Why today’s media are a threat to freedom & mental health and how to fix them

by barabeke

Once in a while, I come up with art that is meant to push people to think.

Around one year ago a PR agency (which I won’t name) unsolicitedly got in touch with me and shared a spreadsheet with their fares. This document, which I have used as background for my artwork The skeleton underneath all this show of personality (title inspired by a poem by Jack Kerouac), shows how much it costs to get coverage about you or your company on this or that media outlet, how much for a mention, and so on.

Upper portion of The skeleton underneath all this show of personality, with fares legible.

Anyone familiar with the media business won’t be shocked by this practice. That’s how things work. PR agencies invest time, efforts, and relations to get you there and they want to be paid (what is unconventional is that such a document, usually confidential, is shared so mindlessly).

Common people though are generally not aware that things work this way, or they just have a vague idea. They don’t know that a lot of what they read, hear, or see is not there because of its inherent public interest but because it is serving the interest of an elite, ranging from those who can afford it to broader financial and ideological power structures. If you get positive media coverage, common people simply think you are great, you are someone. But they are subtly being deceived.

My artwork is meant to punch reality in the face of people, but still it’s only scratching the surface of the real problem. So I decided to use this occasion to share with you my critique of today’s media, daring to go as far as pointing a way out from their yoke, in the hope to open some eyes and inspire a resistance.

What’s wrong with today’s media

Here is a list of reasons why I consider today’s media as a huge threat to freedom and mental health.

1. Concentrated in the hands of few

Until not long ago, pluralism in media used to be considered a necessary condition for democracy. Not anymore. Nowadays we hardly hear about the importance of pluralism and guess why? Because it’s already gone…

Today 90% of what you read, watch, or listen to in the US comes from just 6 corporations, whose power and influence reach the entire West and beyond. It happened fast, due to the digital revolution trashing the previous business model of media outlets and killing most of them, especially the small and independent ones.

Concentrations of media power should not be allowed, at any cost.

Unfortunately, the damage is already done. Reinstating pluralism in media won’t be easy. The media oligarchy (tech giants should be considered part of it) has already demonstrated that it can silence a sitting US president, which very few seem to worry about.

Is it even possible to campaign against this oligarchy? They control the agenda and the narrative, and they can silence or destroy anyone.

2. Fear-mongering and divisive

I guess these points are quite evident, one must be blind not to see them. The fear-mongering is mostly due to the fact that sensationalism always had a strong popular appeal (but was never hammered in our brains so constantly and vividly).

But there is now also an ideology, wokism, that sees the world and history as a conflict of genders and races, being pushed by Western media on people (the majority of which wouldn’t vote for it). In theory, this ideology promotes equality, inclusiveness, tolerance. In practice, it is proving to be intolerant, with illiberal inclinations, and to spread divisions and discord among people (e.g. women vs men, black vs white), reaching extremes that remind of apartheid in South Africa or religious persecutions in authoritarian regimes.

In a time in which work is rapidly being destroyed or devalued by automation, people should be more united than ever in defending the social conquests achieved through centuries of struggles. Instead, we are losing them because we are being distracted and divided by this constant brainwashing we receive.

This phenomenon is amplified and exacerbated by social media, an arena for slogans more than for critical thinking where the artificial divisions created by media take the form of tribalism.

3. Promoting devastating values

Such as narcissism, victimhood, child-like selfishness, and extreme materialism in which even people become products and intellectual prostitution (see influencers) is considered not just normal, but something to aspire to. Such values are a recipe for disaster. They lead to a cold and unforgiving world full of dumb, conformist, cruel people.

4. Totalitarian

Media are increasingly speaking with one voice, making not only common people but even politicians and intellectuals frightened to oppose their ideology and values radically.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, I think the unelected transnational tech/media/financial elites ruling us just took advantage of new conditions created by the digital revolution. While people are still disoriented by all the innovation that is deeply disrupting not just our societies but also our human experience, greed was fast to adapt and find its way, leading to concentrations of power that people don’t seem to worry about but that constitute a vital threat to democracy.

Reading News by Freakjesus

The system of persuasion and repression that is currently in place is so powerful that it (almost) doesn’t need to censor thanks to a new player: social media, where the indoctrinated masses act as Maoist red guards against anyone who dares to think differently from dominant ideology.

You are free to say almost whatever you want as long as you have little visibility. In case you are visible and influent, you may regret it… Most people either keep a low profile or conform for the sake of quiet living and of not endangering their careers.

The West of today may not resemble dictatorships of the past or future dystopias imagined by writers, but for the reasons aforementioned it can already be considered semi-totalitarian and the impression is that it’s getting increasingly oppressive.

