Internet Monopolies

You would think that in America, the country that practically invented the internet, would rank at least in the top 10 when it comes to speed.

But according to one recent ranking, the US falls at 24th place in average peak internet speed. In a The Week article, the US ranked 31st in download speeds and 42nd in upload speeds. In both these counts, America falls behind countries like Latvia, Qatar, and countries you may have never even heard of. So the question is, how did this happen? In a country where we pride ourselves on the newest, fastest, best… how are countries flying by us in internet speeds?

Unsurprisingly, it’s created by the monopoly of corporatization.

The 1996 telecommunications act (which, notably worth mentioning, was meant to foster competition among companies, not monopolization) essentially allowed cable companies to merge and conquer; the corporations simply bought each other out until we were left with a few that could consequently keep charging higher and higher prices with lower quality speeds.

And that leaves us here, in 2015, monopolized by giant corporations such as Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon who already have a huge amount of influence on the infrastructure of the internet. These companies are buddy-buddy with the government as well, resulting in the chaos surrounding the net neutrality debate.

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver offered an informative and funny commentary on how these companies have monopolized our internet and how they worked to eliminate net neutrality so sites would have to pay a premium to give their consumers faster connection speeds – something easy for a major multi-billion dollar company such as Netflix, but not realistic for an independent blogger or filmmaker, drawing an audience unfairly away from outlets that can’t afford the premium prices.

The Gullible Generation

The internet has brought about many great things, as I’ve written about before. It’s given access to activists and independent outlets. But because it allows everyone to have a voice, people can say whatever they want… including things that aren’t true.

News travels fast on the internet. If you were an internet user in 2012, you probably heard about one of the biggest viral sensations in internet history (heck, you may have even participated – this is a no-judgement zone): Kony 2012. This is a wonderful example of how people are willing to believe almost anything. Even though Kony isn’t necessarily an internet hoax, it does show how things can explode on the internet, and that is exactly what hoaxes try to do.

Some of the biggest internet hoaxes that people actually believed – not the chain email ones that your grandparents send you every so often that you know very few people take seriously – are incredible. This isn’t just ignorant people sharing them on Facebook, this is legitimate news sites reporting on these false stories.

For example, a conservative activist named James O’Keefe fooled many when he recorded secret videos and heavily edited them to make it appear as if liberal non-profit ACORN was actually assisting in crimes. And it was swallowed by mainstream media hook and sinker. More recently, you may have heard the story that Planned Parenthood sells aborted baby parts, which was “proved,” again, by video evidence. This story was shared on social media and promoted by conservative news sources, but turned out to be flat-out untrue.

It is sometimes truly phenomenal how people will click “share” without fact-checking or even doing a simple Google search. While hyperlinking may be extremely important in order to gain credibility as a journalist, if you’re going to clickbait and sensationalism… you may be able to get away with fantastical stories and no second thoughts.

Internet Activism: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s kind of surreal to see your school as the #1 trend on Facebook.

But last Wednesday and Thursday, that was the reality for us students at Ithaca College to see a grassroots movement of students of color explode into national media attention.

Not only has the internet been a powerful tool for crowdsourcing and gaining knowledge for independent media outlets and giving voice to those who are often voiceless, the PoC at IC movement, the Concerned Student 1950 movement, any of the outcries against institutional racism that surfaced over the past few weeks would not have reached the level they did as quickly as they did without the internet. This has been even more prevalent over the past weekend with attacks in Paris, suicide bombings in Beirut, and deadly market bombings in Nigeria. This kind of news and responses from the audience is almost immediate in our world today – it’s critical to be constantly updating and publishing information because people expect to be able to know more.

Of course, support for movements and crises are often misguided. “Armchair activism” has become a rampant problem among many millennials who share, change their profile pictures or post a status and think they’ve done their share. With the media quickly honing in on our campus, it’s been an experience for many students to be able to physically show their support for something like PoC at IC in addition to fighting for the cause on social media platforms.

It’s been very interesting to see coverage from both traditional and independent media outlets. From CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post to Mashable, Democracy Now!, Colorlines and beyond, it has been a somewhat surreal experience to be sitting in solidarity on the cold, damp ground of our main quad and mere hours later seeing the explosion of articles and videos featuring some of your closest friends.

And the internet, while a great outlet for sharing this message and gaining important attention, the internet also has its ugly side, and it has been rearing its head in response to students speaking their mind in a peaceful way on our college campus. As much as we have to be increasingly grateful for the immediacy of our ability to seek and gain knowledge, it’s frustrating to see aggression and hatred targeted at your own community, all accessible via the internet. From being called inmates at a daycare/insane asylum to threatening anonymous posts about student activists, all one has to do is look at the comments thread on any article written about the protests and see the people who choose to invalidate and make fun of students who are passionate about a social justice issue. While these media outlets have created an amazing platform to hear these voices of color, they are often frustratingly shot down and discounted by other users.

We have granted free speech for all on a platform that allows some of the greatest startups to occur, for true journalism to emerge and keep a check and balance on the government and the public, but in doing so, we allow those who disagree with us to speak as well, in any way they so choose.



Crash Course in Journalism Ethics

When it comes to journalism, something that has come up more often than almost anything else is, unavoidably, ethics.

Ethics are tricky because they are so dependent on your point of view. Something I may have done in a certain situation could be entirely different from the way another journalist may approach a situation. Like I wrote in my last post, we cannot claim objectivity as journalists because we, as humans, are subjective beings. And that comes into play more in ethics than anything else.

