Laurie Penny and her “lost boys” and the journalism we deserve

I’m writing this down because of the lump I had in my throat while reading the Laurie Penny article on Milo Yiannopoulos’ followers. It shows the limits of her wonderful way of writing within the sad state of journalism as it is: Best payed for stirring up emotions and discussions, and for setting social groups up against each other. A left feminist journo reporting from within a neo-right anti-feminist group? OMG must-read! Of course it “works”. It even stirred heated discussions up on social media long before it was published. That’s a sign of journalism that “works”, a sign of “good” journalism today. Isn’t it? And now it gets published at the perfect moment – one day after Yiannopoulos downfall. Perfect.*

The best part of that article though is not the “embedded journalism” part but the intro, her analysis of Milo’s downfall – it’s spot on and well-phrased, that mix of colourful language, cold analysis and red-hot anger that she does so well. Sadly the main part of the article doesn’t rise above platforming the neo-right followers of Milo. It is another article on the perspective of the white angry men, here put in the backfiring romantic meme-able picture of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Penny willingly plays their Wendy.

By describing her “lost boys” as spoilt brats being exploited Laurie Penny shifts the responsibility away from them to – well, Milo, the whole of society or some other vague place. It’s basically what most people who take the “talking to fascists” approach have ended up with: Repeating the obvious, understanding a bit too well, shifting blame etc., instead of holding them up to what they proclaim and support and what endangers a lot of people’s actual lives. It’s a fine line between trying to understand in order to work better against it on the one side and trying to understand but ending up making it sound as if the most important point is that there are non-fascist reasons for their fascist behaviour on the other side. They didn’t “mean” it, they just rode a wave, they did it for the fame, they are just little boys, etc. But hey, step back a moment and let me ask: Isn’t that what most fascists have done? And isn’t not holding them accountable by what they promote instead of what they might mean the mistake that societies so often have made in the face of a rise of fascism? I for one am tired of endless discussions if someone was a “real” fascist and if I should be allowed to call them that instead of action against the discrimination and inhumanities they promote. Is authenticity testing fascists really the best weapon our societies have against them? Poor us because that only makes them stronger.

Instead of turning only on Laurie Penny who really has done so much great work before maybe it’s worth criticising how journalism works today. It doesn’t give us what we need but what it needs and what we deserve. Do we need embedded journalism like this story to bring us the view from within or is that just sensationalist scary emotionalisation? Giving us the same effect as a horror flick, the fear from a safe distance. And in which at the end we get explained what horrible life circumstances turned the monster into a monster and somehow we end up feeling as much pity for the monster as for its victims. Bringing up victims of racist violence, bringing up how she herself was treated sexist – somehow it doesn’t get loud enough to sound through the dense fog of understanding her “lost boys”. Instead it pops up here and there in the piece as reminder that Penny is not one of the guys. But why does the piece need those reminders? And why do they feel like mere reminders? My problem with the article is that what lingers after reading is that it’s yet another explainer of “not-really-fascists playing with fascism”, another explainer of the angry white men perspective, as if that weren’t already omnipresent. And I say “men” because it is the language that holds them accountable.


*) By which of course I mean “toxic for actual information and constructive discussions”

Journalism and the longing for authentic truth – German media scepticism

“To them each editorial choice means a bending of the truth”

In Germany since a few years journalism has been battling against a surprisingly big part of the public talking about how mainstream press can not be trusted. Coming from ‘the left’, I first did not take it too serious because we are a media-critical scene, too – comes with the anti-authoritarianism, I guess. So you take the news with a grain of salt, do not believe in a single truth anyways, you get interested in a bit of media and identity theory, and knowing from which paper an article comes you try to distract the bias to approach that wibbily wobbly timey wimey sexy little thing called truth. What I am talking about here is different though. This new wave of media criticism comes with a lack of interest in how journalism works. When these people think of press as lying they mistake ‘constructed’ for ‘lie’. Consequently to them each editorial choice means a bending of the truth, moving a step away from what ‘actually’ happened.

What makes things worse: It comes with an unhealthy dose of anti-intellectualism. The class and education gap between journalists and a big part of their audience might play into this dissonance. And it is hard bringing up even basic De Saussure to people who insist on common sense and gut feeling as weapons of choice to approach truth.