5. Unenlightened

Today’s media culture is replacing rationality with emotions, facts with opinions, data with anecdotes, critical thinking with sensationalism and gossip, modesty and temperance with exhibitionism, constantly tickling all that is low in us, pushing humanity in a downwards spiral that leads to chaos.

Pepe 3 by Barabeke (from The Pepeful Eight series).

After a couple of centuries of efforts (mostly from a cultured elite) in trying to elevate people, to provide them with the knowledge and rights that would enable them to become independent individuals who can find self-realization and contribute to the betterment of society, today’s world seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

The cultural level not just of media, but also of academia has lowered significantly since they became ideological operators. Intellectuals, once prominent and influential voices, have either disappeared from the media arena or have been homologated. All that counts is what’s popular, what’s trendy right now and the sentiment around it, no matter if it’s real or partially/totally fabricated.

On the positive side, it is also true that never like today a seeker can find answers thanks to the same technology. We may have more enlightened people today than ever before in history. But seekers will always be a minority and today they are less represented than in the past on media.

6. Obsessed with words

Western culture, because of its Judeo-Christian roots, is still trapped in dualist thinking and assigns to words a value that is disproportionate compared to cultures not based on revealed religions. In the West, words are treated as solid entities that people can turn into their gods (or, more frequently, into their demons), while in the East people are more familiar with the illusory, partial, and unreliable nature of words.

This obsession with political correctness we see nowadays, with all its insane excesses like cancel culture, is just a new incarnation of American Puritanism.

Consider that children born today can potentially have most of what they say, write, read, and watch in their life recorded and traceable, from their first cry to their last goodbye. Due to this unprecedented, granular, and automatic potential we have today for tracking people, if our culture keeps being obsessed with words there is a serious risk that it will turn oppressive as we have never witnessed before.

Unfortunately, this obsession with words is too deeply rooted to hope it can dissolve in few years. Can we really have a culture in which people are judged for what they are now instead of what they said in the past? A culture where words are not taken out of context to crucify people like media systematically do? A culture where people don’t get offended so easily for silly reasons?

No, this can’t happen too fast. We’ll have to keep this yoke for a while and succumb to it again and again.

7. Unforgiving

A stupid word out of millions you’ll ever pronounce in your life, maybe taken out of context, maybe said 30 years ago, is enough to publicly disgrace you, ruin your career, and attract hate campaigns.

Can a culture of acceptance and tolerance be imposed through persecuting, humiliating, and disgracing people who said something that doesn’t conform to the dominant ideology, without space for forgiveness?

8. Isolating

Today’s technology, while connecting us in powerful ways that were previously unthinkable, is also isolating us. We all hide behind screens which are both a window to the world and a tool to interact with it.

The recent pandemic was a crash test into our present and future digital existences, and the impression is that it affected our psychic well-being quite heavily. I believe the isolation factor can be damning, as it’s in the nature of humans to be social animals. Social media and other communication platforms are only a surrogate for real interaction.

Physical closeness matters. Being able to look each other in the eyes, to touch each other, to embrace each other are all important for our mental health. Did you know that depriving a child of human touch can cause lasting damage or even death? That should give you an idea of how important it is. Even if we grow up, we are still that child inside.

How can there be compassion in a world in which everyone is an island, emotionally detached from others that turned immaterial, others that you can make disappear with a click of a button?

9. Unescapable

It’s hard to escape from the poisonous media bubble we live immersed in. Even if you disconnect, those around you are under its influence and see reality through the media glasses.

The only way out is to become a hermit and live alone in a remote place without connection, but that is a rather extreme choice, one that leaves others behind.

That’s what today’s media do to us. They created an empire of appearance in which we, the people, are more like guinea pigs to train and use rather than a community to serve. A system that exploits and degrades all that is good in us. Their goal is to capture our attention, at any cost, with any means. For their own benefit, and the one of the power structures they represent, while trashing our happiness and mental health.

I would go as far as suggesting that not even in a dictatorship media are as bad for people. It’s a bit of a paradox, but consider that while in a proper dictatorship media are less free they also tend to be less poisonous and divisive and therefore less harmful for mental health. I lived for few months in Cuba, where media were full of positive and cultural content (which we would mostly find boring) with no advertising. I had the impression that the overall good spirits of people, regardless of the difficult living conditions, was not just due to good weather and the beauty of the island but also to the absence of media that poison and divide.

Is there a way out of this dystopia?

I am afraid there are no easy answers nor fast solutions.

Technology and media are here to stay and further evolve. Our perception of reality will keep being vastly influenced by them. The challenge is to find a way in which they can serve us rather than enslave us.

