). Wark develops a notion of weird global media events based on what he calls media vectors. Wark’s basic point is that as images circulate across media vectors they  develop into a media event. This is different to the other established definition of a media event organised around ‘mega-events’ that are produced and made for broadcast television (Dayan & Katz 1991). The vector-based media events are far more common now in our era of social media and the power of social media to draw our attention to sinsular images.

Aylan Kurdi’s image becoming a media event is an example of what John Kingdon calls a ‘focusing event’ in the terrain of public policy making. Focusing events are those experiences or occurences that force politicians to attend to them. Kingdon suggests there are two types of focusing events. The first is premised on personal experiences made by policy makers. The second is the impact of powerful symbols. In this case it is an example of both, as expressed by Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones:

You forget how light children are, you forget how small they actually are as they grow. And it’s one of those things that you just saw this poor, lifeless little – lifeless little tot and that really does chill you straight through.

From Borders to Traumas

A clear way the discourse of refugees has shifted is in the terms of the way the crisis is defined. The legalistic way to approach refugees is to define them in terms of national borders and whether or not refugees are fleeing a geopolitical conflict. Radical conservative Cory Bernardi does this, as does conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt. In a recent column, Bolt expresses this conservative talking point about borders in terms of the pursuit of dental health services:

So … what exactly was he “fleeing” when he paid a people smuggler thousands of dollars to bring his family — without safety vests — to Greece, to join that irresistible army of illegal immigrants now smashing through Europe’s borders?

Tima Kurdi explained… “The situation is that Abdullah does not have any teeth…

“So I been trying to help him fix his teeth. But is gonna cost me 14,000 and up to do it …

“Actually my dad, he come up with the idea, he said to me, ‘I think if they go to Europe for his case and for our future, I think he should do that, and then we’ll see if he can fix his teeth’.

“And that’s what I did three weeks ago.” She sent her brother the money for people smugglers.

Now, it is terrible to have no teeth. Awful to be poor. A misery to have your children denied chances.

But can the West really take in not just real refugees, but the Third World’s poor as well, including those in search of better dentistry?

Kurdi’s teeth were damaged because abuse and torture at the hands of both ‘sides’ of the Syrian conflict.

Originally born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish city of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar-al Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria’s brutal civil war. At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Islamic State takeover of Kobane, he was arrested by Isil fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth.

He said he then applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to try to take the family to Europe. His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being caught and turned back by coast guard vessels.

Radical conservatives are choosing to understand the tragedy of the Kurdi family in terms of the previous legalistic discourse of refugees fleeing across borders from a specific conflict in a geopolitical location. They are choosing to believe that the Kurdi family’s trauma somehow ended once they entered Turkey. The discourse of compassion is organised around the trauma of refugees, not their geopolitical location. The aim of refugee policy should be to reduce the terrible trauma that refugees experience, not perpetuate it.

Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub

Students in my graduate unit Philosophies of Communication Technologies and Change (part of our Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement) are producing simple lists of tweets.

Some students are using Outwit Hub to generate these lists as this is what I have used since 2012. I have created a guide “Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub worksheet” for my students but others may also find it useful.

Scraping the results from a Twitter ‘advanced search’ allows you create an archive of tweets without the limitations of the API. It is only useful for relatively small sets that have less than 3,200 tweets per day as you can query Twitter for all tweets for a given hashtag per day.

The lists of tweets shall be used for the purpose of carrying out sophisticated analyses of the ‘circulation of discourse’:

Writing to a public helps to make a world, insofar as the object of address is brought into being partly by postulating and characterizing it. This performative ability depends, however, on that object’s being not entirely fictitious–not postulated merely, but recognized as a real path for the circulation of discourse. That path is then treated as a social entity. (Warner 2002: 64)

The character of this discourse will depend on the stakeholder publics they (or their organisations) wish to engage with and so on.

 

Facebook Research Critiques

Reminds me of when you had to write FB posts in third person.

