How a Fragmented Media Landscape Shapes and Warps Our Perceptions
“When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior.” Guy Debord
The rise of smartphones and social media in recent years created a population with almost constant, high-speed connection to the Internet. And unlike before, when televisions and desktop computers provided only limited options, connectivity is now fast, ubiquitous, and easy, to the point that people can now be online everywhere. Screen-based media now dictates to a large extent how we interpret reality. As people spend more time glued to screens, how they come to view reality changes as well.
This skewed reality can then get confused as the norm, leading people to conclude that the world as seen on screens is more real and frightening than the directly experienced world around them. The pessimism we have witnessed over the last few years is the outcome. I will argue that this pessimism is in part a by-product of how we have come to interact with our screen-based technologies.
Before the Internet, there was television, before that radio, and before radio, print. Each of these information mediums presented different ways of engaging with the wider world. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “The medium is the message.” What McLuhan meant by this was that each new medium for information delivery creates new sensory extensions of ourselves that extend and modify how we intellectually engage with the wider world. 
With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, print technology gradually became the dominant way that people consumed information. To use McLuhan’s terminology, the printed word became an extension of the eye, allowing people the ability to read about things beyond their immediate sensory area. The conquest of the printed word was truly revolutionary, but one that took place slowly over centuries. The printing press greatly expanded the amount of printed material in circulation.
However, low literacy rates and the cumbersome process of typesetting hampered the expansion of the printed word. By the late nineteenth century, though, improved mechanized print technologies and literate middle-class societies brought books, magazines, and newspapers into the average home. Newspapers and magazines disseminated information about national and world events as never before, while at the same time serving as an unprecedented means for advertising products for the growing middle class.
Gerald Baldasky points out that the role of newspapers changed throughout the nineteenth century in the United States. In 1800, newspapers were local in nature and focused on getting out a political message. By 1900, mass-circulation newspapers were commercialized, with competing dailies thriving throughout the country’s urban centers. Editors strove to give people the information that would keep them reading their newspapers, and the information people responded to tended toward the sensational.
In what became a self-reinforcing cycle, advertising dollars flowed to those newspapers that offered the most diverse and entertaining content, which in turn raised circulation, attracting more advertising revenue that further increased profits. Political publications continued to survive, but increasingly on the margins, as the mass media market successfully appealed to mass-consumer tastes. In many ways, the modern media machine as we know it was born in this time.
Print media enjoyed a brief monopoly before a series of new information technologies were developed. The written word first and foremost required literacy. Levels of literacy still varied widely and the less educated found reading an uncomfortable exercise. Reading was an active exercise, taking place at the pace of the reader. Even so, printed propaganda could still play an important role in swaying public opinion, as Walter Lippmann understood as far back as 1922.
Lippmann noted that printed propaganda is a difficult medium through which to unite public opinion since individuals reading something will create their own interpretation that may or may not coincide with the original intent of the propagandist. Not only that, but the pace of print was much slower. People had to wait for newspapers to publish; they then had to purchase and read the material when they had time. The whole reading process demanded attention and time, but those same two traits also left ample room for individual interpretation.
For Lippmann, print’s tendency toward endless subjective interpretation of information meant the government’s role should be to produce experts in every field whose job it would be to form opinion for the public based on well-researched facts. What was important about Lippmann’s proposal is not so much how effective it would be in practice, but the prescient notion that a pluralistic democratic society risks dangerous instability when everyone has an opinion and no one is an expert. In this case, the information technology in question, whether print or the Internet, tends to the same outcome, even if the pace varies.
According to Lippmann, without expert consensus, the risk was a society governed by endless argument by ideologically driven partisans, fighting for their version of truth, rather than a society ruled by reason. This confusion of partisan demagoguery undermined the social fabric, generating fear, anxiety, and finally pessimism in the citizenry.
Lippmann concluded, in retrospect perhaps naively: “The value of expert mediation is not that it sets up opinion to coerce the partisans, but that it disintegrates partisanship.” We know now that partisans can also deploy “experts” to reinforce their arguments, sowing confusion among the undecided and entrenching the positions of fellow like-minded individuals.
Lippmann’s quest for a democratic society governed by objective reason, where facts were unassailable facts vetted by experts in their respective fields, turned out to be much more difficult to accomplish than expected as the kinds of information technologies which followed print were particularly susceptible to the dissemination of partisan propaganda.
Each new technology sped up the tempo of information flow throughout society, and this increased tempo bombarded people with more information, much of it contradictory, than they were able to cope with. Daniel Bell rightly noted the cognitive differences between television and print. “The print media allow for self-pacing and dialogue in comprehending an argument or in reflecting on an image. Print not only emphasizes the cognitive and the symbolic, but is also, most importantly, the necessary mode for conceptual thought. The visual media – I mean here film and television – impose their pace on the viewer and, in emphasizing images rather than words, invite not conceptualization but dramatization.”