“tech people’s dreams and the anti-intellectual media scepticism both show a longing for objectivism and authentic truth to tame the scary fluidity of life.”

“Words are perceived as an obstacle to honesty, rather than a means of delivering it”, William Davies explains in an article on the rise of wearables, Facebook and Amazon. I think it is the same longing for authenticity and truth and the same (mis)understanding and disconnection from theory that leads to both: to this special kind of media scepticism and to what Zuckerberg is on about when he dreams of unfiltered telepathic communication as the future:

“We’ll have AR [augmented reality] and other devices that we can wear almost all the time to improve our experience and communication. One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like.This would be the ultimate communication technology.” (William Davies quoting Zuckerberg, The Atlantic)

It is quite telling that the man who is in charge of the social network that mediates communication most is dreaming of unfiltered communication. (If you need a quick entertaining counter stance, try ‘Greeks bearing gifts‘, an episode of Torchwood about a telepathic wearable. I wonder if it is more or less worrying to think these tech guys never seem to have thought of how heavily everyone would have to police their thoughts to make this work as acceptable everyday way of communication.) Those tech people’s dreams and the anti-intellectual media scepticism both sound a bit like “reduce us to biology, plz, theory and language is too slippery”. Biology to the one means the taming of the body with tech, to the other it’s the taming of knowledge about the world with common sense and gut feeling. Both show a longing for objectivism and authentic truth to tame the scary fluidity of life.

“The cultural shift from an openly controlled society like the GRD to a society in which you have a mix of more freedom but also lots of concealed control might make a bigger difference than we thought.”

But back to that german scepticism for journalism. Yesterday for my birthday I had a little coffee party with family and such. One guy started talking about how media pictures always show women and children refugees while he knows from someone working in a city council that in their city there are 90% male refugees. I said, ( regretting that I had no numbers at hand), that the logic might be: we had a rise of anti-refugee protests and crimes, and racist people perceive refugee men as much more of a threat than women or children, so the press might hope to rise empathy instead of fear. That’s what turned the talk to news being “made”, crafted. He said, he doesn’t get why the news does not just show what’s really there and let’s people do their own interpreting. I gave him a basic “news can never be objective, because you always pick something for a story and leave something else out”. A picture is always just showing a snippet of a scene, ripped out of context: it doesn’t show what’s outside of the frame, it doesn’t show what happens before and after, it doesn’t show why the editor picked that photo etc. He then told me about how a friend of his who works for the city council and was one of the emergency folks who were sent to help arriving refugees at some train station last week, when the german gov let all refugees in for two days. There she was ordered, as part of her job, to hold up or put up banners with a “refugee welcome” message. While not being anti-refugees, this reminded him too much of his youth in former East Germany, of how they were forced to wave flags at events staged for state-controlled media. Looking into his eyes when he told that for the first time I understood that there is a huge sensitivity about things like that which I guess West Germans can not really grasp. While I was aware of the distrust in journalism being stronger in the former Eastern German part of the population somehow for the first time this really clicked for me. The cultural shift from an openly controlled society like the GRD to a society in which you have a mix of more freedom but also lots of concealed control might make a bigger difference than we thought. That concealed kind of control is what of course many west germans also criticize but I don’t think we really get how different our cultural background makes us.

“The social web shattering the myth of impartial objectivity leads to a feeling of betrayal that spreads distrust, and this distrust leads to the erosion solidarity that we experience hate messages all over the web and on the streets.”

Add to this the cultural shift that came with the mainstream population entering the social web over the last few years and discovering that there is a multitude of perspectives to the same events out there. The social web shattering the myth of impartial objectivity is one of the big topics of our time and it echoes through so many parts of our lives. The dangerous rise of scepticism against journalism is just one of those ripples. I am no big fan of the gatekeeper mechanism of old media because it only amplified the perspective of a very narrow spectrum of people as status quo. Yet I think its loss without a new, more diverse mediating mechanism for the controversial voices that make up a society is dangerous. We need mediating tools, mechanisms, forums, etc. to get to a societal consensus but it needs to be more democratic, interactive and diverse than the old gatekeeper-journalism. Else this feeling of betrayal that so many seem to suffer from will keep spreading. And it will keep spreading distrust that leads to the erosion of solidarity that we experience in hate messages on the web and on the streets.

