In addition to those geographical areas we call “food deserts” because they lack access to affordable and nutritious food, we need to consider the growth of “information deserts,” areas that lack affordable and informative news. I’ve been trying to follow the #Almedafire in Southern Oregon for the past 24-hours, only to repeatedly return to raw emergency feeds from first responders in the hopes of piecing together what’s happening on the ground. Traditional news outlets are practically useless–the Medford Mail Tribune, together with all other print media, took their usual ten-hour sabbatical last night right as the fire was raging through four Southern Oregon cities. The combined power of all network television managed to stream one stationary camera from atop a hill until it too disappeared due to a loss of power. Radio stations kept to their regularly featured programs of commercial advertising, interspersed with soft-rock, shock jock, and QAnon-talk; often the two were indistinguishable. Social media was only somewhat more useful. Facebook was wildly uneven. Instant live streamers captured flames devouring houses and gas stations, occasionally providing the “who, what, when, where, how and why” of basic reporting but more often than not cutting away for long segments about their shoelaces or pets. Facebook commentary, often the only source of news on any given live video feed, skewed toward that of a sewer spewing conspiracy theories that mostly blamed Antifa for fires from San Diego to Washington state. Twitter, while marginally better at providing on-the-ground breaking news, was also rife with whacky speculation and short on useful information.
What is clear is that print, television, and radio are dead. It’s not clear, however, what, if anything, is going to replace them.
A basket-of-deplorables liberal or an ivory tower radical might attribute all this to a reactionary environment peculiar to Southern Oregon, but I don’t think that’s the case. The preponderance of Antifa conspiracy theories mixed with frantic calls to evacuate animal shelters and department stores is not unique to Southern Oregon; neither is the almost complete disregard for the wholesale destruction of mobile home parks and the health and safety of undocumented populations, the houseless, and other vulnerable populations. Such reactionary hand-wringing for the estates of the wealthy and vineyards of the well-to-do, together with a corresponding disdain for working people is not unique to Southern Oregon. It may be more pronounced in such liberal cradles of opulence as Malibu and Marin; Lake Oswego and Mercer Island, somewhat less so in timber towns.
Much like the new citizen streamers who cover BLM protests for platforms like Twitch, Periscope, and Facebook, alternative forms of ”news” are welcome, but also deeply problematic. Where such streamers are not advocacy journalists clearly on the side of Black Lives Matter and anti-fascism, they often provide footage authorities can use to prosecute comrades. Even when they are on our side, their quest for clout, clicks, and followers ($) inadvertently aids the powers that be. In their frequent attempts to emulate uncritically received notions of “unbiased” reporting, “fair and balanced” coverage, and a misbegotten heroic pursuit of the “Truth” they trammel on all of these values, and many more besides. But we need them; otherwise, we would be left with the corporate press and the underfunded and out-of-touch “old left” media.
In the case of local emergencies, like the firestorms raging out here in the west, our principles of solidarity and mutual aid demand that we find ways to fill the gap between the tendency of traditional forms of media to misinform us, and the emergence of new forms of (social) media for which it is hard to distinguish between information, misinformation, and disinformation. The reason both new and old forms of media are hapless in the face of local emergencies and disasters is due, of course, to the same trends that have left us so vulnerable to COVID-19: privatization, austerity, JIT logistics, and crumbling public infrastructures, especially health and welfare. Following the tenets of disaster capitalism, the predictable carnage that results is quickly followed by the savage depredations Wall Street and Silicon Valley engineer for profit.
We need a new “citizen” reporter network with the politics of Unicorn Riot but with the reach of Fox News; we need Woke.net but without the “Black Conservative Preacher” and anti-Semitic feeds it features. This will only happen if we take our cues from the decentralized, horizontal, anti-authoritarian BLM and anti-fascist demonstrations underway across cities small and large. If we focus on maximizing what’s great about new social media as a news provider, together with minimizing what’s rotten, we might be able to provide nutritious and delicious information for the masses and thereby fertilize these information deserts so that something beautiful can bloom.