The New Digital Divide: Privilege, Misinformation and Outright B.S. in Modern Media

Not everyone can afford to be blasé.

offthemedia-1Tech folks have long beat the same drum. Yes, the internet is often embarrassingly, comically and dangerously wrong, they say, but if you know how to separate the good from the bad, it all works out. There may be individual weak spots, from Wikipedia pages to Twitter rumors to (incorrect) breaking news on Reddit, but as a whole (the thinking goes), it’s a strong system.

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And to a certain degree, they’re right. If you know how to work it, online media is awesome. By nature of reading a column about media, you’re probably one of those people. You are proficient in skepticism, cross-checking stories against each other, and gravitating toward the signal within the noise.

What I think we forget–or worse, never even realized—is the extreme privilege often inherent in “digital literacy.”

Yes, much of the Internet is free. But it takes time and energy to develop the skills and habits necessary to successfully derive value from today’s media. Knowing how to tell a troll from a serious thinker, spotting linkbait, understanding a meme, cross checking articles against each other, even posting a comment to disagree with something–these are skills. They might not feel like it, but they are. And they’re easier to acquire the higher your tax bracket.

Everyone this side of Fake Jeff Jarvis ought to be able to see that many people do not have the luxury to act as their own media ombudsman.

If I work as a security guard or at the counter of a Wendy’s, our media environment is significantly more difficult to track. Not everyone has their Internet time subsidized by an employer who asks them to sit in front of a computer all day. In fact, many people have jobs that forbid them from doing just that, with bosses who will write them up if caught checking their phone. These people–we often refer to them (derisively) as “average Americans”–are removed from the iterative, lightning-fast online media cycle for hours at a time and often for the entire day.

Before you joke about how lucky they are, think about how that would change someone’s relationship with culture. It means they end up getting their news from Facebook or from the “most emailed” stories of the day (of dubious validity). With only so much time left at the end of the day, they go to the one or two places that can give them the gist. Their reality is shaped by the things that tend to trickle about and from the Internet.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal recently discovered this, when away from his office for a few weeks on paternity leave. It turns out that constantly refreshing Twitter isn’t how most people live their lives! It turns out that you start to see the world and current events a little differently when you’re preoccupied and get only sporadic bursts of online information at more or less the same times every day.

All of this calls to mind Tyler Cowen’s haunting new book, Average is Over. In it, Mr. Cowen argues that we are heading toward a world of radical disparity, à la 1% vs 99%, but applied not only to wealth but all facets of society. Those who are adroit at technology, media and marketing will find themselves increasingly wealthy, while those who are not will watch their incomes and access fall.

In a way we are already seeing this. My friends in tech and finance are living it up in San Francisco and New York, easily able to pay obscene rents and call up an Uber black car whenever they don’t feel like waiting five minutes or walking two blocks to get a cab or ride the subway. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is moving to the smoggy suburbs of Houston so they can furnish their families with some semblance of the American dream.

By the same factors, we now have one part of society that finds little trouble navigating the perils of the online world and playing frogger on the information superhighway. They know to take Upworthy articles with a grain of salt. They tend not to get as caught up in the artificial narratives of a media cycle. They’re better at spotting when they’re being trolled. They can also afford to pay for reliable media if they need it. The rest of society struggles to keep up and make sense of a news environment made for the Andy Carvins of the world. Though blessed to have no idea who Andy is, they’re forced to make due in a media world whose language and content are dictated by RSS lovers and Twitter-addicts, despite how unrepresentative those readers really are.

In New Orleans, where I lived until recently, the formerly reliable daily newspaper The Times-Picayune is being slowly starved to death and will ultimately cease to print. The reaction of most people I know has primarily been indifference–after all, they say, there are plenty of blogs and social media waiting to replace it along with, the paper’s mediocre website.

In a city wracked by corruption, with a population that is notoriously tech-averse, is this not ground zero for the new digital divide? Those young, educated foodies (read: rich white people) living on St. Charles Ave will have the resources and experience to compensate for the weakened culture of journalism–but only for their own private use. The residents of the Ninth Ward and the Third Ward? They’re left with a news site that’s mostly sports scores (because that gets traffic) and the rest of the internet, with its celebrity slideshows and YouTube videos designed to manipulate us into being angry, distracted, glossy-eyed.

It’s expensive to be a core user of online media. It’s expensive to develop the skills to become one. To those for whom it is already second nature, that is something usually born of privilege.

I’m wondering if this foreshadows the new “digital divide.” As mobile and broadband costs fall, the issue of “access” to the internet diminishes (both globally and locally). Yet access to the digital world is not sufficient to bridge the divide.

It is digital literacy that may produce the real separation between the haves and the have-nots. I’m not talking about knowing how to use a computer or a phone. I’m talking about being able to navigate the bullshit and misinformation that dominates these social networks and news platforms.

For instance, when I talk about or expose certain media practices, I usually get two reactions. People who work in the media or related fields usually go “yeah, yeah, so what–everyone knows about it.” Then people who are not in the media–after they pick their jaws off the floor–tell me how much this upsets them.

I’m wondering if the new digital divide–along the lines of the book–is not about access but about people who have the time, energy and skills to develop new media literacy and those who don’t. If average is over, then the wealthy aren’t bothered by the plummeting reliability and outright corruption in online media, because they have the means to mitigate it, if it even affects them in the first place (wealth is a great insulator). Meanwhile, the rest of society is left out in the cold at the mercy of pageview magnets–and worse yet, don’t even know this is the case.

The “rich” are fine and the rest of the population is left to fend for itself, essentially illiterate of the fast-moving and ever-changing trends in online culture. A higher culture, which has been trained to triangulate dubious online information and know how to dig into it, and the other, which takes random online gossip as fact–who fall for trending twitter rumors and Facebook status updates that are supposed to protect your “personal information” from being used without your consent.

Consider the analogous divide in health and nutrition–and its deadly consequences. Part of society, with disposable income and access to healthy foods, can avoid the perils of an industrial food culture designed to addict people to the things that are making them fat and sick. (Or they can hire personal trainers to mitigate the effects). The other part–stuck in food deserts with kids to feed before they start their evening shift–eats what’s cheap and convenient. The result is the obesity epidemic that is sending so many of the people in New Orleans’ Third and Ninth Wards–who, ironically, are about to be starved of a reliable source of information–to an early grave.

And it’s not just New Orleans. Culturally, a portion of the population will be stuffed with hormone-injected garbage (Huffington Post slideshows, Facebook linkbait and other Cheetos-like information) while the other portion lives in its own reality of tailor-made, high quality information that makes them increasingly wealthy and utterly detached. One side will be able to influence, direct and exploit the other side because one controls the media while the other is at its mercy.

That might sound like an elitist fantasy. To me it sounds like a nightmare.

It also sounds like the end of America. Because we’re a country ruled by public opinion–and it’s the media that drives that opinion. A toxic and inequitable media creates a country in its own image.

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and authors.

The New Digital Divide: Privilege, Misinformation and Outright B.S. in Modern Media