Technology, information, and people shouting down their enemies

Posted by Rob Walker on August 10, 2009
Posted Under: America

The various new communication technologies that have come into our lives in the last 10 or 15 years are amazing: It’s never been easier to access information, to hook up with whatever sources you choose, from international media outlets to informed citizens in your very community.

What then are we to make of the recent rise of a rather retro form of communication: Shouting down ideological opponents. I mean literally shouting, drowning out out others’ ability to express views by way of sheer volume. I’ve watched some of these clips of health-care “town halls” — not to mention the gatherings where some person stands up and screams about Barack Obama being “a citizen of Kenya” or whatever — and I really wonder how close we are to hurling rocks and bottles as a manner of dispute settlement.

So are wondrous technology and shout-em-down tactics at odds? Is there a tension there?

I just mentioned having seen “the clips,” but of course I just saw snippets. Sometimes I saw them on television. For years and years people have complained about sound/video bites dominating news cycles at the expense of more considered coverage. Newer technology has not arrested that trend; it has accelerated it. There are more clips to choose from; the competition to air them asap is ever more intense; the overall pace of broadcast media continues to quicken; etc. But all that aside, some I did not see on television, and I didn’t have to see any of them that way, since all are online.

If a crowd shouts down a politician, the broader context matters very little in the media ecosystem. The story is: Crowd shouts down politician. And here’s the clip, edited as tightly as possible for maximum impact. It’s shown over and over, and at some point maybe Jon Stewart will show it again, and make a joke about it. If it’s shown often enough, it starts resemble something real — “The people are outraged!” Ten shouters are multiplied into an imaginary movement of some sort. Pundits and commentators can then say with a straight face that “a lot of American are very angry about this.” It affects the polls, and the change in the polls becomes news. And so on.

A lot of this is very run of the mill, I guess. It’s a variation on the way the media cycle has worked for my entire adult life, and the kind of pseudo-event discourse Daniel Boorstin was writing about in The Image, well before I was born.

The exception is the degree to which actual shouting is a serious factor in this process. That, I’m sorry to say, strikes me as a new development.

UPDATE 8/12: Some examples from today’s papers: AP: “‘One day God will stand before you and judge you!’ shouted a man before security guards approached and he left the room.” NYT: “‘This is about the dismantling of this country,’ Katy Abram, 35, shouted at Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause.” WSJ: “Outside, the gathering verged on a street brawl. The opposing forces lined up like screaming armies on either side of the street, about 1,000 people a side.”

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I’ve been thinking about this, and the danger of stirring up discontent.

On News Hour (PBS) last week Jim Lehrer referred to “the war over health care reform”. Then things got worse. It was awful to hear that word being used.

News stories get branded too.

#1 
Written By Sarah B. on August 15th, 2009 @ 4:49 am

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