“This feeling of distrust is what a surge of new small viral media exploits: Jung&Naiv, Ken.FM, Ruplty – all on different levels”

This feeling of distrust is what a surge of new small viral media exploits: the common sense journalism of Jung&Naiv is not really that far away from Ken.FM’s conspiracy show. Or bloody Ruptly, acting as if it was unfiltered by any agenda. They all got this truther pose: We give you the real thing, we are authentic news, we unveil the secret agenda of the powerful. Of course they will never satisfy this hunger because there is not one big secret agenda just as there is not one objective truth. But people keep hanging on their lips, hoping of every layer that gets exposed that it could be the final one that exposes what really is behind it all. The one simple fix truth that heals them from the horrible everchanging complexity of the world. What those small viral media outlets do is basically an endless strip show, appealing to and profiting from constant arousal but not interested in solutions and giving people knowledge that doesn’t overwhelm them. They exploit the longing for authenticity and truth that is a mark of our times, from digital detox to organic food.

“It is a fine line between mediating different perspectives on an event and shaping opinions for what the government thinks is appropriate as societal perspective on an event.”

Then, of course, there are times when media indeed gets used to shape opinions. It is a fine line between mediating different perspectives on an event and shaping opinions for what the government thinks is appropriate as societal perspective on an event. (If in doubt, I’d apply the simplest satire rule: Top-down is a no-go.) Again, an example from the treatment of refugees: For a while german news were dominated by stories about aggressive anti-refugee protests and arson attacks on refugee shelters, and very disconnected from the perspective of refugees. Fear and hate thusly got perceived as the common german reaction to refugees. Racists celebrated it as display of their power, numbers and success. Then there was a huge press shift to counter this with news about solidarity, showing refugees’ stories, showing how many people in Germany welcome and help refugees. Thus displaying solidarity with refugees as societal consensus. When journalism still had its gatekeeper role it was the only window through which people could look onto events. Back then such a shift would have worked as “ah, german’s have changed, now they are in favour of refugees”. Today, such a shift also gets noticed as “erm, why this sudden new focus in all the papers while there still are arson attacks on refugee shelters?” Doing the “look over there, a solidarity squirrel!” doesn’t work that well anymore. Thanks / Blame to social media the public is more aware that this story only could be told this way because Merkel helped turning it into a reportable emergency situation. The weary long term help for refugees is too boring to report, no one would read it. To make it worth attention, we need crisis moments, pictures like those train stations.

“I’m still angry at those few days in which Merkel used human beings as tactical gaming pieces.”

I’m still angry at those few days in which Merkel used human beings as tactical gaming pieces. Human beings who already are in the worst situation, driven from their homes, ending up in inhuman camp situations, often for years, that get sold as big-hearted aid from saviours. If this use of people, their situation and emotions is what governing in social data/media times looks like we might have soe highly entertaining years ahead. Bread and games 3.0.

I’ll stop this blog post here because I got work to do and can’t think of a fancy end anyways but I won’t end without mentioning one of the tweets that kickstarted me into writing this up (and thusly without mentioning the fabulous #Hameron #piggate etc.) :

“So the newspapers are going to run with “top button undone” as news, but not “pig-fucker in chief”, and still claim not to be biased?” Huw Lemmy (who’s book Chubz I still haven’t reviewed here but trust me and just go get it – it’s great.)

(For non-Followers of #Hameron / #piggate: He contrasts the way Corbyn gets slammed by the UK press for nothings with the way Cameron can fuck a pig to get into a student club that basically helped him to get to the position he now is in and still gets treated with gloves.)

This and a few other UK tweets reminded me of how I have not yet heard about a similar anti-trust-in-journalism movement from other countries. I wonder if there is, and if so, what its specifics are (same longing for authentic truth? same anti-intellectualism? a north/south thing that might be similar to the east/west german difference in this? other things?)

Please leave selfies alone – thoughts on the crisises of truth, identity and journalism


“and since we live in present tense
the only hope of making sense 
all depends on the source of light” Fugazi

In his text “Homo selfiensis” Hans-Jürgen Arlt interprets the selfie as expression of what he calls “PR-Society”: a society that is dominated by striving for success by self-promotion. In quite a mental leap he picks journalism as the opposite of selfies because it doesn’t conform to the wishes of the photographed. Instead of that, he says, journalism follows independent criteria like “closeness to reality” and “collective relevance” (translation by me). As a selfie doesn’t have the same objectives as journalism it is no surprise he finds it lacks them but I find it somehow surprising that he condemns them for that lack.

