When describing the age of the Internet, nothing is better than the famous lines in the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, one of the greatest English writers of all time: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...”
The Internet removed the boundaries hindering the spread of information; knowledge and news reach every nook and cranny of the world where access to the Web is available. As a result, even people living in remote areas have opportunities for equal education, entertainment, business and employment. This is the best of times! This is the age of wisdom!
Reasons for calling this “the best of all times” the worst and “the age of wisdom” the age of foolishness vary. For one, the information age doesn’t necessarily make people better-informed or wiser. Ignorance and prejudice still obstinately grip many people around the world, including some politicians and top leaders like Donald Trump, who is engaged in actions against the tide of history.
To some degree, many people are getting even dumber despite their daily access to the astronomical amount of information. Two factors contribute to this paradox: the audience’s self-deprivation of their own abilities to analyze and judge the authenticity and quality of information and the general deterioration of the quality of self-media, one of the chief content providers online, especially on the mobile end. The majority of the consumers of online information are getting information from their smartphones.
Let’s find out how Zhang Yi, an ordinary Chinese mobile phone user lives his digital daily life, or WeChat life, to be more exact.
Early in the morning, the first thing to do after he opens his eyes is to turn on his phone, and instinctively slide to the WeChat interface to check out the updates from his “friends,” many of whom he doesn’t even know. What attracts him most are not repetitive greetings, but reposted articles, videos and photos. He finds them fascinating, because he believes such unofficial information sources allow him to learn more about what is happening around the world. What he doesn’t know, however, is that much, if not the most, of the information spread in WeChat is false, or partly false, low-brow, or error-ridden. Calling such stuff trash is an understatement, because most of it are products of the producers’ simple work of copying, cutting, pasting and mixing.
After checking out his WeChat, he continues to scan numerous hot websites or apps dominated by push notifications for various contents. The push approach automatically caters to specific demands of individual users by analyzing their preferences. Most such contents are from self-media, also known as We Media. Their owners can be individuals or entities. They publish articles, video or audio materials on their public accounts on such platforms as Weibo, WeChat, Toutiao, or other portals. The more hits or flows they receive, the more money they will make, at least so in theory. So they go all out to grab the audience’s eyes, which inevitably leads to the flooding of trash online, though there are some high-quality, creative and serious works.
To boost readership, many self-media try to achieve it by hook or by crook, trying every dirty means: plagiarism, data fraud, making up stories or spreading rumors. Some have even gone further by selling counterfeit products, violating others’ legal rights and racketeering.
Self-media trash comes in many ways. Some play political games, but in a negative way. They echo U.S. and Western media, depicting a gloomy picture for China when Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods. They are tirelessly extolling Western “beauty” while belittling everything about China.
They tamper with the history of the CPC and PRC, demonize national heroes, parody classic Chinese literary or musical works.
At the other extreme, some clamor for a return to the planned economy or nationalization of private companies, while others fan extreme leftism, protectionism and xenophobia.
Others are less politically or socially harmful, but equally repulsive. Their ace in the hole is sensational headlines, which are obscene, hollow, fake, or exaggerated.
Under the silly headlines is usually a hodgepodge of nonsense, incorrect grammatical structures, misused words, illogical statements or mistaken numbers.
Apparently, oversight and regulation are needed before self-media can grow healthier.
(The author is an English tutor and freelance writer.)