Engineers at Facebook have worked to continually refine the ‘Edgerank‘ algorithm over the last five or six years or so. They are addressing the problem of how to manage the 1500+ pieces of content available at any moment from “friends, people they follow and Pages” into a more manageable 300 or so pieces of content. Questions have been asked about how Edgerank functions from two related groups. Marketers and the like are concerned about ‘reach’ and ‘engagement’ of their content. Political communication researchers have been concerned about how this selection of content (1500>300) relies on certain algorithmic signals that potentially reduces the diversity of sources. These signals are social and practice-based (or what positivists would call ‘behavioral’). Whenever Facebook makes a change to its algorithm it measures its success in the increase in ‘engagement’ (I’ve not seen a reported ‘failure’ of a change to the algorithm), which means interactions by users with content, including ‘clickthrough rate’. Facebook is working to turn your attention into an economic resource by manipulating the value of your attention through your News Feed and then selling access to your News Feed to advertisers.

The “random sample of 7000 Daily Active Users over a one-week period in July 2013” has produced many of the figures used in various online news reports on Facebook’s algorithm. Via Techcrunch

Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook

Recently published research by three Facebook researchers was designed to ascertain the significance of the overall selection of content by the Edgerank algorithm. They compared two large datasets. The first dataset was of pieces of content shared on Facebook and specifically ‘hard’ news content. Through various techniques of text-based machine analysis they distributed these pieces of content along a single political spectrum of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. This dataset was selected from “7 million distinct Web links (URLs) shared by U.S. users over a 6-month period between July 7, 2014 and January 7, 2015”. The second dataset was of 10.1 million active ‘de-identified’ individuals who ‘identified’ as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. Importantly, it is not clear if they only included ‘hard news’ articles shared by those in the second set. The data represented in the appended supplementary material suggests that this was not the case. There are therefore two ways the total aggregate Facebook activity and user base was ‘sampled’ in the research. The researchers combined these two datasets to get a third dataset of event-based activity:

This dataset included approximately 3.8 billion unique potential exposures (i.e., cases in which an individual’s friend shared hard content, regardless of whether it appeared in her News Feed), 903 million unique exposures (i.e., cases in which a link to the content appears on screen in an individual’s News Feed), and 59 million unique clicks, among users in our study.

These events — potential exposures, unique exposures and unique clicks — are what the researchers are seeking to understand in terms of the frequency of appearance and then engagement by certain users with ‘cross-cutting’ content, i.e. content that cuts across ideological lines.

The first round of critiques of this research (here, here, here and here) focuses on various aspects of the study, but all resonate with a key critical point (as compared to a critique of the study itself) that the research is industry-backed and therefore suspect. I have issues with the study and I address these below, but they are not based on it being an industry study. Is our first response to find any possible reason for being critical of Facebook’s own research simply because it is ‘Facebook’?

Is the study scientifically valid?

The four critiques that I have linked to make critical remarks about the sampling method and specifically how the dataset of de-identified politically-identifying Facebook users was selected. The main article is confusing and it is only marginally clearer in the appendix but it appears that both samples were validated against the broader US-based Facebook user population and total set of news article URLs shared, respectively. This seems clear to me, and I am disconcerted that it is not clear to those others that have read and critiqued the study. The authors discuss validation, specifically point 1.2 for the user population sample and 1.4.3 for the validation of the ‘hard news’ article sample. I have my own issues with the (ridiculously) normative approach used here (the multiplicity of actual existing entries for political orientation are reduced to a single five point continuum of liberal and conservative, just… what?), but that is not the basis of the existing critiques of the study.

Eszter Hargittai’s post at Crooked Timber is a good example. Let me reiterate that if I am wrong with how I am interpreting these critiques and the study, then I am happy to be corrected. Hargittai writes:

Not in the piece published in Science proper, but in the supplementary materials we find the following:  All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale. To recap, only 9% of FB users give information about their political affiliation in a way relevant here to sampling and 54% of those do so in a way that is not meaningful to determine their political affiliation. This means that only about 4% of FB users were eligible for the study. But it’s even less than that, because the user had to log in at least “4/7 days per week”, which “removes approximately 30% of users”.  Of course, every study has limitations. But sampling is too important here to be buried in supplementary materials. And the limitations of the sampling are too serious to warrant the following comment in the final paragraph of the paper:  we conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices (2, 13, 15, 17) more than algorithms (3, 9) limit exposure to attitude-challenging content. How can a sample that has not been established to be representative of Facebook users result in such a conclusive statement? And why does Science publish papers that make such claims without the necessary empirical evidence to back up the claims?