Journalists have to make ethical decisions every day, and often, it comes down to whether you believe that the public has a right to know certain information. Most ethical dilemmas come from covert information-gathering techniques. For example, Mother Jones published the infamous “47 percent” video taken by one of the waitstaff during a private Romney event during the last presidential campaign. Edward Snowden released classified CIA documents to journalists which were then published in The Guardian and The Washington Post, and exploded across the media landscape. Mayhill Fowler recorded Obama at a private event that she was only invited to because she was a large donor of his campaign.

This kind of information can only come from whistleblowers or sources that are close to the core of a situation. Does the public have a right to know information that is shared behind closed doors? What right do organizations have at this point in our quickly developing technological age to try and ban any press from their gatherings?

I believe the public has a right to know information, but to a point. Individuals who are private and not public figures have a right to privacy. But when journalism is supposed to be a check on our government and our celebrities, it’s important that the public is armed with as much knowledge as possible. Having experience in an administrative setting where we’ve been asked not to share information because it is not fully developed or kinks are still being worked out, it can sometimes be difficult for me to agree with sharing confidential information. But at a certain point (can you tell I’m all for the relativism theory of ethics?) I think it’s important to share critical information that affects everyone involved – especially when it comes to politics or government, it’s the role of the media to keep everything checked and balanced.

The Objectivity Myth

One of the most important things you’ll hear from almost any journalism course is that your writing needs to be objective.

On the surface, this seems simple. Unbiased, just reporting the facts, trying to make sure your story is well-rounded and has supporting evidence and sources from all sides. That’s realistic, right?

Well, it tends to be more complicated than that. Objectivity is a farce when human beings are concerned. We all have biases. We all tend to lean one side or the other. We all inherently have ideas about whatever you’re writing about. We’re human and we have opinions. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, it just needs to be embraced and not painted under the ruse of trying to be “objective.”

Especially in our day and age, transparency has become the new objectivity. With links, sources, and research there’s no need to be objective. There’s a need to have your thoughts supported. An audience can often see straight through a journalist attempting to be “objective,” when in reality, they are simply veiling their own thoughts in an attempt to please their supervisor. It’s easier and more reliable for journalists to state their biases and their opinions and continue on by supporting their thoughts with research, acknowledging this is how they feel about a specific topic.

With more educated and skeptical readers that are turning to independent media for content, transparent journalists humanize themselves and tell stories in a way readers can connect with and understand. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your best to explore all aspects of a story, even if you don’t agree with it, but to remember to stand up for what you believe in, abide to your own ethical code, and place your biases where everyone can see them.

The Sell-Out Story

The point of independent media is, clearly, to be independent.

Most independent media are voices that aren’t really heard anywhere else – ones that offer platforms for the underrepresented, the underreported, the stories that aren’t being told. And because of that, “selling out,” or merging with larger corporate media outlets, is very looked-down upon.

When Arianna Huffington’s originally independent The Huffington Post was bought by AOL for $315 million, controversy sparked. Huffington was accused of “being a political sellout” and making “a personal fortune from the labour of thousands of bloggers who write for no pay.” And with a common lashback from dedicated fans, why would independent outlets ever merge with bigger corporations?

Well, some think it can be for the greater good, and shouldn’t carry the stereotype of consistently being looked at as a negative thing for a media outlet, both for the independent outlet and the larger one. If the outlet is struggling and gets swallowed, it often allows for more exposure and support for independent media outlets that (at least initially) can continue to publish much of the same content. There are some (such as WSJ, unsurprisingly), who see it as an economic benefit for the entities involved.

But of course, there are much larger issues with media mergers, as they have monopolized much news consumption; less than 20 percent of papers are independently owned, causing quality to be diminished and less checking and balancing of opposing outlets, as all the content essentially comes from the same source. With less sources, there is not as much diversity in perspective, resulting in more biased and limited stories.

While there is strength in numbers and collaboration, selling out to larger companies (who then sell out to even larger companies) results in a mass of media only coming from a few sources. We need the smaller voices, even if they have to be sought out and pushed up by larger outlets, to gain a different perspective and hear the stories that are purposefully ignored by big media.

Accidental Successes

In BusinessWeek’s slideshow of the most financially successful independent blogs, there are many common themes. Most of these blogs were started by accident, as something that the creators were interested in. (Most are white men). Most were a single person operation until they exploded.

Interestingly, I hadn’t heard of very many of these blogs. I think this may be due to a generational gap. Blogs are becoming much less popular among millennials, because it requires more in-depth reading. This generation is used to quick bites of information, listicals and lots of flashy headlines and photos. That doesn’t mean we’re not reading, we’re just reading differently, as we tend to be much more effective at “scanning” content for information than our older counterparts. This may also explain why the blogs that produce the most amount of revenue have an older audience who may have more stable income and time to commit to being regular blog visitors.

So the question is, what are the keys for having a successful blog that will gain enough of an audience to create a stable revenue? A lot of it seems to be sheer dumb luck, despite the pages upon pages of tips Google offers for “how to be a successful blogger.” Content is key – there can’t be too much overlap, and finding a unique niche is often the most important thing for creating a successful blog. If you find something that isn’t already offered on the internet, or find a new way to talk about it that hasn’t been done before, you’re already on your way to business.

Another good tactic is a unique writing style. Some pages opt for the flashy headlines, click-bait headlines (Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Thought Catalog), but others build off that in their writing style – take Perez Hilton for example, gossip blogger extraordinaire.

The big takeaway is that you need to find your own unique spot on the internet, which is getting increasingly more difficult. It’s important to find something that will draw attention to yourself to build an audience that will gain more traction. Whether that be through content, themes, submission style, writing style, or whatever else is missing in the media world… it’s important to find something to make yourself stand out.