To a good extent, the evil media is doing to us depends on their commercial nature. They tease all that is low in us to capture our attention, they play with our weaknesses to spill money from us, they manipulate us to preserve and reinforce the power structures they are part of.

That’s what capitalism does, if left unbridled. It devours us. When it had an antagonist (socialism) it was fairer, because it was afraid that widespread discontent could make the antagonist win and turn free-market countries into Soviet Union satellites. This led to important concessions in terms of rights, especially to workers and especially in Europe.

Free from the antagonist, with the digital revolution disrupting last century’s structures and opening global prairies to conquer, capitalism simply occupied all spaces, leading to gigantic transnational power conglomerates that are more powerful not just of elected governments, but also of entire countries (it’s the case of big tech). Meanwhile, the rich got richer while the middle class got ravaged, with more and more people living unstable existences as work got very “flexible”.

It’s worth reminding that the presence of a broad and prosperous middle class is one of the main justifications for capitalism.

Capitalism must fall

The time to move away from capitalism seems to have come. It’s a choice that can’t be delayed also because of the severe environmental unsustainability of its model that pursues perpetual growth of production and consumption. We must rethink our economy and switch to a system based on sustainability, efficiency, community, and resource sharing.

It won’t happen until we create a new antagonist. As to say, a strong ideology that can resonate deeply with people and unite them. I am speaking of a new revisited form of socialism that has learnt from the mistakes of the past.

The terrible flaws of the practical application of socialism were caused by centralization, insane bureaucracy, lack of transparency (and therefore corruption), lack of meritocracy, means for self-realization, and freedom of expression. Which is not little. But it looks like most of these flaws, which were hard to elude in the past, can be overcome thanks to today’s technology.

By leveraging on the blockchain, for the first time in history, it is technically possible to design a society in which power is decentralized, with a fast and efficient bureaucracy and supreme transparency. A society in which resources are smartly allocated and nobody is left behind, without mortifying individual initiative and expression.

It is possible today to imagine systems based on a broad spectrum of values we can symbolically express, measure, and act upon efficiently if not automatically. For example, it is possible to imagine how an economy based on kindness could work.

While we have/are developing technology that would enable us to create previously impossible forms of economy and social organization, I am afraid that within the current culture technology wouldn’t end up serving us well. If socialism strikes back in a woke incarnation, for example, I have little doubts it would turn totalitarian and oppressive, with political correctness serving as Orwellian newspeak.

The Left this century needs

We need a left that unites us instead of dividing us. A left concerned with essence rather than appearance. A left that is intellectually honest. A left that raises from below instead of being pushed on us from above. A left that is the expression of real needs and concerns of people not of the ideology of an elite. A left that gives up its obsession with words (see identity politics) and fights hard for rights only when these are not already recognized by law (which should be obvious but apparently it’s not…). A left that has given up its feeling of superiority and its illiberal tendencies. A left that can laugh of itself.

In short, we need an enlightened post-ideological left.

A soul rises to be one by Gary Cartlidge

Aside from environmentalism, one big theme that can unite people is basic income. Not so popular yet (regardless of the awesome contribution by Andrew Yang, kudos to him), but it’s evident that, as jobs for humans rapidly disappear or are devalued due to the evolution of automation and AI, the alternative to basic income would be massive inequality, poverty, and social unrest.

We can’t bring to this century last century’s mentality that sees the right to live a life of dignity associated with having a job. Most humans already can’t have a stable job, which makes them vulnerable to loss of rights, exploitation, and all sort of falls, with politicians unable to do much for them as they are ultimately serving the system that causes the problem.

This is the most prosperous and rich in opportunities world ever, everyone should benefit from it and thanks to today’s and tomorrow’s technology it can be done in a fair and sustainable way, without mortifying individual initiative, merit, and free expression. The main battle of the left in this century should be:

“Give everyone as birth right enough to lead a simple and honest life”.

from the 6th of the 2kTenCom (Ten Commandments for the Digital Millennium)

The revolution we need for media

To get back to the media focus of this article, I would like to suggest four traits media should possess in order to serve us rather than devouring and oppressing us:

1. Pluralist

Ban concentrations of media power. No entity, not even governments, should own directly or indirectly more than 2% of media. It won’t easily happen since those who control the agenda and the narrative wouldn’t allow it to be a topic. Even in case a strong antagonist to capitalism managed to arise from the cracks of the liberal façade of media, it would likely want to control the agenda and the narrative itself rather than fight for pluralism.

We can’t be too optimistic, the damage is already done. But we should tirelessly keep invoking pluralism of media as a necessary condition for real democracy, as it used to be considered until not long ago.

