We were reluctant to write about the horrors unfolding in Israel and Gaza over the past 10 days. If businesses are somehow able to take real action to help those suffering, great. But other than “thoughts and prayers” social media posts, I’m not sure brands needed to insert themselves into a conversation which is already so chaotic, noisy and horrific.
But then Elon Musk went all Elon Musk-y, and I was reminded that the entire industry actually has a very important role to play. Maybe not in this conflict directly, but how we talk about it, the complex issues underlying it, and the ones that follow.
Since taking over Twitter, Musk’s quirky world views have metastasized into something much more malignant. Lately he’s been talking a lot about the power of “citizen journalists” while attacking and disparaging the work of professionals. Late last month he “X’d”: “I don’t read the legacy media propaganda much anymore. It’s a waste of time and a sadness generator. Just get my news from X.” And also last month: “The media is click-maximizing, not truth-maximizing.”
Musk has boasted about how his platform is helping extremist and documented liar Tucker Carlson after he was rejected by Fox News, and in the past week—aside from the deluge of misinformation on X—he has recommended accounts with a history of spreading bad information.
Whether he believes what he says is almost irrelevant. He has enormous power to attack and further diminish the role of traditional journalism while promoting the social media as a source for news.
We’ve known for years that social media has been taking consumer attention away from traditional media, starving it of the advertising money needed to fund its journalists. But Zuckerberg et al. at least acknowledged the problem. Not Musk.
This is not in any way to suggest that the big traditional media outlets are perfect. Far from it. And we have smartphone equipped citizens to thank for shining a light in dark corners around the world. But the overwhelming majority of journalists choose the profession because they are obsessed with the best obtainable version of the truth. It cost 67 reporters around the world their lives last year, and 11 have already been killed in this conflict since it started.
So what’s to be done? I’ve got two suggestions. First, brands can and should start thinking about journalism as a cause to be supported on the same level as arts, culture and sport. That may seem extreme when so many urgent humanitarian crises are unfolding around the world. But there’s an argument to be made that more of these crises will come when so much of the world can’t agree on basic truths because of bad information from social media—and people are actively attacking and threatening traditional media for saying what they don’t want to hear.
Second, we need a campaign (or more likely campaigns) to change the perception that good information is free and easy. It takes time and resources from dedicated professionals to help make sense of it all. When people rely only on social media and “citizen journalists” for their news, they are in fact contributing to problems around the world.
I’m not talking about one media outlet versus another. I’m talking about changing consumer thinking about where and how they get their information. That is a brief I’d like to see some of our best and brightest creatives try to crack. (Added incentive: this is the kind of work that wins at the biggest awards shows.)
Musk is claiming that X is all we need for news. He could not be more wrong, and it’s time the industry does something about his mistaken belief and the larger shift in the media economy that led him to think that way. For close to 20 years now, advertising budgets have funded a media system that helped break the world. Now it’s time to fix it.