Argument is the human condition, but public argument is not (until the Internet arrived)

(updated to add #Olle transcript link – see end of post)

From a few weeks ago, this fascinating long post from Clay Shirky on how the information age’s transformation of the media landscape has fundamentally been because the old mainstream media model relied on scarcity (of sources and thus of viewpoints), and neither journalists nor most MSM consumers are trained to operate in an environment where marginalised viewpoints have a voice which can no longer be conveniently ignored (whether those voices belong to conspiracy theorists or social justice activists).

Shirky: ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’ – I’ve excerpted extensively, but read the rest to get the full arguments.

Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.

The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a platform for orthographically-challenged wingnuts to rant about the President. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.


Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical or illegal or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era …


To assume that this situation can be reversed, and everyone else will voluntarily sign on to the beliefs of some culturally dominant group, is a fantasy. To assume that they should, or at least that they should hold their tongue when they don’t, is Napoleonic in its self-regard. Yet this is what the people who long for the clarity of the old days are longing for.

Seeing claims that the CIA staged the 9/11 attacks or that oil is an unlimited by-product of volcanism is enough to make the dear dead days of limited public speech seem like a paradise, but there are compensating virtues in our bumptious public sphere.

Consider three acts of mainstream media malfeasance unmasked by outsiders:


There’s no going back. Journalists now have to operate in a world where no statement, however trivial, will be completely secured from public gainsaying. At the same time, public production of speech, not just consumption, means that the policing of ethical failures has passed out of the hands of the quasi-professional group of journalists employed in those outlets, and has become another form of public argument.

This alters the public sphere in important ways.

The old days, where marginal opinions meant marginal availability, have given way to a world where all utterances, true or false, are a click away. Judgement about legitimate consensus is becoming a critical journalistic skill, one that traditional training and mores don’t prepare most practitioners for.

Journalists identify truth by looking for consensus among relevant actors. For the last two generations of journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity. It was easy to find mainstream voices, and hard to find marginal or heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus would be destroyed, unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to as well.

A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones. They can no longer fall back on “experts,” as if every professor or researcher is equally trustworthy.

This is destroying the nominally neutral position of many mainstream outlets.


The philosophy of news ethics — tell the truth to the degree that you can, fess up when you get it wrong — doesn’t change in the switch from analog to digital. What does change, enormously, is the individual and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on scarcity, and hewing to ethical norms without the ability to use force.

One of the major problems Shirky identifies for old media is that the new transparency expectations of the fact-checking movements on the Internet are in direct conflict with their need for privileged access to public actors and, most importantly for their corporate bottom line, advertisers – if the press moves to fact-checking politicians and advertisers, then why would they trust or cooperate with the press?

h/t @Colvinius aka Mark Colvin, recognising Shirky’s piece as one of the sources for material referenced in his 2012 Andrew Olle Media Lecture given last Friday, which will be televised on ABC1 tonight at 11pm-ish. Focussing on the role and the future of media, the Olle is always worth catching:there’s a taste on ABC local Radio.

“The digitisation tsunami has finally hit, and that means that mainstream media in Australia and around the world face not one, but several crises at the same time.”

These included a crisis of consensus, of authority, credibility and finance.

The credibility aspect is most notoriously illustrated by the phone hacking scandal in the UK, of course.

I’ll link to a full transcript when one is available. the transcript of Mark Colvin’s 2012 Andrew Olle Media Lecture is now available.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, media, parties and factions, skepticism, social justice

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2 replies

  1. I can’t say, amusingly, that I agree with Shirky’s central idea here. Moon landing doubters have existed since 1969. Which Shirky admits. The difference between him and me is that he seems to think that the marginalised oddballs never got together and thought of themselves as the righteous (and majority in certain limited spaces).
    Now we’ve Time Cube and associated other weirdnesses right out in public, yes. But the thing is, the mainstream media have the same audience that they did 20 years ago, give or take a few centimetres of overton window. The fact that it’s easier to find oddball points of view doesn’t mean that those opinions are mainstream now. It just means that the internet is a great engine for getting marginalised people together, whether it’s your feminists organising worldwide for change, or it’s your conspiracy theorists doing their thing.
    Mainstream media are in trouble because of the internet, it’s true. But it’s because they don’t understand their jobs in the digital age is the same as their old dead-tree schtick only harder, with better quality output. The cutting back on quality to meet lowered profits is only going to end in a race to the bottom. The opposite direction has it’s problems too, I’ll acknowledge. Mainly with money. To which I have no answers, just the knowledge that the way the MSM orgs are going now is not the path to survival.

  2. I’m not so sure Shirky’s argument is that the kooks never got together for mutual back-pats, it’s just that their beliefs and gatherings were unable to impinge much on the newsworthy consensus before the internet gave them effective MSM-bypass routes to reach eyeballs that previously could never have seen them at all. The supposed “liberal consensus” was always curated/tailored to comfortably fit with the sensibilities of the educated middle classes, and although the MSM might still not give marginalised voices adequate representation, it’s become impossible now to pretend that those voices don’t exist at all, which shatters that cosy illusion of the consensus.
    BTW, the transcript of Mark Colvin’s 2012 Andrew Olle Media Lecture is now available.

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