Media fever: infecting the political landscape

13 June 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Look up. Look down. Now look back at the screen. What are you thinking about? If you’ve wasted countless hours on YouTube, you’ll know that I’m referencing the ‘Old Spice Guy’. You’ve been infected by a media virus. But never fear – I have too. In fact, it’s hard not to be.

Created as an advertisement for the company, the Old Spice video spread throughout several media and became what’s known as a meme – a piece of content that ‘spreads’ from host to host. It can even mutate, causing further iterations of the virus, until it lies dormant in the public consciousness to be ‘re-activated’ or referenced at a later time. The fact is, once unleashed, memes never stop spreading, mutating and spreading again

The concept of the media virus was explored by Douglas Rushkoff in a book of the same name more than fifteen years ago, calling the media ‘the extension of a living organism; [media and communication technology] is a circulatory system for today’s information, ideas and images.’ When these discrete packages of information tear through the papers, Twitter and TV seemingly all at once, the media space has become infected with a virus. This all happened before the advent of Web 2.0, blogging and social media on smartphones.

In terms of infecting us with a media virus, Tony Abbott seems to be the master.

Agree with him or not, Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party have yielded not one, but two media viruses to counter Julia Gillard’s viruses – all of which have a nasty habit of not catching on. Abbott’s first was the sound-bite ‘stop the boats’, and the other virus was ‘a great big new tax.’ The intended effect is simple. The virus doesn’t need to have any policy content or relevance to the public discourse, it just has to spread. It can spread through Twitter, YouTube, newspapers, TV news and, finally, in blogs and articles such as this one. As long as the virus plays itself out in the media and displaces everything and anything else, it is doing its job.

These memes are not just the products of bored teenagers with unlimited data plans on their smartphones; they are the work of sophisticated media savvy professionals that can tailor these viruses to infect our culture. The media ecologist Neil Postman once argued that technology such as the press, TV and the web is the medium in which our culture grows. In fact, media viruses aren’t that new.

Keating had one (‘We’re in danger of becoming a banana republic’), Howard had a few but none as infectious as the Children Overboard saga; and Kevin Rudd had a simple but effective one: ‘Kevin ’07’. Julia Gillard has yet to unleash something virulent enough for the populace to catch it. ‘Moving forward’ was forgotten all too easily. It exhibited very little contagion compared to the tension displayed between Gillard and the former PM during their forced ‘reconciliation’ on the campaign trail. Kevin ’07 and ‘stop the boats’ endures, but ‘moving forward’ has been so completely forgotten that Gillard and the ALP loathe to acknowledge its initial introduction, as evidenced by its absence on the party’s website.

On 21 May 2011, at the ALP Conference in Melbourne, Prime Minister Gillard compared Tony Abbott to two other well known media viruses: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Of course, she was more than correct; they are both emblematic of media viruses today. They’re ubiquitous and their memes have been iterated time and time again.

Even President Obama in his roasting of Trump at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April of this year displayed obvious symptoms. The ultimate irony was that his new meme was responding to a whole host of other memes: the meme that President Obama was not natural-born citizen of the United States, and Donald Trump’s signature ‘firings’ of contestants on his reality program The Apprentice. If you’ve ever seen the two-colour campaign ‘HOPE’ posters depicting Obama, you’ve seen the derivatives of them lambasting him – and thus his media virus spreads.

With this in mind, if you’re a politician you’d better know how to cultivate and spread memes. But is spreading a media contagion good for the public discourse?

We now have untold media power, both as consumers and as potential producers. Anyone can connect with virtually anyone else across the globe in real-time. But for everything we gain from new media technologies, we also lose something. In the literary tradition, we would have to read a book from beginning to end to make sense of it. Now in the electronic media world, linear narratives are unimportant; we can tune into a tweet, watch three different YouTube clips at a time and use RSS readers to aggregate thousands of articles, picking and choosing the few that are worthy of our dithering attention.

Our concentration has become discontinuous, fragmented and conducive to infection by media viruses. If political discussion was staged like the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in 1858, which lasted for over three hours, it’s highly likely that people would just ‘switch off.’ Of course, in the absence of such intellectual rigor we get criticisms that our political discourse is ‘trivial and puerile’, and not unlike a ‘Punch and Judy show’.

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle we now have policy statements made exclusively over Twitter, and a deficit in attention spans. We lose the stringent thought-power required to make sense of the complex world we live in. I’m not blaming the new media for watering down our discourse, but we can cast derisive stares at ‘it’ for our base concepts of how public information is read and responded to. Quite frankly, the conduit we have now for transmitting higher-level abstractions just isn’t up to the task. By handing in our printing presses for iPads, we’ve traded in depth and probity for speed of dissemination.

This swiftness has given rise to the simple and infectious media virus. We can become aware of them, but we can’t really inoculate ourselves against them. In re-reading this, I notice that I have referenced at least six media viruses and perhaps created several more.

Recognising how media viruses affect us starts with education, and ends with our own awareness of them. As the media landscape changes so often, it’s hard to determine the start- and end-points of what constitutes our media environment, let alone our place in it as a singular, yet networked, organism. We can’t really have answers if we’re unable to conceive a working hypothesis. What we can observe instead is that if we slow ourselves down we tend to miss out. I would argue that in the age of the media virus we would be better off knowing about the symptoms, rather than infecting ourselves unwittingly.

If you’re a politician you’d better know how to cultivate and spread media viruses – without some level of mastery over them, you’re dead in the electronic water.

Tom Valcanis is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, media consultant and writer that infects his Twitter following with media viruses on a daily basis.