The second paragraph above continues with a further sentence that suggestions that the sample was indeed validated against a sample of 79 thousand other FB US users. Again, I am happy to be corrected here, but this at least indicate that the study authors have attempted to do precisely what Hargittai and the other critiques are suggesting that they have not done. From the appendix of the study:

All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale. We validated a sample of these labels against a survey of 79 thousand U.S. users in which we asked for a 5-point very-liberal to very-conservative ideological affiliation; the Spearman rank correlation between the survey responses and our labels was 0.78.

I am troubled that other scholars are so quick to condemn a study for not being valid when it does not appear as if any of the critiques (at the time of writing) attempt to engage with the methods but which the study authors tested validity. Tell me it is not valid by addressing the ways the authors attempted to demonstrate validity, don’t just ignore it.

What does the algorithm do?

A more sophisticated “It’s Not Our Fault…” critique is presented by Christian Sandvig. He notes that the study does not take into account how the presentation of News Feed posts and then ‘engagement’ with this content is a process where the work of the Edgerank algorithms and the work of users can not be easily separated (orig. emphasis):

What I mean to say is that there is no scenario in which “user choices” vs. “the algorithm” can be traded off, because they happen together (Fig. 3 [top]). Users select from what the algorithm already filtered for them. It is a sequence.**** I think the proper statement about these two things is that they’re both bad — they both increase polarization and selectivity. As I said above, the algorithm appears to modestly increase the selectivity of users.

And the footnote:

**** In fact, algorithm and user form a coupled system of at least two feedback loops. But that’s not helpful to measure “amount” in the way the study wants to, so I’ll just tuck it away down here.

A “coupled system of at least two feedback loops”, indeed. At least one of those feedback loops ‘begins’ with the way that users form social networks — that is to say, ‘friend’ other users. Why is this important? Our Facebook ‘friends’ (and pages and advertisements, etc.) serve as the source of the content we are exposed to. Users choose to friend other users (or Pages, Groups, etc.) and then select from the pieces of content these other users (and Pages, advertisements, etc.) share to their networks. That is why I began this post with a brief explanation of the way the Edgerank algorithm works. It filters an average of 1500 possible posts down to an average of 300. Scandvig’s assertion that “[u]sers select from what the algorithm already filtered for them” is therefore only partially true. The Facebook researchers assume that Facebook users have chosen the sources of news-based content that can contribute to their feed. This is a complex set of negotiations around who or what has the ability and then the likelihood of appearing in one’s feed (or what could be described as all the options for organising the conditions of possibility for how content appears in one’s News Feed).

The study is testing the work of the algorithm by comparing the ideological consistency of one’s social networks with the ideological orientation of the stories presented and of the news stories’ respective news-based media enterprises. The study tests the hypothesis that your ideologically-oriented ‘friends’ will share ideological-aligned content. Is the number of stories from across the ideological range — liberal to conservative — presented (based on an analysis of ideological orientation of each news-based media enterprise’s URL) different to the apparent ideological homophily of your social network? If so, then this is the work of the algorithm. The study finds that the algorithm works differently for liberal and conservative oriented users.

Nathan Jurgenson spins this into an interpretation of how algorithms govern our behaviour:

For example, that the newsfeed algorithm suppresses ideologically cross cutting news to a non-trivial degree teaches individuals to not share as much cross cutting news. By making the newsfeed an algorithm, Facebook enters users into a competition to be seen. If you don’t get “likes” and attention with what you share, your content will subsequently be seen even less, and thus you and your voice and presence is lessened. To post without likes means few are seeing your post, so there is little point in posting. We want likes because we want to be seen.

‘Likes’ are only signal we have that helps shape our online behaviour? No. Offline feedback is an obvious one. What about the cross-platform feedback loops? Most of what I talk about on Facebook nowadays consists of content posted by others on other social media networks. We have multiple ‘thermostats’ for aligning the appropriate and inappropriateness of posts in terms of attention, morality, sociality, cultural value, etc.  I agree with Jurgenson, when he suggests that Jay Rosen’s observation that “It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation.” A valid way of testing this has not been developed yet.

