IN THE late 1970s, when I came to live there, the Swedish intelligentsia had a secret unknown to the rest of the world. They had all taken part in the Vietnam War; in fact, their contribution had made a real difference to the outcome. Naturally, none of them had actually killed anyone. Very few had gone within 3000 miles of the fighting.
But, back in Stockholm, they had marched through the capital and flourished their banners in the faces of the policemen guarding their marches. In newspapers and on television, they had fearlessly taken positions facing the enemy. They knew, if no one else did, how vital their support had been in the triumph of the Viet Cong and, later, of Pol Pot.
In those days, it was still just possible to think of Britain as a great power, worthy of a seat at the UN Security Council; so the ridiculous nature of Sweden’s engagement in the world was perfectly obvious to the British. Fifty years later, you’d have to squint very hard to see Britain as a world power, and our media language about world affairs has taken on the same quality of preening self-righteous unreality.
SOMETHING bad happens when nothing that the media report can be affected in the least by their consumers. In part, there is a psychological dislocation among the readers. We are all predisposed to notice things that require action or choices of us, and to ignore those that do not. This is the reflex that advertising exploits. It offers the opportunity for an immediate decision — if only to spend money that you don’t really have on something that you don’t really need. But news is meant to have a tighter relation to the truth.
When there are no decisions to make, there is no penalty for believing half-truths or untruths entirely. The contrast with advertising is instructive again: if the reader decides to buy a new phone, they will go through a phase of reading as many reviews as they can get their hands on, and trying to filter out all but the most honest and best informed — all this without even looking for a physical example in a shop. But, if they decide to take up a position on the war in Gaza, they are likely to grab the first position that they see and that fits them, as if they were buying socks.
This is a perfectly sensible use of limited time and attention for the individual concerned, but it has obvious drawbacks for democracy. It has drawbacks for the media, too. When people can choose the opinions that give them the most pleasure, writers learn quickly enough how to gratify them, and the fine-grained nature of web analytics makes it possible to price not just individual articles but the sentences within them. Carried to its extreme, this is the phenomenon that inflicted Boris Johnson on the nation.
In a larger, darker, and almost demonic form, it accounts for the rise of Donald Trump.
IT ACCOUNTS for what you might call the demand side of the disinformation economy, which is something often neglected when we panic about the supply side. And this demand is only going to grow, the more power drains out of the hands of the political class as well as of the voters.
Naturally, the supply side responds to this. Since this is a press column, it misses a great deal of what informs the young, who don’t read newspapers, even online. But there is a chilling little essay by the American academic and businessman Professor Scott Galloway (published at profgalloway.com) looking at the impact of TikTok on American attitudes to the Gaza war.
He writes: “Fifty-one percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 believe the Hamas attacks of October 7 ‘can be justified by the grievances of the Palestinians.’ That’s not how most Americans feel, and the disparity in sentiment is correlated with age.”
He talks about students at his university holding up protest signs reading “keep the world clean” with images of the Star of David in trash cans. “I’d like to think this is a fringe view, but when 51% of their cohort believe the murder of 1,200 people is justified, something more serious is happening.
“Young Americans spend at least 10% of their waking hours on TikTok, and 76% of 18- to 24-year-old Americans are TikTok users, compared to 7% of Americans 65 and older. That’s time they are not spending watching CNN or reading the Wall Street Journal. And on TikTok, the scale and reach of pro-Palestine content dramatically outweighs pro-Israel content. As of this week, videos tagged #StandWithPalestine have received more than 10 times the views of videos tagged #StandWithIsrael — 324 million vs. 3.4 billion.”
We’re used to the entertainment industry turning the horrors of past wars into something that we can feel good about. But who could have foreseen that our current wars would be depicted on videos using the standards of historical accuracy set by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only this time with the Jews as the baddies?