POV: It’s 2003.
You live in a medium-sized town. Mornings start with an omelet, a cup of black coffee, and a copy of the Everytown Tribune.
There’s a newswire article about the Iraq war on the front page, but your eyes are drawn to a local story. A battery recycling plant outside of town has been illegally exposing its workers, many of whom are recent immigrants from Mexico, to neurotoxic chemicals. As a result of the investigation, state officials are demanding greater protection for the workers and a new safety regime to oversee such plants in the future.
Below the fold, an education reporter recounts a school board meeting in which parents debated how to spend their budget surplus. Should they refurbish the school library? Or invest in a computer lab? You recognize the name of one of the parents quoted as a friend from work. She’s always talking about how important access to computers and the internet is for kids. You make a mental note to mention when you see her that access to a good library was vital to you when you were growing up.
Before folding up the paper and dropping it in the trash, you tear out a coupon for a Labor Day Weekend deal at your favorite restaurant. On the way to work, you listen to The White Stripes and OutKast because… it is 2003.
POV: It’s 2023
You live in a medium-sized town. Most mornings start with an avocado-bagel breakfast, a dirty chai, and a scroll through Twitter.
Everyone is talking about how ThePixelDialectic, a Twitch streamer known for explaining revolutionary socialism while playing Stardew Valley, has deleted her account. During a stream the night before, ThePixelDialectic said that the movies “Coco” and “The Book of Life” had a “similar aesthetic.” Some fans interpreted the statement as racist. They’ve been berating her all night. Now fitness influencer Nate Galo’s comments on the situation are going viral. Galo is known for interviewing far-right figures and stand-up comedians.
“What are even the rules of their world anymore?” Galo says in a clip from his show circulated on TikTok. “You can’t say two movies have a similar look? You can’t say boys and girls are biologically different?”
Galo’s guest, a Canadian psychology professor best known for arguing that Martin Luther King Day should be abolished and replaced with a second holiday celebrating US veterans, agreed. “Woke moralism is a cult,” he said. “They won’t stop until they achieve absolute submission.”
ThePixelDialectic’s former fans retweeted the clip, vindicated. If ThePixelDialectic’s comment constituted a slip-of-the-mask, support from a pseudo-fascist like Galo was full-frontal exposure.
ThePixelDialectic reactivated her account to tear into Galo’s guest.
“UHHH IS PROFESSOR FUCKSTICK REALLY PROPOSING MORE HOLIDAYS FOR THE IMPERIALIST US WHEN ITS ENFORCERS ARE COMMITTING ATROCITIES LIKE THESE IN IRAQ DAILY?”
Accompanying the post is drone footage of a flattened city strewn with wrecked military vehicles. A few people point out that the footage actually shows the aftermath of a 2016 bombing conducted by the Syrian government in Aleppo, but those comments are mostly buried by people trying to steer the conversation back toward the Coco controversy.
Your hours got slashed recently, but you’ve managed to snag a slot in today’s morning shift. On the drive to work, you listen to a podcast. The host used to review movies, but now he mostly critiques clips from right-wing radio. Lately, he’s been talking a lot about the Second American Civil War, which he believes is imminent. Between segments defending ThePixelDialectic and roasting an episode of the Ben Shapiro pod, he reads an advertisement for Tactical brand iodine tablets, emphasizing that, if and when public services shut down in the impending war, you may need to purify your own water.
You feel a creeping sense of dread and helplessness as you walk into work. You make a mental note to buy some iodine tablets. And canned beans.
POV: You’re Trying to Work Out What the Hell Happened
Well, first off, you lost your local newspaper. Maybe you barely noticed at the time. Maybe it didn’t seem that important. “Local” and “national” have been antonyms for most of history, so the idea that a dead newspaper could impact national security seems counterintuitive. But I’m going to argue that understanding what happened when the Everytown Tribune closed up shop can help us better understand what happened when I watched American citizens storm the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with the aim of lynching the vice president.
Local news was a binding agent that held US communities in a shared universe where people with starkly different world views could disagree and compromise in good faith. When it went away, every town and neighborhood in the United States transformed from a marketplace of ideas into a house divided.
Everytown’s situation is far from unique. Around two newspapers close per week in the United States. Between 2000 and 2020, weekday paper circulation dropped from around 56 million to around 24 million. Three hundred and sixty newspapers closed between winter 2019 and spring 2022. Those that remain are mostly shells of what they used to be
There’s no single culprit to blame for the death of the local American broadsheet, but a few factors stand out. More entertaining forms of news, like cable and social media, obviously had an impact, and Craigslist wiped out a key source of revenue in the form of classified advertising. Then, as profits dipped, sharks circled. Hedge funds, media conglomerates, and other money-minded players gobbled up local newspapers. After Alden Global Capital’s 2021 acquisition of Tribune Media to the tune of $633 million, around half the employees of the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Tribune, and the Allentown Morning Call found themselves out of jobs.