The weird thing about this study is that from a commercial point of view Facebook should want to increase the efficacy of the Edgerank algorithms as much as possible, because it is the principle method for manipulating the value of ‘visibility’ of each user’s News Feed (through frequency/competition and position).  Previous research by Facebook has sought to explore the relative value of social networks as compared to the diversity of content, this included a project that investigated the network value of weak tie social relationships.

Effect of Hard and Soft News vs the Work of Publics

What is my critique? All of the critiques mention that the Facebook research, from a certain perspective, has produced findings that are not really that surprising because they largely confirmed how we already understand how people choose ideological content. A bigger problem for me is the hyper-normative classification of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news as it obscures part of what makes this kind of research actually very interesting. For example, from the list of 20 stories provided as an example of hard and soft news, at least two of the ‘soft’ news stories are not ‘soft’ news stories by anyone’s definition. From the appendix (page 15):

  • Protesters are expected to gather in downtown Greenville Sunday afternoon to stage a Die In along Main Street …
  • Help us reach 1,000,000 signatures today, telling LEGO to ditch Shell and their dirty Arctic oil!

I did a Google search for the above text. One is a “die in” held as a protest over the death of Eric Garner. The other is a Greenpeace USA campaign.

There are at least two problems for any study that seeks to classify news-based media content according to normative hard and soft news distributions when working to isolate the how contemporary social media platforms have affected democracy:

1. The work of ‘politics’ (or ‘democracy’) does not only happen because of ‘hard news’. This is an old critique, but one that has been granted new life in studies of online publics. The ‘Die-In’ example is particularly important in this context. It is a story on a Fox News affiliate, and I have only been able to find the exact words provided in the appendix by the study authors to refer to this article on Fox News-based sites. Fox News is understood to be ‘conservative’ in the study (table S3 of appendix), and yet the piece on the ‘Die-In’ protest does not contain any specific examples of conservative framing. It is in fact a straightforward ‘hard news’ piece on the protest that I would actually interpret as journalistically sympathetic towards the protests. How many stories classified as ‘conservative’ because they appear on a Fox News-based URL? How many other allegedly ‘soft news’ stories were not actually soft news at all?

2. Why is ‘cross cutting’ framed only along ideological lines of content and users, when it is clear that allegedly ‘soft news’ outlets can cover ‘political topics’ and that more or less impact ‘democracy’?  In the broadcast and print-era of political communication, end users had far less participatory control over the reproduction of issue-based publics. They used ‘news’ as a social resource to isolate differences with others, to argue, to understand their relative place in the world, etc. Of profound importance in the formation of online publics is the way that this work (call it ‘politics’ or not) takes over the front stage in what have been normatively understood as non-political domains. How many times have you had ‘political’ discussions in non-political forums? Or more important for the current study, how many ‘Gamergate’ articles were dismissed from the sample because the machine-based methods of sampling could not discern that they were about more than video games?  The study does not address how ‘non-political’ news-based media outlets become vectors of political engagement when they are used as a resource by users to rearticulate political positions within issue-based publics.

The Australian Newspaper Outrage Cycle

Media editor of The Australian, Sharri Markson, has produced an article titled ‘Activism a threat to journalism‘. In it she draws on sources to argue that ‘activist journalism academics’ on ‘social media’ are a threat to journalism. She paraphrases her boss and Australian newspaper editor, Chris Mitchell:

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.

Worse than the figure of the ‘activist journalist’ is the ‘modern journalism academic’. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the ‘modern journalism academic’ as someone with opinions on political issues:

Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’’ he said.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.

Through its Media section the Australian newspaper is running a small-scale ‘moral panic’ about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like the print-based Australian newspaper. Most of the people who work at the Australian newspaper have been to university and would’ve more than likely come across the concept of a moral panic. Even if they haven’t, as savvy media operators that should be familiar with the concept.

The concept of the ‘moral panic’ once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how fears and anxieties experienced by social group often about social change is projected onto and becomes fixated around what is called a ‘folk devil’.

A ‘folk devil’ is a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety. I have a book chapter on the folk devil figure of the ‘hoon’. There are actual ‘hoons’ who are a road safety issue, but the hoon moral panics that swept across Australia 10 years ago were completely out of proportion to the actual risk presented by hoons. The figure of the hoon represented fears and anxieties about how young people use public space particularly in areas with high retiree and tourist populations.

