Increasingly, I find out about breaking news stories online – if a story is important, interesting or simply entertaining to my friends they’ll post it on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, or circulate it to an email ‘chain’ for comments and discussion. This how the Jeremy Paxman/Russell Brand Newsnight interview came into my consciousness. In this case it was a broken story, the clip appeared in my newsfeed the morning after the program had aired.
For readers who haven’t seen this interview, I’d recommend checking it out – the clash of styles between the two, with Brand artfully bamboozling Paxman on several occasions, makes for a very watchable encounter. The interview has ‘gone viral’, shared and discussed by thousands of social networking site users and viewed over 8 million times on YouTube.
The debate centres on Brand’s guest editorship of the New Statesman political magazine, where he discusses the fact that he has never voted. For Brand, this represents an entirely reasonable response to the state of contemporary British politics –his argument is that the current system serves the interests of a narrow elite, maintaining and exacerbating socio-economic inequalities. The existing political sphere doesn’t allow for truly radical change to emerge. Thus, for Brand: ‘there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box’. However, when it comes to specifics, Brand is less forthcoming, and much of the interview consists of Paxman unsuccessfully prodding for Brand to explore what sort of alternative system he would like to see in place.
All across the developed world indicators of satisfaction with the mechanisms of representative government are in decline, perhaps most starkly in the United States where, according to Gallup, approval figures for Congress are the lowest since the company began asking American’s to rate the institution’s performance in 1974. In this context, it’s not surprising that Brand’s message of opting out of representative democracy has resonance.
The popularity of the interview shows up the increasingly complex interplay of ‘new’ and ‘old’ media in shaping what we know about the world. It struck me that this interview represents a type of online content that I hadn’t considered before – offline or ‘old’ media content that you would have missed but for the web. The interview comes from a long-established current affairs television program (Newsnight has run since 1980) and is based on content from a political magazine that is more than 100 years old. On the other hand, the way in which the interview spread was not imaginable before the Internet age. Looking at other videos on Newsnight’s YouTube channel, which typically struggle to break 10,000 views, it is clear that the Internet has helped to magnify the impact of this particular segment.
However, I must confess that a major reason that the Brand interview was interesting to me was because of research that I’m doing with two colleagues: Drs. Maria Laura Sudulich and Leonardo Baccini. We’ve been looking at the effects of using the Internet as a news-source on several aspects of public opinion. We’ve been facilitated by doing so by the fact that broadband is currently unevenly distributed across Ireland – which allows us to perform a sort of natural experiment – comparing similar individuals who live inside and outside of broadband connected areas. Our major findings are that citizens who consume news online are considerably more uncertain about which party they will vote for and more inclined to blame the European Union for the current economic crisis. We’ve been trying to figure out how to explain this, given that there’s no accepted way to capture or code the nature of online political content – this is unsurprising given the ever expanding bulk of information available online and the fact that each individual user tailors his or her own experience. This brought me to think that an alternative approach might be to explore the numbers of views of videos from major news providers in the hope of discovering some of the traits of online news that can produce these effects. While I’m very much in the early days of this new research approach, one trait that I’ve noticed already is that a certain degree of extremism, either in behaviour or opinion tend to do well. Another is that radical opinions, railing against the status quo political system (not to mention an already huge and still growing online conspiracy theory community) are finding an audience online. As more and more news consumption occurs online, it is interesting to imagine how these trends will influence political life in years to come.