Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 'democratization' of news sites

I'm pretty sure that when media theorists praised the democratic potentials of the internet a decade or more ago, they didn't have the comment sections of major media news websites in mind. As my union's nearly three-month long strike lurches to an end - with a whimper, as the government is legislating us back to work - I'm continually depressed at the way in which comments threads are filled with old information, misinformation, or just plain old propaganda - ideas from which the newspaper can distance themselves insofar as they didn't write them, but all of which they nonetheless allow to be said, read, and repeated without any critical filter.

And as if this weren't enough of a problem, The Toronto Star takes the exercise to an additional level of absurdist faux democratic process by allowing people to click 'agree' and 'disagree'. (As you can see here, for instance.) By way of a click, a couple dozen readers of any online story can vote on what politicized interpretation of the news - which the newspaper could not explicitly endorse for reasons of politesse, factuality, or legality - most closely aligns with their own. It isn't an effort in the exchange of information, which is ideally what it should be, but rather a sort of mob forum. (Which, I suppose, simply reduces the standing of mainstream 'legitimate' media to the level of the rest of the internet.) And a quick look at the actual agree and disagree tallies are telling - readers will click to 'agree' with an insult or 'disagree' when a commenter lists information that corrects or casts doubt upon info offered by the paper or another commenter.

For instance: The Star was repeatedly a couple weeks behind in reporting our union's wage demands and were misleadingly suggesting in every update that the university was offering us 'increased benefits', when the 'increase' was only relative to their massively concessionary first offer. But when the 'increased benefits' were compared to the benefits available to each member when our previous contract was signed, it wasn't even close - hence, it was no increase in the sense that most of us would use the word. And every time that I posted corrections in the comments, more people 'disagreed' with me than 'agreed' - on a topic that, one would like to think, is beyond 'disagreeing'. I'm hoping that this will be revealed to have been part of a secret sociological experiment.

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