The first of these new technologies was radio, which further democratized access to information. In contrast to print, which allowed the reader to contemplate and digest information at a slower pace, radio in many ways represented the written word in audio format, whether that was the reading of news or entertainment. Television soon followed, going a step further by combining audio and visual all in one device. The impact was revolutionary in how people consumed information.
First launched in the 1940s, television quickly became the primary means of information. The number of households with a television set skyrocketed from 2.3 percent in 1948 to 71.8 percent by 1956.  By 1960, this percentage would reach 90 percent, with viewers already spending 3 to 3.5 hours per day watching television.  By 2005, the average American home would have a television on for at least eight hours a day, with access to hundreds of channels of entertainment and 24-hour news. Television’s dominance as an information medium would remain unchallenged until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s.
Neil Postman viewed television as a radically new information medium and one that focused above all on entertaining the viewer. “But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable.”
At first, television offered few options, especially when it came to news programming. As a result, people everywhere had access to the same information from the same few sources. During the 1960s and 1970s, 35-38% of households with a television watched the evening news on one of the few broadcast channels available.  Television, as opposed to print, further democratized the dissemination of information by becoming accessible to the less educated and literate members of society. 
What this meant is that most people were consuming the same information from the same few sources. Even if they still sorted themselves out into ideological groups afterward, the informational starting point at least remained the same. In this sense, public opinion in the broadcast television (roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s) era remained anchored around a few generally trusted sources of information. Families gathered around the television every night to watch the evening news, and for the most part, they all watched one of the three big networks. Partisan behavior still existed, but the very limited nature of the media environment meant that people shared exposure to the same information.
Markus Pryor notes, however, that cable television and later the Internet altered this dynamic. Cable television brought an increasing menu of options beyond the big three broadcast networks. Not only did the options for news sources greatly expand, but those for entertainment did as well. Pryor argues that, overall, cable television accelerated the polarization of public opinion.
While cable television offered hundreds of channels and numerous 24-hour cable news networks, the Internet raised the level of choice by orders of magnitude. Instead of five or six cable news networks, people could find thousands of politically oriented websites catering to every ideological inclination. In this environment, political partisans, already more engaged than moderates, became even more so.
On the other hand, those with only a moderate level of interest in politics, which Pryor calls "Switchers," began opting more for cable television’s many entertainment options. This happened at the expense of political participation. These Switchers simply disengaged and left politics to their more opinionated fellow citizens. The trend led to an ever more polarized electorate as cable news and high-speed Internet went mainstream. 
Pryor, however, is careful to not blame famously partisan cable news networks like Fox News and MSNBC, since the polarizing trend he observes pre-dates the advent of partisan cable news by over a decade. According to Pryor, this polarization is simply the result of vastly increased viewing options, not only for news but for entertainment as well.  Instead of the extremely limited options of the broadcast television era, people could choose to indulge their inclinations to either closely follow the news, or escape to entertainment.
Cass Sunstein also observed how modern media technologies amplified group polarization. While Pryor argued that additional viewing choice increased polarization among partisans, Sunstein believed that social networks, especially online, tended to generate echo chambers, with individuals interacting with other like-minded individuals in a self-reinforcing cycle of hardening opinion. “If people on the Internet are deliberating mostly with like-minded others, their views will not merely be reinforced; they will instead be shifted to more extreme points.”
What happens in such a rich environment of diverse media choice is that people are able to gravitate to those who share the same views. Once they find such a group, they tend to shut out dissenting viewpoints, while reinforcing whatever the group’s ideology happens to be. Even worse, they tend to see themselves as distinct members of a small minority with an inside track to the truth that others simply are unable or unwilling to see.
This coincides with earlier research conducted by Emily Pronin, Carolyn Puccio, and Less Ross. They argued that, “People…are inclined to hold the misguided conviction that they somehow see the world, and evaluate divisive issues, in a uniquely clear, unbiased, and unmediated fashion.” The Internet and cable television lend themselves to this kind of egocentric bias.
Most people tacitly understand that others see the world in different ways, and they therefore adapt their view of reality to accommodate these differences. Many also have strong partisan inclinations one way or another but have difficulty articulating those points of view. For these people, a lack of confidence in the ability to coherently express an opinion tends to moderate the outward expression of those opinions.
Cable television and the Internet, however, are effective at short-circuiting this accommodating tendency by offering articulate partisan interlocutors able to express partisan opinions in simplified and understandable ways. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, and many others, play this role on a daily basis, deploying their rhetorical skills to the detriment of their supporters' critical thinking skills.
