The more we enjoy click-bait, the more click-bait there will be to enjoy.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash.

A groundbreaking court case went largely unnoticed last year amidst the daily onslaught of news stories we tech pioneers face at (what is still) the dawn of the Information Age.

U.S. Supreme Court backs public money for religious schools,” reported Andrew Chung for Reuters on June 21, 2022.

Court strikes down Maine’s ban on using public funds at religious schools,” according to Amy Howe for the SCOTUSblog.

“The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Maine violated the Constitution when it refused to make public funding available for students to attend schools that provide religious instruction,” wrote Howe. “The opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts was a broad ruling, making clear that when state and local governments choose to subsidize private schools, they must allow families to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schools.”

The U.S. public school system might never be the same and hardly anyone noticed. Blame the 24-Hour news cycle, click-bait, social media, and the corrupting influence of the over-corporatization of everything in America.

We like bad news, and it shows.

We long to, as the poets wrote, “stand safe on the shore and gaze out at the storm-tossed sea some other poor sap is enduring, bless him.”

The Germans call this feeling Schadenfreude. The media calls it clickbait. It preys on the part of the human psyche that revels in misery and melodrama.

Whatever the cause, the media landscape is today littered with the leavings of 10,000 would-be viral news stories every day and the husks of media outlets that have thrived, then died, in the new “Bread and Circuses” business model of American media.

P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he probably also said, “You have to give the people what they want.”

Under this new media business model, news outlets depend on keeping their — increasingly polarized — audiences happy and clicking back for more. They don’t exist to report the news, they exist to sell themselves, and more and more, sell a bevy of social and cultural mores, morals, and standards.

Many U.S. media outlets seem to be going for shock value these days.

“If it bleeds, it ledes,” used to be the bylaw of newsrooms everywhere.

No one really likes to hear bad news, but if there is bad news to be heard, we almost can’t resist hearing it. And there is always bad news to be found if media outlets look hard enough. They can turn almost any molehill into a mountain; they can turn almost any mountain into a molehill, too.

And if there isn’t any terrible news directly to hand, better hit the digital bricks of social media to find some. Easiest thing in the world. This is a nation of 330 million people; someone is always outraged about something. Injustice is — unfortunately — still everywhere, as no society has ever been able to eradicate things like poverty.

Worse, today, the old gallows humor rule has been expanded: “Whatever bleeds most ledes.”

The roller coaster ride of the U.S. media has become more entertaining than informative. We aren’t reading the Encyclopedia Britannica anymore — we’re reading the Weekly World News in a daily contest for who can find the next viral news story.

The over-corporatizing of the media has impacted other industries as well.

Social media platforms, and their managers, are struggling mightily with the subject of censorship these days. Too much for some, not enough for others.

The government is prevented by the U.S. Constitution from infringing on freedom of speech in America. Privately-held organizations like social media companies aren’t bound by such laws. How much government agencies should be allowed to pressure private companies to do what the government is prevented by law from doing is a thorny legal issue likely to be litigated to no end in the coming years.

In the meantime, the unexpected and unprecedented move by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk to release the “Twitter Files” detailing such behind-the-scenes communications has exposed just how much social media companies are struggling to cope with these issues of censorship.

But it’s probably not because they love or hate freedom of speech.

What social media companies are most concerned about is likely what all media companies are most concerned about: Revenues. Specifically, ad revenues.

Major advertisers don’t want their ads appearing next to something controversial, like a My Pillow ad. The ensuing kerfuffle might ruin a major marketing endeavor, bring unwelcome publicity, and shave a few points off the company stock price.

Keeping social media sites free of controversial material, posts, ads, and anything else that might offend is in the best interest of the company; not allowing or forbidding people to say whatever they want.

Social media users are caught in a vicious cyclone of advertising, data mining, marketing campaigns, and clickbait every day.

The days of Walter Cronkite are long gone.

Today’s newsrooms, such as they are, don’t have to appeal to a wide audience, as the local news anchors of the past had to do. The audiences of FOX News or the Washington Post want something very specific for their money.

Because, of course, they could take their eyeballs anywhere.

Social media companies too are losing their exclusive, velvet-gloved hold on the news and conversations about it. New social media platforms are springing up all the time; local ones like NextDoor, platforms that are tailored to specific political tastes, like Mastodon and Truth Social.

It isn’t that traditional and social media companies aren’t performing their duties admirably; they are. It’s just that these companies and the consumers of their products have very different ideas about what constitutes those duties.

For the companies, ad revenues. For the consumers, a digital public square where they can freely exchange ideas, a public utility as impersonal as the telephone in the case of social media companies; a current-affairs dictionary as impersonal — and as dependable — as the local public library in the case of the news.

Since there is such a large market for these products, perhaps the most successful purveyors of social media platforms and news media in the future will embrace a new model.

The short-term profits of click-bait and outrage journalism may be completely outweighed by the risks and consequences, see BuzzFeed.

Giving the people what they really want — impartial, dependable, and non-hysterical news coverage and social media sites — might make more money in the long run.

(Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)