Clearly, the ‘activist journalist’ and ‘modern journalism academic’ are the folk devil figures. What fears and anxieties do ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ represent? ‘Social media’ is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of the Australian newspaper, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey reported last week, the Australian newspaper is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in the Australian newspaper workplace.

Sharri 2
An example of ‘print enthusiast’ Sharri Markson’s advocacy work on social media.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a ‘print media’ enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and Mitchell could be described as what are the ‘moral entrepreneurs‘ of the ‘moral panic’ in this particular example. A ‘moral entrepreneur’ is a person or group of people who advocate and bring attention to a particular issue for the purposes of trying to effect change. In traditional moral panic theory this is largely local politicians who try to effect legislative change to compensate for the social changes that triggered the moral panic in the first place.

The Australian newspaper’s ongoing response to the perceived existential threat of ‘social media’ (as an inaccurate collective term to describe far more complex and longer term shifts in the media industry) is a useful example for thinking about the cyclical character of these outbursts. They are small-scale moral panics because they never really spread beyond a limited number of moral entrepreneurs. The latest round is merely another example of the media-based culture wars that began with the so-called ‘media wars‘ in the late 1990s. Again, journalism academics were central in the conflict over what counted as ‘journalism’ and/or ‘news’. More recently, the Australian newspaper attacked journalism programs and their graduates.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’

The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is a bit clunky and doesn’t really capture the cyclical character of these ideological battles over perceived existential threats. Creator of the ‘moral panic’ concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book. About the possibility of a “permanent moral panic” Cohen writes:

A panic, be defintion, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic. Each one may draw on the same stratum of political morality and cultural unease and — much like Foucault’s micro-systems of power — have a similar logic and internal rhythm. Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician. (xxx)

A useful model for understanding the cyclical character of the relation between anxiety (or what we call ‘affect’), greater media attention (or what we call, after Foucault, ‘visibility’) and an exaggerated sense of social norms and expectations is Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ model.

HypeCycle

It is not a ‘theoretical’ or even a ‘scientific’ tool; rather, it serves as a kind of rule of thumb about the reception of technological change for the purposes of creating business intelligence. New technologies tend to be hyped so take this into account when making business decisions about risks of investment. (Each year I use the ‘Hype Cycle’ to introduce my third year unit on technological change ; the way it represents technology is useful for understanding social relations and technology beyond technology being an ‘object’.) There is something similar going on with the Australian newspaper’s constant preoccupation with other journalists and in particular the role of journalism academics in society. Rather than the giddy ‘hype’ of the tech press and enthusiasts about technological change, the Australian newspaper’s cycle is organised around ‘outrage’. The Australian newspaper’s ‘Outrage Cycle’ is a useful way to frame how Western societies constantly mobilise to engage with perceived existential threats. The actual curve of the ‘Hype CYcle’ itself is less important than the cyclical character of trigger and response, which is also apparent in ‘moral panic’ theory:

OutrageCycle 2014

I’ve changed the ‘zones’ of the Hype Cycle. ‘Maturity’ did not seem like the most appropriate measure of the X-axis, so I changed it to ‘time’ which Gartner also sometimes uses. I’ve made a table for ease of reference:

Hype Cycle

Outrage Cycle

Technology Trigger

Existential Threat

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Peak of Confected Outrage

Trough of Disillusionment

Trough of Realism

Slope of Enlightenment

Slope of Conservatism

Plateau of Productivity

Plateau of Social Norms

 

Existential threat: In the case of the Australian newspaper, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of ‘print’ and the institutional social relations that ‘print’ once enjoyed. A second example of this involves ‘online piracy’, which serves as a perceived existential threat to the current composition of media distribution companies.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged besides employees of News Corp about so-called ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ in general. There are specific cases, just like with ‘moral panics’, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative ‘folk devils’ for an entire social identity. Similarly, ‘pirates’ serve as an example of ‘bad internet users’ who are part of the disruptions of the legacy media industry. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on ‘outrage’ and other affective states like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of the Australian newspaper, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry.  It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen. (Perhaps after the Australian newspaper folds?) In terms of ‘online piracy’ facing reality includes companies like Foxtel currently working to create online client versions of their pay TV business. It is basically at this point that proponents have to ‘face reality’.

