JULY 21, 2021
TAKE TWO OF the most insoluble and complex problems afflicting our world today — climate change and our polarized media environment — and create a “mash-up” that guides us through the chaos. You will then have the intensely smart, engaging, and at times frustrating new book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner.
The mash-up of media and ecology is not new in media studies, as Phillips and Milner acknowledge, but in You Are Here the ravages of climate change are an extended metaphor that frames each chapter with a new ecological scenario — from the interconnected redwood forests to the wind-ravaged Dust Bowl to the ballooning hurricanes of the Southeast. The deft and lyrical prose that describes these ecosystems not only illuminates the similarities between our media ecologies and natural ecologies but also juxtaposes the experience of life in a besieged natural environment with life in the equally besieged digital media sphere, which is the actual focus of their book.
You Are Here’s dominant metaphor for our current informational woes is pollution. This comparison serves to refocus our attention on everyone’s mutual responsibility. For Phillips and Milner, we — all of us — are responsible for what media we consume and how we consume it, as well as its cumulative effects. Postmodern media theories frequently minimize the individual’s role in the media system to the point that we are unresisting circuits in the matrix, but Phillips and Milner place us as fully embodied agents in a mind-blowingly rich environment, one that our actions can save or destroy.
Phillips is an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, and Milner is an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston. They were in at the ground floor of digital media studies in the late 2000s, and they begin with their own responsibility for participating in internet culture. As twenty-somethings, they reveled in the internet’s “lulzy” fun. Only after the amoral irony of this landscape pervaded the broader media culture and elevated Donald Trump from improbable candidate to demagogic president did they realize how the ethos of “the more free speech, the better” had produced disastrous results.
This is much to their credit. The authors’ own self-reflection is meant to prompt us to consider how we contribute to the media ecosystem. They precede their prescriptions for amelioration with a lay of the land, a “field guide” to the polluted landscape. The first chapter situates readers historically by exploring the pollution flows during the Satanic Panics of the 1970s and ’80s. The panics spread locally through “homebrewed amateur media” but were largely contained by gatekeepers at the national level. Yet these gates were starting to give as the FCC jettisoned the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated free airtime for an aggrieved party, and cable television made the issue of fairness moot.
In the next chapter, when the focus abruptly shifts to the internet free-for-all of the late 2000s, the reader’s map becomes a bit spotty. Phillips and Milner pay special attention to what they call the deep memetic frames of the internet’s founders: libertarian, privileged, male, white supremacist, and therefore invulnerable.
This pervasive culture of “It’s not real; it’s just the internet, so get over it!” fostered an atmosphere of untrammeled play and trashy aesthetics that permitted cruelty against marginalized and vulnerable users. As a retrospective analysis by digital media scholars, the focus on meme culture and its institutions is fascinating, but ROFLCon (an elite conference for burgeoning media scholars) is a tiny dot on the media map, and so is the showcase for meme aficionados, the MemeFactory. The authors’ narrow focus here leaves out a vast uncharted electronic media territory from the 1990s and 2000s, the decades when right-wing talk radio and Fox News, the most watched cable news network, effloresced.
The “trolls, bad actors, and chaos agents” originated the pollution on sites like 4chan and 8chan before Trump’s ascendance, but “troll-trained” and “troll-untrained” reporters spread their toxic content throughout left-center media. Phillips and Milner are far from offering a monocausal explanation for media pollution. But the role of “liberalism” receives unfortunate emphasis in their narrative. If ever there were polluted words, liberal and liberalism surely rank high among them. Although the authors initially clarify that they are referring to liberalism in the classical 19th-century sense, which privileged free markets, free speech, and individual autonomy, there is no way to wrest liberalism and its modifier, liberalistic, from its contemporary partisan usage, both by the right as a well-worn pejorative for the left and by the newly resurgent left as a pejorative for those not far left enough.
At best, liberal has become a fairly meaningless catch-all for Democrats and progressives; its neutral valence and original meaning are hopelessly lost, especially as Phillips and Milner discuss the liberalistic fallacies and illusions of media literacy, which they lump together as values that emerged from the European Enlightenment. These include skepticism and rationalism.
The authors are right to argue that these practices are not the panaceas that some well-meaning media literacy proponents might hope for. They also argue convincingly that fact-checking cannot dislodge deep memetic frames that resist facts nor replace the narrative coherence of people’s preferred stories. Yet pinning the tail on the liberal donkey inadvertently echoes the old shibboleths and conspiracy theories that blame liberals for our polluted information ecosystem — and of course for much more.
But the real test of any field guide is how it works, and the authors optimistically envision a communitarian media ecosystem in which we can engage in ethical self-reflection, become aware of our deep memetic frames, and extend care rather than cruelty to one another. Yet as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, about 40 percent of the nation refuses to curtail their personal freedoms for the well-being of others. Phillips and Milner repeatedly acknowledge that the problems they map are not new. At the root is the question of whose truth is the real truth and whether we can ever be good to one another. We didn’t come close to solving these when we were face-to-face in our natural habitat. It’s even harder now from behind anonymizing screens.