Fading journalism, influencers and Greta Thunberg: signs of a new world

Until 20 years ago, getting a cab in São Paulo or in any other city meant often digesting an overpaid, low-quality service held by a monopolist category that could do whatever they wanted because you had no other options. Now, taxi drivers rabidly rage over Uber while they slowly disappear leaving no mourners behind. Journalism is going through the same hell route. The Uber for journalism are the “influencers”, a trendy word for something that always existed but became ubiquitous thanks to binary code. The difference is that journalists still feel it’s a temporary situation, but it isn’t, and there is no one else to blame.

This gradual disappearance of journalism in front of our eyes is not new. It has been happening from 15 years or more, but it accelerated drastically following social media explosion and news publishers business models implosion. It’s something always around, but there are moments where there is an exciting spin that makes the bowels of the problem open.

The excellent Fréderic Filloux, Mondaynote editor and the mind behind Deepnews, a project to clean the news environment from the inside was responsible for making the topic come over at this time. I don’t recall an opportunity where I didn’t agree with his views, always sharp, balanced and insightful. However, at this time, this is not the case.

On his last post for Mondaynote, Filloux criticizes both the relevance gathered by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish warrior that epitomizes the environmental “teenage rebellion”. She is young, fierce, very determined and displays a maturity that most other young leaderships like the US democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lack (the observation on Cortez is mine, not his).

Filloux identifies two causes for his discomfort. The first is the way how Thunberg’s parents handle the exposition their daughter has. Leaving the school, he observes, is something she will regret in the future. “Dropping out of school is not a matter to celebrate; it’s a curse that could follow Greta for the rest of her life”, he says.

His second observation regards the mindset of the Wired journalists that have written her profile, “the decay of journalism that goes along with the growing reliance to ‘influencers’.”. The news trade has been morphed into a social-friendly creature and has lost accuracy and balance while trying to fit the look-good mood that entices likes and loves that most of Instagrammers and Youtubers have in their DNA.

I agree with the latter Filloux observation. Not only journalism lost balance: all society’s public figures now live in a kind of Second Life world, where their personas are carefully built according to what they desire to become or their selling intentions. The tone adopted by the Wired journalists for the profile is really annoying because the articles seem to be more concerned about what people will think about the text itself than producing a solid profile of a possible leadership in the making. Wired UK is not alone there. Glenn Greenwald and so many other serious journalists became self-worshippers in the digital realm and forget that real life is very (if not completely) different from the likeable and righteous characters they tweak in their smartphones.

For the rest of the article, I think Filloux drops the ball, probably also because of the social factor that he, as a public figure can’t escape. He believes that the decay of journalism opened up space for influencers like Thunberg who lack the conditions to do the job previously done by journalists, both because their motivations (i.e. “revenue systems”) are less transparent than the ones professional news outlets do and because their processes are far less disciplined and less focused.

I don’t wholly disagree with the outcome – that influencers cannot occupy the place of a dying journalistic trade, but my reasons differ significantly. Journalism, like other industries as entertainment and urban transportation (as the previously mentioned taxis), spent plenty of their existences doing what they wanted because there were no alternatives. Journalism did not rot from inside due to a digital malaise that was unfair to it. The news industry, for very, very long, was far less concerned with society than to itself. True, some of them became prominent, producing borderline-art written and broadcasted material, but the main goal for the industry was money and proximity to power. Exception made to companies like BBC or The Guardian, who ran on public structures and escape the pure capitalist objective, news outlets were influence-brokers with a vast influence on policy-makers and advertisers. It made them very rich and addicted to that irresistible scent of power that politicians exclusively live for. When the digital earthquake reset the the information game, media companies held no longer the monopoly of information, and the deteriorating process gained speed.

Filloux also misses the point about a slim slice of a generation that will be in charge of saving mankind from extinction. Although Thunberg’s parents’ intervention on her development could be more strict or not, her nonconformist mindset suggests she will go through a path that is perilous for someone from older generations. Formal studies in universities will significantly lose relevance, but pupils won’t be uninformed. The chaotic education environment we already have will consolidate means for future adults to acquire knowledge in other ways. Programming will bleed to the outside of the geeky communities hosting them, and the formation of each student will be entirely from each other. Greta Thunberg won’t be left uneducated, but she will pursue a much more customized path, while Ivy League universities will lose the aura of the only provider of education. It’s not impossible that Greta Thunberg’s children will not even consider going to one.

Quite often we hear that the new generations are fantastic or “just smarter” as the former innovator Mark Zuckerberg once put, but this is only part of the marketing vibe bound to the socio-digital environment. They are not. Teenagers and young adults that today are at the helm of the Wanna-Like-Tide ecosystem did not live a real economic crisis nor any severe threat to the world they live on. This makes this generation extremely poor in resilience. Their absolute, spoiled, lack of capacity to engage in mature discussions with people defending opposing views is one of the reasons that led the world to the polarisation that created the abyss between urban, connected, formally educated twenty-somethings and older, less educated and fearful small-town folks who feed themselves of unreliable information (aka “fake news”). Greta Thunberg seems to be the exception to the shallowness, arrogance and masked authoritarianism that the young Wanna-Like-Tide carry with themselves. Only time will tell if she will want to keep her followership on Twitter big or if she will step up to tackle problems with the grit she has shown until now.

Journalism, as we know, is set to become a thing from the past. Our stubbornness in trying to adapt the legacy-corpse to a functional digital information machine is telling about how our adaptability skills are weak. Big corporations will keep tweaking their operations to find sustainable models (which are not here yet, but seem much likelier that 5 years ago) will probably manage it. However, the local journalism keeping public offices running with acceptable corruption levels ( “acceptable” depended on the place you were) will die, be bought by local barons to act as phoney “legitimate” media or become something else. Media didn’t go through changes following the digital impact. It has been completely overhauled. I hope I am right and Filloux is wrong and cool Greta proves that youth also changed, leaving the artificial coolness for silly sharers and becoming a real threat for establishment moguls. As irrational as it is, I remain naive to have hope. Greta, dear, please survive to the Instagrams and Monsantos lashing out them in the eye.

Cassiano Gobbet