The title reflects a question, perhaps an accusation, bluntly posed by an irritated online reader of The Economist after finishing its recent story titled “Propaganda 2.0” about the Chinese government’s innovative – shall we say Millennial – attempt to keep a stranglehold on information in the world’s most populous country by changing the model of its state-run media apparatus.
Can’t be easy censoring 20 percent of the world, can it? That’s a lot of red ink.
What to do? What to do when the Internet is as accessible as clean water?
“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy,” right? Twenty-five hundred years later, China is heeding the advice of its famous philosopher general.
Unfortunately for us, meaning the United States of America (yes, I know that The Economist is based in London), we are the enemy in this case. Our media model is being replicated. Our Internet-age model of click-bait headlines and inspirational “what Person X does on a daily basis” posts has been given the green light by the Chinese government.
What does that say about our media, that a communist regime is beginning to think the best way to maintain an uninformed public is to copy us?
Needless to say, the subjects of these mind-numbing lists and posts are different, but the concept is the same. For example, instead of aspiring entrepreneurs being spoon fed every word Mark Cuban or Richard Brandon says, exposed to what they eat in the morning and nine things they do before bed, or pop culture aficionados reading up on 10 things they didn’t know about Kim Kardashian, Chinese citizens can now get what is surely an equally unfiltered peek into the daily routines of their president, “Uncle Xi,” and his wife, “Aunt Peng.”
In 2011 I visited the offices of Xinhua News Agency, the Communist Party of China’s official outlet in Shanghai. It felt like what you’d imagine: dark, windowless, tense, conversation was limited and any words that were exchanged seemed scripted. Now, as The Economist recently reported, state-run media outlets in China, including People’s Daily, Oriental Morning Post and the comically-named Paper, are mimicking our media, joining a global effort to appeal to a recently-discovered alien demographic called Millennials.
Everything is going to be nice and shareable and digestible, like BuzzFeed or Business Insider. Growing up, I remember hearing that the meat Taco Bell used was lower quality than the meat in most dog food. Then, in college, I tried Taco Bell and it was delicious. Doesn’t mean it was good for me. Doesn’t mean a consistent diet of Taco Bell wouldn’t kill me.
The most notable difference, I suppose, is that there it is enforced and here we choose it. Denying access to information is an act of oppression. Willingly squandering the freedom to access information is an act of stupidity. Here there is no conspiracy, no excuse. Our thoughts are free to wander. Ideas can grow. Yet, when it comes to the information available to us, we choose the trash. When we choose the trash, we vote for the trash. We vote for it by giving it our time, our eyeballs, which translate into advertising dollars, which result in thriving media companies pumping out anything shiny that will attract the masses and that they’ll share, no matter what it is.
This support, which indirectly translates into the financial success of these outlets, also contributes to the demise of legacy outlets with skilled expert journalists. When click-bait journalism beats traditional journalism in the fight for advertising revenue, quality content suffers. It’s especially difficult when outlets like The New York Times invest heavily in the talent and time necessary to break important and insightful stories only to have those stories paraphrased and repurposed within minutes; the copier often gets more attention than the copied.
In November I had a chance to ask Tyson Evans, Editor of Newsroom Strategy at The New York Times, about the ethics of this copycat journalism model. While he answered gracefully and gave credit where credit is due for the success of this new wave of outlets, he said it is clearly a problem they’re facing but that they’ll have to adapt to the realities of today. They’ve had a difficult time adapting.
Two months ago The New York Times announced budget cuts resulting in another 100 newsroom staff being offered buyouts, about 7 percent of the editorial workforce. Listicle publishers of mostly mindless content like BuzzFeed and Business Insider, on the other hand, are now valued at over $850 and $100 million, respectively.
If we value our freedom to information and want that information to be of substance, we’ll have to think twice about what we click on. As a collective audience, we share the responsibility of defining how information is spread in our society.
In light of Uncle Xi and Aunt Peng’s vote of confidence in our model, now would be a good time to ask questions and reconsider the direction we’re headed.