Two recent news items are doing the work of private enterprise, in announcing that two people who have broken the public trust now have new platforms. But we don't have to signal-boost them.
We are a species that struggles with groupthink, especially when confronted with the specter of popularity. If a famous or infamous person is in the news, it’s difficult not to pay attention. Often, the media we consume has expressly constructed its offerings—online, on TV, in print, or on the radio—so that it’s practically impossible to avoid mention of such people. And when asked why we’re paying attention to certain individuals, especially if they’re advancing hateful and otherwise harmful ideas, the circular logic emerges: we have to follow them because they’re being followed by others. Because others are listening to the toxicity they spread. If it weren’t important, why would so many media venues be giving them a megaphone in the first place?
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Which is why, instead of the usual clickbait news articles highlighting that two people are currently being given high-profile media exposures (one tonight via CNN; the other, with a recently announced new video platform on Twitter) despite very recent histories of damage to the public trust, I’m signal-boosting something other than their names: the problem of signal-boosting, and how we go about solving it.
It’s a difficult question for two reasons:
One, staying informed is important. Learning about the existence of people who are doing harm ostensibly allows us to enact greater agency in response. How can we put forward an adequate defence of our democracies and overall communities if we don’t realize the extent to which they are under attack by conspiracy theorists, liars, abusers, and frauds?
Two, “group think” isn’t automatically a toxic concept. It simply describes a facet of our species’ behavior, and when we come together under constructive notions of leadership, debate, and societal consensus, we can do great things. We have done great things.
But the core problem, as illustrated in a recent settlement for false reporting between Dominion and Fox News, is that when the robustness of our political discourse rests on corporate interests, it will always be subordinate to their financial priorities.
We do need to stay informed. We do need to be able to recognize and listen to relevant expertise on key political topics: expertise that usually comes in the form of individuals who have been entrusted with specific societal roles.
But when a major news venue announces that a person who has broken the public trust is gaining a new venue from which to advance hateful commentary, we have a choice.
We can choose to recognize this as mere business-section advertorial content—which it is. It is the announcement of the acquisition of a new product by a given corporate enterprise, in the hope that it can leverage the “provocative” nature of said product to boost profits.
And we can make further choices accordingly, like deciding how we will engage with that business going forward, and where we will turn for more constructive exercises of democratic discourse. We can also choose—and should—to signal-boost different people instead. To ask ourselves, “Who are the people in my communities I want to hear from more, and how can I help to elevate their voices instead?” To lean into alternative platforms doing work that better accords with the principles of good-faith democratic discourse.
It’s easy to assume that just because certain forums are prominent right now, they are worth paying attention to until some other, better forum comes along.
More challenging, but of critical importance, is the work of remembering that we the people always have a role to play in determining the ongoing value of any organization, and its products. We saw that power quite recently, even, in how quickly the blue check on Twitter turned from a coveted commodity to a site of scorn and emphatic disavowal.
READ: The Blue Check debacle rears its ugly head—again
It can go similarly for any number of human efforts—like banks and crypto exchanges—because all are constructs, strong only inasmuch as we choose to believe them strong.
So by all means, follow the spectacle of toxic people granted further prominence on major platforms, if it serves you well. Express your outrage over it, if that feels right to you.
But if there’s even a drop of fatigue in you for all this deference to public discourse set by private enterprise with clear profit motives, consider another outlet for all your outrage at provocateurs in the spotlight. Find the voices and build up the platforms that offer another approach to debate around the most urgent issues of our times, and our world.
Who will you be signal-boosting tonight, instead?