Slope of Conservatism: In Gartner’s original version, technologies become adopted and companies learn how to use them appropriately. In the ‘Outrage Cycle’ the Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change. In some ways, Markson’s advocacy of ‘print’ is a bad example of this. A better example is the way sports fans learn how to adapt to the commodification of broadcast sporting events.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing ‘liberalisation’ of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content. Recent examples of this include the popularity of the ‘home theatre’ as the most recent evolution of domestic cinema culture that become part of mass popular cultures with the VCR.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a Business Model

In our editorial introduction to the recent ‘Trolling’ special issue of Fibreculture Journal, my colleagues Jason Wilson, Christian McCrea and I wrote:

Major media corporations and tech giants have become bogged down in nymwars, post-hoc jerry-rigging and outright comment bans as they attempt to erase conflict around perenially divisive topics. All the while, as media companies are all too happy to trade on clickbait and outrage, there’s a suspicion that they have appropriated and mobilised the figure of the troll in order to constrain a new outpouring of political speech. Trolling has perhaps displaced pornography as the obscenity which underwrites the demand that the Internet be brought under control.

Jason in particular has emphasised the normative character of particular kinds of outrage. On the topic of a recent research report report from the respected Pew Centre about the normative effect of social media, Jason wrote for the Guardian ‘newspaper’:

In the midst of social media’s perpetual flurries of outrage, we teach one another that the range of acceptable opinion is small, that we are individually responsible for comporting ourselves within these limits, and that the negative consequences are unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. Accepting cues – from media, government and other authorities – about the dangers of incivility and extremism, we monitor each other’s conduct, ensuring that it doesn’t cross any arbitrary lines.

We can read the perpetual Outrage Cycle of the Australian newspaper as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, the Australian newspaper would be out of business, so to say that the Australian will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant ‘fail’. Unless someone thinks that the Australian newspaper will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for ‘print’), the social function of the Australian newspaper is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforce what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian newspaper and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.

Vox the News Cycle

vox storystreamInteresting discussion at Nieman Journalism Lab triggered by a recent post by Vox Media’s VP of Engineering, Michael Lovitt, on launching Vox.xom as a nine week development project. Vox.com has some very cool features, not least of which is the threading of topically related stories into ‘StoryStreams’, including the stream of “How We Make Vox“. Co-founder of Vox, Melissa Bell, explains:

If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

The launch of Vox.com has been framed in terms of it being a technology company. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of how they actually approach stories and the production of content. Hopefully, it is not like David Eun’s 2011 master plan for AOL.

Eun used an ‘engineering flow’ type approach to integrating SEO and analytics information into the production of news-based media content. Not very many people were happy about this. As one recent commentator described it:

It’s telling that throughout “The AOL Way”, the emphasis is on what managers and technology employees can do to maximize pageviews, and not on actual writing or video production, itself. That is, the presentation implies that AOL management took its content’s quality for granted.

Bell describes the work of Vox.com as addressing the problem of having to catch up after dropping out of the constant flow of the news cycle.  She became aware of this problem after being promoted into her previous role at The Washington Post as ‘director of platforms’ and ‘blog strategy’. From the same Guardian piece:

“It was amazing to me as a reader how quickly I felt I fell off the news cycle,” she says. “If I wasn’t paying attention to the rapid developments, it was difficult for me to understand what was happening in major news stories. When I took that step back I realised the challenge of being a reader.”

What is the news cycle according to Vox.com? There seems to be more or less topical news stories being explained through the website, but there is also “7 things the most-highlighted Kindle passages tell us about American readers” as the ‘most read’ story.

vox kindle

The news cycle used to be organised around the habits of consumers. The evening broadcast television bulletin, the morning newspaper, or the hourly radio bulletin. It was structural to the rhythms of industry and cultural expectations of news consumers. Not unlike the difference between the ranking of books in the New York Time’s Bestsellers list as compared to the highlighting of book passages through Kindle as an index of popularity, has there been a shift in the character of the news cycle?