The Internet thus provides an additional way for inarticulate partisans to find information corroborating their views and gives them a toolbox of canned talking points to confidently deploy when challenged. Thus, someone who denies climate change can find sleek websites offering seemingly sophisticated arguments that reinforce their bias; likewise, those against vaccines can immunize themselves from scientific consensus by only reading from other online sources that validate their views.
The result is corrosive to social cohesion, with competing echo chambers vehemently opposed to one another. The members of these echo chambers are all equally convinced that their side owns a more valid version of the truth; every group is thus better able to marshal sophisticated-sounding arguments to reinforce beliefs.
McLuhan was correct when he argued that each new information technology brings with it a new way for people to interact with the world by taking older technologies and refashioning them in new and unpredictable ways. However, as McLuhan knew, this can lead to unforeseen consequences. 
As media content expanded to offer a broader array of choices, people sorted themselves out by ideology and inclination. Whereas previously in the broadcast news era everyone had access to the same limited options, homogenizing views to a certain extent, political junkies today find themselves able to feast on a never-ending stream of political content 24-hours a day.
Likewise, entertainment fans find escape in immersive video games or binge-watch programming on Netflix, leaving the political arena to the partisans. Either way, our modern media landscape lends itself to ideological fragmentation, and that fragmentation lends itself to more pessimistic worldviews.
For partisans, it means a non-stop stream of culture wars fed by equally partisan media content, which in turn fosters “us versus them” mentalities. For example, liberals often hear that the “other side” wants to persecute homosexuals or help big corporations get rich at public expense, while conservatives learn to fear any government initiative as a slippery slope to Soviet communism. Partisan media does not lend itself to any nuanced discussion.
Daniel Bell saw this back in the 1990s as cable television and the Internet began to gain momentum. “Ideologically, the country is being polarized. To those on the Right, we are two nations: the moral and the immoral, the traditional culture against the counterculture. To those on the liberal Left, the United States is a society that is increasingly being riven by the rising inequalities of wealth and income in which the poor, black and white, are being left behind by the lack of economic opportunity.”
Does that still sound familiar in 2020?
That was in the 1990s. Compare those well-worn narratives that Bell observed back in the 90s with those of today’s very similar ones. The message is the same, but the medium by which it is delivered is now literally in our back pockets, always available to an ever-connected populace, always pumping our minds full of mediated messages that target our biases.
Nevertheless, this pessimism does not only stem from the social, political, and ideological differences offered by cable television and the Internet, although those do play an important role. The old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” takes on new meaning when people are constantly connected and engaged with screen-based technologies.
With the average American spending just under ten hours a day now connected to electronic media (computers, mobile devices, television), it is not surprising that perceptions of reality vis-à-vis the world at large have begun to diverge from personal reality. In our media-saturated society, sensational news takes front and center. That is hardly a new phenomenon. Print and broadcast news did the same and had the ability even in the 1960s and 1970s to shift opinions and cause pessimism about the state of things.
The difference today is that people spend much more time exposed to a vast deluge of information. Neil Postman calls this media environment a peek-a-boo world, “…where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.” Anyone who has watched cable news or surfed the Internet understands how this works. A plane crash in Europe, a police chase in Los Angeles, a school shooting in Colorado, an outbreak in Brazil; each of these and more hits the viewer in quick succession and often in the span of minutes.
According to Postman, our exposure to this peek-a-boo world induces anxiety that we live in a world out of control and beyond our control. “When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.” The more shocking the story, the more it can often be given a partisan spin, and so the more Balkanized the public becomes.
Natalie Stroud’s research indicates that agenda-driven media, especially in today’s ideologically fragmented media landscape, drives opinions and perceptions. She writes, “In a fragmented media system audiences can develop divergent impressions of the most important problems facing the nation. There is some evidence that this occurs based on differences in the issue emphases and reporting in partisan media coverage.”
Sensational news content spun by biased information outlets and consumed by a public saturated in media ends up distorting perceptions. Any perceived reality about the world becomes warped through the prism of the media we consume, which over time creates a dissonance between how we view the world beyond our daily experience and the world of our direct experience.
What results is a two-tiered perception of the world.
First, people have a perception of their immediate, day-to-day, realities. Call this the realm of the five senses, a real-world outside our heads but immediately perceivable. This is the regular, non-technological reality of direct, unmediated experience in the world. In this reality, people interpret experience directly through the five senses. It is the world of the everyday and mundane.
