The political journalist Ben Smith surprised many when he joined Buzzfeed as its editor-in-chief in 2011. Buzzfeed has become almost synonymous with the sort of entertaining online ephemera that has spawned such neologisms as ‘lolcats’ and ‘listicles’, costing offices around the world countless hours in lost productivity.
However, in hiring Smith, the website signalled an intention that not merely expressive cats but politicians, too, could be given the ‘viral’ treatment. Step forward, then, articles like ‘The 17 Best Swag Gifts Obama Has Received From Foreign Leaders’, ‘The 13 Hottest Attorneys General’ and ’23 people Who Will Kick Kim Jong-Un’s Ass If He Fires A Missile’.
The ‘dumbing down’ of news reporting on TV and in newspapers has long been criticised. See, for example, Charlie Brooker’s excellent take-down of the BBC’s ‘accessible’ news reporting. Yet the Internet and other new media present a different challenge. Not only the sheer diversity of content online, but also the way this content is filtered and accessed, affects the level of exposure of ordinary people to news and current affairs that new media brings.
In essence, the evolution of the media landscape in the last couple of decades has allowed individuals to tailor their media consumption much more closely to their needs. The Internet not only offers a new wealth of entertainment riches, but also platforms like YouTube and Twitter that allow more freedom in how such content is consumed. If you’ve ever clicked a related video on YouTube or followed a user on Twitter, your relationship to the media is fundamentally different – more interactive and more individualised – than the passive readers, listeners and viewers of decades gone by. Time-shifted TV systems like BBC iPlayer and DIY music websites like Pandora encourage similarly innovative patterns of consumption.
At the level of the individual, this new media landscape works out very well. But at the level of society, in a democratic sense, it contains kernels of concern. For if everybody is able to craft their own, perfectly airtight ‘packages’ of content, it’s fair to assume that many will, consciously or otherwise, filter out the sort of political programming that a healthy democracy relies upon everyone consuming. This is in contrast to the status quo ante, where the small number of analog channels each carried nightly news bulletins, so viewers ‘found themselves’ exposed to a sizeable news diet, and where the layout of (most) newspapers put news stories literally front and centre.1
The consequences of this shift should not be underestimated. As Markus Prior explains,
Since political knowledge is an important predictor of turnout and since exposure to political information motivates turnout, the shift from a low-choice to a high-choice media environment implies changes in electoral participation as well. Those with a preference for news not only become more knowledgeable, but also vote at higher rates. Those with a stronger interest in other media content vote less.2
The need to choose between news and entertainment, and the fact that many will choose entertainment, therefore threatens the health of democracy itself.
But what if politics were repackaged into something that looked and felt a lot more like conventional entertainment? This appears to be the project that websites like Buzzfeed are undertaking. Buzzfeed’s ‘verticals’, as the site calls its different sections, cover a wide range of subjects, but all in the same light, whimsical tone – whether it’s ’35 Reasons Ross Geller is the Worst’ or, indeed, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s 19 Most Badass Moments’. The important thing, therefore, is not to confuse style with substance: Buzzfeed can offer engaging political content, including its fair share of exclusives and scoops, in its familiar tone of voice. It’s highly significant, furthermore, that the Politics vertical is now listed first in the site’s navigation bar.
The outcome of Buzzfeed’s approach of course remains to be seen. But either way it offers an interesting new way of thinking about disseminating political news online. For a healthy democracy in the Internet age, ‘dumbing down’ may get the thumbs up.
1 The most persuasive explanation of this idea of the Internet creating information ‘cocoons’ comes from Cass Sunstein in Republic 2.0.
2 Prior, Markus. “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout,” American Journal of Political Science, 49 (2005), pp. 577–592.