A century ago, there were working class newspapers that competed with bourgeois newspapers all over Europe, as well as in other parts of the world. There were broadsheets and tabloids, weeklies and dailies. In Germany there were some 90 working class daily newspapers in the first 15 or so years of the 20th Century. Most income for a newspaper, as an institution, was through sales of the publication, and the working class could compete easily – by sheer numbers of sales – with the capitalist classes. In South Africa and in Mauritius there is a very old press that conforms to this same pattern, typical of Europe, and relayed to its colonies. And in working class struggles, the role of the newspaper or similar publication in both South Africa and Mauritius was very important. This held world-wide until about 1950. Then came the first of a few major shifts towards a bourgeois monopoly on spreading information and analysis. It is very important for working class organizations, including parties, to be aware of this change. It is not our fault that this happened, but it represents a set-back.
The Commercial Ad System
From the middle of the 20th Century what happened was the bourgeoisie gradually took over sponsorship, or subsidy of the whole of the bourgeois press, and this left the working class with just its sales revenue at a massive disadvantage. The bourgeoisie managed this this by charging the “consumers” of all its products a little more on each object or service, and then by using this invisible “tax” in order to subsidize the bourgeois press by paying it for ever-larger, ever-more-colourful advertisements, which, in passing, were also ever-more-manipulative in ideological terms. By the 1970s, the income newspapers got direct from the bourgeoisie had, in many countries, surpassed what they got from sales money. The space taken up by ads was from then on space for bourgeois propaganda.
So, the bourgeoisie got to control the quasi totality of this form of media: the Press. The Press (in the restricted sense) had been the place where the working class had won, through many battles, freedom of expression, and where it competed successfully for readers.
The benefits for the bourgeoisie of the ad-system or commercials-system were three-fold: in the final analysis, it got to control content when it had to, and editorial staff are not so stupid as to defy the sources of their high wages; it got to manipulate readers to buy its products while they were opening the newspaper to find news and analysis; it at the same time “sold” the idea of capitalist consumerism, repeating ad nauseam the falsehoods that consumer goods or insurance payments buy happiness, friends, partners, and even, in many ads, political aims like freedom. The benefit to the previous newspaper owners was that their businesses were now capitalist concerns that could be run just the same as any other concern and catapult successful newspaper bosses into the bourgeoisie. The newspaper companies concerned now had the primary aim of making money, not of selling newspapers to share information and analysis. (1)
Becoming ordinary Profit-making Companies
In Mauritius, this threshold of money-making becoming the main aim has turned two of the media conglomerates into multi-facetted capitalist concerns, one specializing in real estate for which it already has a sales mechanism (its daily newspaper that comes out 365 days a year), and the other in trade fairs and tourism for which it has a sales mechanism (a daily plus a radio). This shift is quantitative, being a refinement of the qualitative “ad-system” shift into the bourgeoisie.
Strengthening the right-wing by means of the Bourgeois Press
Fox News brought another shift, where a particular right-wing ideology became the main aim of the newspapers and TV stations, although they were nevertheless still profit-making through ads. Fox began in Australia before becoming a political force in both the UK and USA and it coupled the clout of the advertisement system with a right-wing political ideology, making newspapers (inter alia) a key part of the ideological onslaught of extreme-right propaganda that has transformed much of humanity to being living in a kind of atomized and cowered fear (of immigrants, of invasions, of socialism, of powerful men). The irony is that this right-wing ideology actually causes what should provoke real fear in us all: of the existential danger of killing much of the life on the planet by asphyxiation, other environmental tipping points and/or species collapse through untrammelled pillaging capitalism. A sub-section of this development is reality TV, the king of which is Donald Trump who glorifies the ultimate power of the capitalist: to not just hire, but to ... fire, when he announces, “You’re fired!” and becomes President of the USA soon afterwards.
So, for the past seven or so decades, the working class has increasingly not been able to compete with the capitalist model of financing the newspaper.
Manipulators use Social Media Data to Control Debate
And, over the same time period, the bourgeois press, expanded to include under the word “press” both radio and TV, and this new expanded “press” is now, in turn, under threat from the various forms of internet media, which operate outside the norms of democracy fought for over about a hundred years by mainly the working class, for the Press – until the middle of last century.
So, this brings us to the second major shift. The internet.
The internet that started as a wonderful tool, one which you had to take an oath not to use for private profit in order to access it, has gradually created a monstrous system of private profit-making firms gathering personal data, with commercial value when aggregated, from most of the people on the planet. The social media companies, and search engines and others, “harvest” our data – which we give them free of charge – us working as slaves for them without pay – and then these profit-making companies sell the data, once aggregated, to those who want to manipulate us – to commercial ends, in the first instance, and to political ends, in the second – as we found out in 2017 when the tip of an iceberg – the Cambridge Analytica scandal – broke.
As social media become the medium replacing traditional outlets like newspapers, TV and radio, we get into a position where the broad masses of working people, in order to get news (and to touch base with their cousins and even to order a book), are obliged – there is no other way on the social networks so far – to allow all this “data seizing”, data aggregation, data storage, data selling, data manipulating – for money gain and political gain – without us even knowing until a year or so afterwards.