But let’s be game, just for fun: Is what he criticises even speficic for the problem? Yes, selfies are staged. Yes, they only pick a segment of a situation and one that shows us in the light of our choice. That is not specific for selfies though. You can say the same about an anecdote we tell about ourselves: In it we also just chose a certain part of an event and might leave out things that could embarass us. Let’s look at it from the other side: What about journalism? News pieces also are hardly ever independent and they also often show just one perspective on an event. Not just when journalism goes commentary but as soon as it selects topics and leaves out others, and by what and who gets and what and who does not get mentioned in an article. It is typical of old school journalism to pass this as objectivity. That has worked out fine for a long time because if you take a perspective that is very common it gets almost invisible, or rather: all the other possible perspectives get invisible. But that does not justify a claim on objective truth. This is what gets clearer and clearer in our social media era, in which people with different perspectives have ways of expressing their criticism loudly. (So sorry, Chait.) What about photography and objectivity? We live in the days of Photoshop and Instagram filters and staged press pictures (just think of the latest fiercely criticised one, that showed government leaders heading a Charlie-Hebdo march in Paris). Of all those, to pick out the selfie as example for the loss of authenticity by self-promotion is weird. To conjure up the photographer as an entity that by it’s sheer presence magicly manufactures objective truth to a portrait in contrast to a selfie sounds too much like lamenting old boy’s journalism. You know, the kind that a couple of years ago complained about the dubiousness of blogging and today feels the loss of its exclusive control of the relevant perspective approaching by social media posts. In The silent revolution Mercedes Bunz describes a shift in the relationship between truth and facts: truth no longer is what lasts. The digital fact changes fast and constantly because it gets updated all the time. The absence of those fixed points that we were used to can be unsettling.

Truth no longer is what lasts.

In a review of The silent revolution (testcard, #24: Bug report) I summed up: “The polyphony, the multitude of the voices on the web makes a new kind of objectivity possible: the quality of the digital public’s truth is the immediacy of a lot of different voices – a pluralism that asks us to form our own opinion. Instead of trusting a single perspective that was vouched for by experts (journalists, historians, etc.), the recurring report from a lot of different sources has become the new criterion of truth. The active inclusion of the recipient is a central feature of the digital public.” The kind of journalism does can be considered an interesting way of trying to get a grip of this. Bunz also writes on the change of journalism’s role. “She says there hasn’t even been a real balance between press and politics in the past but that in today’s modern media democracies the positions have shifted even further apart: The media have turned into businesses, politicians use them for image work, media moguls strive for political regulations that are favorable for them, in short: conflicts of interest can be found everywhere, everyone is depending on everyone, everyone profits from everyone. Bunz could imagine the digital public, the smart mob (a term she borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari), as regulatory body. (I would be interested if she still thinks so when considering filtered timelines, and reactions of governments and social networks as Zeynep Tufekci described them in her latest paper, wrapped up here by Matthew Ingram.) What I also found interesting is Bunz’ claim that journalism’s attention logic is quite obsolete. While it still is focussed on events and breaking news the digital public gets driven by user interests: ‘If a message is important it will find me’, as Bunz describes it, pointing to Chris Anderson’s longtail theory of semantic niches. Recurring topics are not only meaningful as viral communication but also as criteria for truth.” That journalism mostly just applies viral logic to spreading its news and establishing its brand is a move into a questionable direction.

Selfies don’t exist outside of social media, the problem with selfies does.

Let me get back to selfies. Arlt assumes that in a selfie you are free to present yourself just as you like. That is a wrongful assumption. He neglects that the circulation in social networks is part of the selfie, it can’t exist without it. A self portrait is not a selfie. So a selfie always is staged to function in the logic of social networks. When we make a selfie we imply/apply the look and likes of the others. Selfies are pictures that instead of our view on a situation show us in a situation or pose. The can simply use our facial expression as non-verbal comment on a situation we’re in. Self-performed as meme. And the selfie always points back out of social media, back to us, points out that self-performance is not a specific phenomenon of the web. I don’t have to go to the level of the self only existing in its performance, which is pretty complex for most people. Let me try a simpler approach. Etiquette, rules of interaction, broad consensus on appropriate clothing for a variety of occasions, of genders, of body shapes – so many default settings tell us how we have to stage ourselves. At the same time we are expected to perform in a way that doesn’t show that we are performing. Fake it as if we mean it. Get caught while you are styling yourself and you can fall victim to mockery. Not that different from the public’s scorn that media and government leaders had to suffer for the staged picture at the Charlie Hebdo march I mentioned earlier.