Second, there is another mode of perception, one almost entirely mediated through electronic media. To borrow McLuhan’s terminology, this is the realm of the extended senses. This too is a world outside our heads, but one beyond our immediate perceptions. This is a world of shock, drama, and titillation. The result is that the individual endures a daily barrage of war, terror, natural disaster, crime, corruption, and other mayhem, all delivered at a constant fever pitch and often with a subtle ideological bias. The more time people spend living in this technologically mediated reality, created and often delivered with great sophistication by media platforms aggressively competing for our attention, the more skewed our view of reality becomes.
We rely on filtered content, based on subjective interpretations from others, to perceive this wider world. We choose to look or not, but all of the content is pre-selected for us when we do look. In other words, when we consume media content, we are choosing what someone else chose for us. There is still some limited personal agency here, I guess, but deceptively less than you might think.
There is evidence for a widening gap between these two kinds of perceptions. Surveys hint at how this has changed over time. From 1959 to 1997, for example, Gallup surveyed the public’s general level of optimism. Using an eleven-point scale, with eleven representing maximum optimism and one maximum pessimism, Gallup asked the public to score how they perceived their own situations in the present and how they anticipated it would be in the next five years.
Likewise, the poll asked the same question about how the public perceived the direction of the nation at the present, and in five years time. Curiously, Americans have remained largely optimistic about their personal prospects for the future, scoring themselves at around 7.7 out of 11.0 in 1959, and 7.6 out of 11.0 in 1997, the last year for this survey. In contrast, between 1959 and 1997, when rating their optimism for the nation’s future, this number drops from a relatively optimistic 7.4 in 1959 to a much more pessimistic 5.7 in 1997.
Subsequent research since 1997 confirms that this gap between personal and national optimism remains. In a 2013 survey, only 34% of Americans were optimistic that the next generation would have it better than the present one, while 64% were optimistic about their own children’s prospects. Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center notes: “On balance it seems that the closer one gets to home, the more positive people are about their children’s prospects. The country’s kids will not do so well, but my own kids will at least match me or do better.”
Indeed! In other words, people acknowledge, even if subconsciously, a difference between the realities of their personal lives and the realities presented to them in the media. Polls show Americans remain upbeat about their own futures, even as they become more skeptical about the direction the nation is headed. Crisis-driven media viewed through a partisan lens amplifies this.
Guy Debord once wrote, “When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior.” This has certainly turned out to be the case when it comes to how we interact with our technology. As we spend ever more of our time connected to a world of “mere images,” created to demand our attention so that our attention finally demands their creation, it should come as no surprise that the line between the real world and this world of images begins to blur. This blurring forces the media-saturated individual to maintain two realities: the reality of the day-to-day, and the reality of images.
The danger for society is when a majority comes to believe that the images they get off of their screens represent the way the world truly is, rather than understanding it for what it is: a never-ending catalog of extremes meant to push our emotional buttons.
When that happens, when distorted perception comes to govern actual behavior, the risk is that people will eventually begin to seek more solutions from this realm, and not from Lippmann’s pool of experts, or even their own relevant direct experience. In this case, people will seek solace by sorting themselves into partisan groups that tell them what they want to hear. Or perhaps they will turn to a charismatic reality television star for president because he tells them what they want to hear and they can no longer tell the difference between realities on and off-screen.
As Neil Postman aptly put it: “We all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.” This may end up being the epitaph for our civilization. Likewise, the more time we spend experiencing the world as it appears on our screens, and reacting to it with fear and pessimism, or perhaps withdrawal and anger, the less time we have to enjoy the actual world and all the beauty that surrounds us.
 Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), 13.
 Ibid., 19.
 Gerald J. Baldasty, Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 139.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Minneapolis: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 2007), 189.
 Ibid., 367.
 Lippmann, Public Opinion, 371.
 Daniel Bell. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 108.
 Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 124.
 Ibid., 107.
 Markus Prior. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.
 Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 2006), 87.
 Pryor. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, 71.
 Ibid., 72.
 Prior. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, 245.
 Ibid., 248.
 Cass R Sunstein. Going to Extremes: How like Minds Unite and Divide. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 81.
 Thomas Gilovitch, Dale Griffin, and Daniel Kahneman. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 641.
 McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 13, 31.
 Bell. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 320.
 "The Optimism Gap Grows." Pew Research Center RSS. January 17, 1997. http://www.people-press.org/1997/01/17/the-optimism-gap-grows/#fn-115-2.
 Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public, 70.
 Ibid., 73.
 Natalie Stroud. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 164.
 "The Optimism Gap Grows." Pew Research Center RSS. January 17, 1997. http://www.people-press.org/1997/01/17/the-optimism-gap-grows/#fn-115-2.
 Andrew Kohut. "What Will Become of America’s Kids?" Pew Research Center RSS.
May 22, 2014. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/12/what-will-become-of-americas-kids/.
 Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle; Trans. by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 6.