Salvator Mundi by Barabeke

2. Non-commercial

This may sound excessive, as advertising is the soul of commerce and the main source of income for media. But remember, I am reasoning from a post-capitalist perspective, I am assuming the rise of socialism within the first half of this century.

I used to create advertising. I don’t think it’s inherently bad. When well targeted, ads can even be useful. Sometimes they can be entertaining. In most cases, people perceive them as a nuisance they’d rather avoid.

Taken as a whole though, what ads do to us is much worst than stealing our time. Ads play with our needs, desires, and weaknesses in a highly manipulative and sometimes deceptive way. They don’t just try to sell a product, they push on us lifestyles, role models, behaviors. They are the engine of the culture of appearance pushed by media. They don’t serve us, they try to take from us.

The average American nowadays is exposed to between 4000 and 10000 ads per day. Does it sound like a desirable condition for our human existence?

I think limiting the amount of advertising people can be exposed to should be almost a human right, a matter of mental health. Say max 100 per day, in any form, and only if relevant.

The technology that is used to monitor our behaviors and target us in increasingly sophisticated and intrusive ways can be adapted to shield us from this subtle, constant brainwash. If there was a will to do it, it would be technically possible to measure the number of ads each of us is served per day and impose limits. But this will can’t emerge until capitalism is on.

3. Independent

There has been a time in which news media could be able to self-sustain just with the sales of their paper copies. They could achieve a high level of independence, resist the pressure of higher power structures, produce quality journalism. All of this is mostly gone since the digital disrupted their business model and imposed its dictatorship of clicks. Today we are overflowed with shallow content and even the most prestigious publications became devoted to sensationalism, gossip, and fear-mongering.

News media used to be considered the “fourth power”, keeping under check other powers. Today it vastly lost its independence and can be considered part of the establishment.

The best solution I can think of to bring back plural and independent media is freeing them from the imperative of profit. If we recognize that having independent and plural media is vital for democracy, then their public financing is justified.

We would need to make sure that this public financing doesn’t become a form of state control, which would lead to another totalitarianism. Any journalist respecting the deontology of their profession should be put in the position to practice with freedom without bowing to any power structure, including the state.

Popularity, getting clicks, should stop being the only horizon. Sensationalism and gossip should not be rewarded. Cultural content should be incentivized. Spreading fake news should be punished.

I believe it can be done. There are plenty of journalists or wanna be such with noble intentions and great examples to grab inspiration from. What is missing is the conditions for independent quality journalism to flourish.

4. Social, in a virtuous way

Social media gave people a voice in the public arena, which in theory is a positive fact for democracy. In practice, they can be considered responsible for the rise of populism, from left and right. Their going mainstream was like opening Pandora’s box, I believe they played a big role in the degeneration of media I am here denouncing.

LOOTING TOONS by Mamadou Sow

Social media nevertheless are here to stay, because the opportunity they offer is greater than the problems they cause. People shall have a voice.

It’s not easy, perhaps too early, to say how social media should evolve to better serve us as they are multifaceted, complex to govern, and in constant evolution.

Perhaps what needs to change is the ultimate goal of social media, which currently is to keep us on their platform, collect data about us, and monetize our presence by targeting us with ads.

Their probable destiny is to become public infrastructure, like the internet, not owned by a single company. Mandatory identification of users, to increase their sense of responsibility and reduce abuses (including bots and spam) will likely be introduced at some point. These can be positive innovations, provided that a very liberal regulation is in place.

There shouldn’t be thought crimes aside from defamation, serious personal offences, and incitation to violence. Nobody should be discriminated or persecuted based on their opinions, especially if expressed long ago. Freedom of expression must win over the silly right to not feel subjectively offended some people nowadays dare to claim.

The ultimate goal of social media should be to enable dialogue and confrontation between people, to encourage diversity of thoughts within broad limits beyond which there should be only criminal actions. Those who control social media shouldn’t push any ideology on people like it happens today. They should just provide the arena and act as impartial guardians of the rules.

If a humanist ambition replaced the current commercial focus of social media, I believe they could serve us in a more virtuous way.

This concludes my critique of media. While many (I hope) will be able to see the issues I have raised, I realize that the solutions I am suggesting are quite radical and would tend to create other problems.

But it’s necessary to start having a serious debate about the possible way-outs we have from this dangerous, potentially endless tunnel we got in.

As things stand, no matter if capitalism resists or socialism strikes back, I have little doubt that we are headed towards a totalitarian future. It’s a problem of culture, of mindset.

What we need, to stay free and dignified in this digital age, is that people come together around a common humanist and liberal culture. Poisoned and divided as we are, it won’t take long before we are doomed…

Here is the seed of a non-violent cultural revolution from below, of global scale. Please give it some attention, and pour some water on it with an act of goodwill.

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