Social media makes the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and identity performance.

Actually we should thank social media for making the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and authenticity and staging and performance and for sparking discussions. Precisely because this topic is not restricted to social media. Especially in social media though, deliberate lustful self-performance gets criticised. Criticising selfies often is nothing but an effort to claim control over how people depict themselves, and women and youth get the most of that. If the selfie-critics – who mostly take a male perspective – would stand up just as loudly against other omnipresent depictions, let’s say of sexistly objectified women, as they do when it comes to women’s selfies I maybe might take their criticism somehow serious. But most of the time they only call selfish what is not regulated by and for the dominant gaze of society. That just said to mention at least one problematic facet.

Arlt’s text shows how much criticism of selfies is about the fear of losing definatory power when he writes: “Self-marketing as requirement for economic existence and social career: No rental flat, no job, no application, no relationship without ‘selfie’, without approving the production costs of best possible self-representation. But these shows stay under control of the people that are present and can intervene.” (clumsy translation by clumsy me) For him self-marketing/self-performance is fine as long as there is a kind of supervisory body who can intervene. Says Arlt: because with an “unexpectedly interposed question” the “truth” can be revealed. A “truth” that he links to “efficiency” of all things. (I’m struggling how to translate “Leistung” in this context, secretly LOLing at the possibility of using “performance” and having this whole text collapsing over me. Tempting. But “efficiency” seems to carry that special german cultural background best.) As if self-promotion wasn’t about efficiency. How much Arlt believes in an impartial truth, in an authentic identity behind such fake stagings of ourselves, is especially well expressed in one picture he uses: he laments “the public as a tugging between obscuration and exposure”. I would say that this is exactly what truth is: it is an infinite approximation that emerges within a play of a variety of perspectives which shed light on one detail while casting a shadow on another. I find it amusing how much Arlt’s “tugging” reminds me of the picture of a burlesque “fan-dance” Nathan Jurgenson took from Marc Smith to describe how our self-performance on Facebook works. It can be expanded to all kinds of self-performance, maybe even to all kinds of representations: we show sometimes more, sometimes less, show a different side depending on the context, and identity just like truth only emerges in this dance, only in motion, and is ever-changing. I guess Arlt would not find this very sexy.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks.

It is not that I am not agreeing with parts of the criticism of journalism and society Arlt puts forth, else I would not have felt provoked into writing this post. The selfie part just does not make sense in the way he applies it. The navelgazing of journalism on social media and how self-PR-aware many journalists post there, only to stage themselves and their news brand – yes, this is worthy of criticism and misses out on how enriching social media could be for journalism. What Arlt’s post falls short of, is consequently thinking the critical points to their roots. There is the very german yearning for a time in which it was still efficiency that counted and not just self-performance for marketing purposes (and I guess he would see any form of social media strategy of journalism as such. And I would not totally be not disagreeing on that). There is the very manly yearning for a time in which people were blindly accepted as gatekeepers; when that one perspective could be sold as objectivity and other perspectives only appeared as pesky readers’ letters. But there is no conclusive tracking of the “compulsory self-promotion” to its causes, the causes just “are”. Instead he sidetracks his anger and fears to new cultural technologies which he does not really want to deal with.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks. That is how articles get designed for speed and reach while aspects like depth and societal relevance get – when in doubt – sacrificed because they do not matter in those networks. My guess is that only when all social networks will have become publishers themselves, media will get to know if they gave up more than they won.

Tl;dr: The crisis of journalism results partially from the focus on “advertising, PR and entertainment” and the logic of social networks, somethingsomethingaboutidentiy, but: Please leave Selfies alone.

P.S.: Arlt’s text does not outrank my no. 1 of curious selfie-angst-articles, the weirdest one still is this one about selfies giving kids head lice.

P.S.P.S.: The german version of this is online at