Hedge funds don’t exist to produce high-quality journalism. They exist to generate passive income for their investors. (I’m not being a smartass, this is just true. MediaNews Group and McClatchy are also owned by Hedge funds, by the way.) So papers are streamlined, synergized, and liquidated to juice out as much profit as possible. Goodbye local coverage with its geographically limited appeal! Goodbye investigative reporting with its high budget and irregular output! The Everytown Tribune gets thinner, leading to a drop in readership, which leads to a drop in profits, which leads to more cuts to preserve the bottom line.
You can see the results of these trends across the United States. In January 2021, one of Oregon’s oldest newspapers, the Mail Tribune, shut down. In 2020, Missouri’s Belle Banner ceased operations. They had been publishing since 1906. In 2019, the Washington Post, owned by tech-billionaire Jeff Bezos, stopped publishing Express, its free local newspaper for commuters. Express ran one final issue before shutting down. “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones,” the headline fumed.
Given what was rushing into the media ecosystem to replace it, Express really should have just embraced the F-bomb.
As print declines, social media soars. Millennials spend an average of 2 hours and 44 minutes on social media per day. For Zoomers, it’s just under 3 hours. It’s not just memes that drive people to Instagram and Twitter-it’s lack of options. People living in areas with no local news coverage have little choice but to use social media to keep track of what is going on. In 2021, it was estimated that around 86% of Americans got their news via smartphone. Recent research suggests that younger consumers think of TikTok as not just an entertainment platform but also as a search engine like Google or DuckDuckGo.
TikTok has embraced its new role as a source of information, launching the #TikTokTaughtMe ad campaign in June of 2022, which declares that “there is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok.” Never mind the fact that among the things TikTok “teaches” people are 2020 election conspiracy theories and ill-advised methods for inducing at-home abortions.
Social networks are not built to produce and curate high-quality information. (They’re kind of like hedge funds in that way.) They are designed to maximize engagement. Content that generates an emotional response keeps users engaged, so true or not, that is the sort of content that tends to get promoted on social networks. According to a study from the Integrity Institute, an organization founded by a former Facebook integrity officer, a “well-crafted lie” tends to be more engaging than fact-based content. Meanwhile, Twitter’s retweet function and TikTok’s machine-learning algorithms make them even more prolific distributors of misinformation than Facebook. Sometimes misinformation percolates through social media and then emerges on cable, where it finds a whole new audience.
America’s rivals have taken note of the trash factory at the center of its social and political culture and joined in on the carnage. Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government has worked online to shore up Russian disinformation efforts and spread rumors about secret US biolabs. Pro-China actors also use social media to spread disinformation on the Black Lives Matter movement, democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the origins of COVID-19. Within the US government, it’s widely agreed that China and Russia spread disinformation to erode confidence in democracy and to worsen America’s already significant racial and ethnic divisions.
So, you end up with this slurry, made from foreign disinfo, algorithmically-generated social media bile, and cable news punditry. And in the absence of local journalism, it does more than displace the news-it becomes the news. Twitter is now “X,” the “global town square.” Vice has an office in the Facebook Metaverse. “There is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok.” No wonder so many people embrace conspiracy theories to make sense of things after swimming in this sewer for two to three hours a day.
The Power of Conspiracy Theories
Belief in conspiracies is associated with feelings of employment insecurity and lack of social trust. People in conspiratorial mindsets tend to believe that public officials are disinterested in the lives of normal people, that the situations of regular folks are persistently getting worse, and that neighbors, family members, and police are untrustworthy.
Conspiracy-brain can be a useful mechanism for contextualizing feelings of economic stress and social isolation. Those feelings don’t come from nowhere. When newspapers die out, local government efficiency goes down. Private businesses and corporations misbehave and act against the public interest. Government costs go up. Cities at higher risk for corruption face increases in the cost of long-term borrowing, and residents pay more in taxes for lower-quality government services. Awareness of community goings-on and events also declines, and as people become more disaffected and alienated they’re more inclined to turn to TikTok and Telegram for answers.
But instead of answers, they get their daily wet-feeding of content. Misinfo. Disinfo. Conspiracy. YouTubers and podcasters that make us feel encircled by Nazis, groomers, tankies, and trolls. Every day the world seems more crazy, and the idea of a Civil War-induced reboot seems more sane. And when hundreds of people who are ready for Civil War II overrun the Capitol Police and storm Congress, that’s a national security threat.
It’s worth noting that national newspapers, your New York Times, your Washingtons Post, are doing ok. (Well, until Bezos cracks down.) Say what you will about those papers but they do important investigative work and report news. They, however, don’t fulfill the same function as locals. Local news was a binding agent that held US communities in a shared universe where people with starkly different world views could disagree and compromise in good faith. When it went away, every town and neighborhood in the United States transformed from a marketplace of ideas into a house divided.
If we want to avoid a further meltdown, we need to regain what we lost when the local paper died, whether that means resurrecting the broadsheet or finding a brand new way to consume media. It’s a daunting challenge. But if we’re not willing to try, we may as well stock up on canned food and enjoy our fucking phones while we can.