In dozens of countries, Cambridge Analytica and firms like it, helped and still help mainly right-wing political currents manipulate particular segments of the electorate, according to what data shifts indicate are fruitful “possibilities” for manipulation. So, Trump’s slogans like Drain the Swamp! were already tried and tested by Cambridge Analytica in a contract for the right-wingers that backed Trump, from before they actually backed him. So, it is not “Trump’s slogan”. Slogans like this manipulate whole “categories” of people, and profit-making firms can predict that they can by having tested samples of the data. The power of the slogan is no doubt due to various levels of sub-conscious interpretation: it masquerades to mean “get rid of corruption in Washington”. Fine. But “draining the swamp” is also often a colonial trope. Indigenous peoples, the racist slogan implies, did not give value to the land. They left it full of swamps. Then “we” and our capitalist system developed the land. (Never mind that wet-lands have their crucial ecological importance.) Since Washington DC has some 2/3 Afro-American and Hispanic people living there, there can also be a second racist sub-text. This means that the slogan is a taunt! Just like “Build the Wall!” The social media did not invent the slogan, but they tested many and this one “worked”. Another slogan “Build the Wall” was also found superior in manipulating people It has a first meaning of “new immigrants must be kept out”. But the secondary meaning is that people outside and wanting to come in are bad people. Thirdly, those “like them” already inside the USA are quite enough, because they, too, are “bad”. And the use of the term “wall” rather than fence (which the barrier often is on that border) opens up more apartheid like concepts – of wall between different people, and between different peoples. The term also implies that the USA is fantastic and everyone, by definition, is so keen to get into the USA that you need a physical wall to keep the “barbarians” out of such glorious civilization. The concept of a wall blocks the view, so to speak, that the USA, itself, was the root cause of a great deal of this immigration by its long-term role in ruining South and Central American countries’ by propping up dictators and ruining economies. In particular, there are Guatemala (where the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup d’état led to decades of repression and ruin), and Honduras (where the 2008 US-financed and supported coup led to a decade of repression and ruin) and El Salvador (where Reagan in the 1980’s propped up a hideous right-wing regime with massive US aid, while the regime tortured and killed 75,000 people) – three nationalities that are recently a big proportions of those fleeing the ruin subsequently left in their countries, via Mexico often with their families, to the USA. Just as there has, incidentally, been an increase in immigration to Europe and even the USA from countries bombed by the USA: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Yemen, Libya and those countries south of Libya that had over a million workers going back and forth to Libya for work on one-year contracts. To prevent these victims of US policies entering the USA, given that a wall is the “solution”, would involve walls at airports like the JFK!
So, this new form of sharing news and analysis, opened up with so much enthusiasm in the “social media” and in “search engines” and on-line buying, now controls us and does so in ways we still do not quite understand, through data expropriated from us while we are doing something else.
So, again after the 1950’s change where capitalism began to subsidize newspapers (and TV-radio) through a manipulative ad-system, leaving the working class in a weakened position, now from about the year 2005, the data collection around social media and engines like Google, begin to take over control of the sharing of news and analysis. Now, ideas are spread exponentially as well as in separate “bubbles” of society while being controlled by completely opaque, undemocratic private, profit-making firms.
The working class is now much further left behind than after the first onslaught of manipulative advertisements, as a system.
What it means is that the working class has hard work cut out for it. There are no short cuts other than coupling newspapers, blogs, social media, with neighbourhood and work-site meetings, linking working people to their political parties and unions. And of course, there is now an urgent need for greater depth of common understanding of the programs that we share that would advance us in the working class in our quest for socialism. There is also a need to de-construct what has happened in the past 100 years to our means of sharing news and analysis, in class terms. As well as political battles, these ideological ones have to be waged, in order to be able to imagine socialism. And the difference between our political battles and those of centrist and right-wing parties is precisely that we recruit and develop our program together on the basis of ideas, as expressed in our newspapers and other publications, on our website, in our leaflets and so on. But, we must today also have face-to-face meetings in neighbourhoods and on work sites, tiny meetings. It is imperative.
Otherwise, all our communications, as has already happened in so many instances, just get cut off when we most need them. (They announce that the networks are down.) Otherwise, even more fundamentally, we are open to such profound brain-washing within the oppressed classes that it is well-nigh imperceptible.
Orwell might turn in his grave
George Orwell, when he wrote his Animal Farm and his 1984 in the 1940’s, had no idea the horrors ahead with the two changes – advertising becoming the controller of information dissemination and analysis on a daily basis, and then, in turn, the social media becoming the new controller, by instituting a new form of “free labour” as we supply hours of free “data production” which channels massive incomes to those who own the data captured. And by mistake, we have turned a public debate (in a public town hall or in a newspaper sold in public to everyone) into different “bubbles” or “pockets” who just get more and more of the same ideas again and again, often becoming more mendacious – without any fact-checking, or debate from anyone else. Why? We do not know that the arguments are being made, if we are not in that particular bubble, because they are in a closed circuit of some specific demographic data set e.g. young, so-called white, male, Democrat, working class, recently lost his job; or middle-aged, so-called black, middle class, Democrat, anti-war, hesitates over the Clintons; or whatever; and they are fed propaganda, and watched to see the response, then algorithms do the rest, supplying more and more propaganda in the same direction. In this example, in the first sub-set to get out and vote for Trump or, in the second sub-set, not to vote at all.
This article by Lindsey Collen was written for the website based on her notes for a panel discussion she was in at the Jozi Book Fair in September, 2019.
(1) Worth reading on the rise of the advertisement, the Raymond Williams classic essay, Advertising: The Magic System.