City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Market(place) view of the world

The coming of marketplaces have changed our lives in significant new ways. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Zomato, TripAdvisor and its ilk has at one level dramatically democratised access on both the supply and demand side. A marketplace is open to anyone who wishes to use it and hence is inherently inclusive. The e-commerce marketplaces for instance, have enabled small producers to reach consumers they had no previous access to, putting them at par with strong legacy brands. They have also given people residing in remote places the same kind of access to quality products that their counterparts in larger cities have historically been privy to.

The same is true when it comes to the marketplace for opinion, although here the democratisation has produced mixed results. While it has allowed the hitherto silent majority to express itself at par with those previously privileged with the microphone, it has at the same time allowed for the free circulation of conspiracy theories, innuendo, vicious personal attacks particularly aimed at women and all manner of trumped up news.

In a marketplace, all views get equal space. And there is no authority that sifts these on the basis of quality or authenticity. It takes no responsibility for the views that populate it. Its business model rests on how engaged its users are- after all, it has no content of its own and is entirely dependent on how much it can excite its users into contributing their views. Naturally, the more provocative and extreme the views, the greater the response, both by those in support and those who are opposed.

This happens in part because the marketplace accommodates divergent views in the same place. Which means that it has no option but to accord equal importance to every strand of opinion. Unlike the past, where different streams of thought had to fight for their own significance and where fringe ideas remained at the fringe, today there is no concept of the fringe. If an opinion finds enough takers and there are no barriers to it getting that chance, then it becomes a legitimate mainstream view. Joe Biden stole the elections and no amount of facts can change that inalienable truth for 40% of those living in what is touted as the world’s most advanced country.

In the pre-marketplace days, the market too gave room for all kinds of views. It drove all content towards the popular mainstream. As it played a more active role in media, we saw a shift in journalistic values towards a greater focus on what the audience sought, rather than on what was deemed to be intrinsic newsworthiness.

However, the market did not put all views on the same pedestal. Each stream opinion came weighted with its history. There was no dearth of conspiracy theories in the past, but in the hierarchy of opinion that was then followed, it received a relatively peripheral place in the media ecosystem. Unless one sought those views out, it was not easy to get access to them.

Today, the flood of opinion comes unweighted- an opinion with any and every ideological slant meets with the same lack of any pre-configured hierarchy. If a nutty opinion has enough followers, no matter how outrageous, it will be given the same prominence as any other. The rise of the anti-vaxxing movement has a lot to do with the rise of the marketplace.

 Twitter & Facebook can throw up their hands and plead that it is they who are in fact being democratic because they do not discriminate between opinions. The effects that we are seeing today are not so much an outcome of intent, but inherent structure. In other words, corporations do not need to be evil for a change of this magnitude to occur (although that is a bonus).

What this has enabled is a shift in the process by which opinion is generated. Unlike the past where the opinion originated among those deemed to be specialists, the expert commentators, and then circulated among the rest, today opinion is formed on these marketplace platforms and strongly influences media outlets in how they understand and present news and opinion.

One of the results of this influence is the lack of discrimination in what constitutes news has changed, as have the standards used in determining whether a particular news item meets the minimum standards needed to qualify as a fact. Indeed, the desire to report facts itself is no longer the engine that animates many news outlets. In the marketplace of opinion there is no cost, social or economic for circulating half-truths or outright lies.

The incentive is to mirror escalating passions- an organically evolving upwards spiral of hate is built-in into this structure. The angry crusader, more extreme conspiracy theorist, the believer who feels unheard- these voices are more engaged, and generate greater responses, both for and against. The mainstream gets drowned out by the noise generated by the extreme flanks of opinion. And it escalates on its own as part of an organic, inevitable process.

As a result, the epistemic pool- the combined body of knowledge that we find ourselves amidst is now of a completely different character than in the past. Today the accretion of knowledge is unregulated, unmediated and indiscriminate.  If earlier we learnt of the world from books, newspapers, journals, magazines, the odd pamphlet and advertising, today a bulk of our education is being carried out by tweets, blogs, social media posts generated not by experts or those on pedestals but by people like us. The library has given way to Twitter. The pool may be more democratically organised, but it is undeniably shallower. And it stinks.