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15 May 2024

Gaza and the new digital divide

A widening generation gap is polarising online news audiences – and coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has made the rift unbridgeable.

By Wolfgang Münchau

I was too young to remember the student protests in the late 1960s, but I know that media reports of the Vietnam War were an important source of information for the protesters. In late-1970s West Germany, the subject of my student-day outrage was US support for Latin American dictatorships. That, too, stemmed from reports I had read in newspapers. The media was the most important source of my generation’s geo-political education. It is no accident that many student activists of that period turned to journalism in their professional careers. Journalism was the extension of the protest movement by other means. The authors I read at the time were John Pilger and Phillip Knightley. Knightley’s 1975 book The First Casualty has, for me, been the essential reference guide to how governments used journalists in their war propaganda.

But governments today, as they are discovering, are no longer in control of the message. A new media sphere has opened up that they are hardly equipped to understand, let alone control. The traditional media did not necessarily support student demonstrators in the past – but they did not place themselves structurally in opposition to them. Perhaps this was partly because, unlike today, students were readers and paying subscribers back then.

In Germany, there is a witch-hunt going on that targets anyone who utters the slightest criticism of the government’s unconditional support for Israel. On 7 May, a group of over 300 academics from Berlin universities signed a letter defending their and their students’ right to free speech. “In view of the announced bombing of Rafah and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the urgency of the protesters’ concerns should also be understandable for those who do not share all the specific demands or do not consider the chosen form of action to be suitable,” they wrote.

Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid, caricatured the academics as Israel-hating agitators. Most of the stories in the rest of the German media about this letter focused on the horrified reaction from a government minister. The signatories included an eminent historian, Michael Wildt, of anti-Semitism in Germany, who himself ended up being portrayed as anti-Semitic.

The coverage in the UK is more even-handed, though hardly sympathetic to the students. When a protester in Los Angeles was hauled off campus by the police, a BBC news reporter on the scene thought it was more important to ask the student what he thought he had achieved, which felt like a rhetorical question.

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I don’t think that this is a stand-off the old media will win. It needs the young more than the young need it. There is no chance that this current generation of young people will eventually become newspaper readers as previous young generations did. I was reminded of the gulf in media attitudes during a conversation with my oldest son, who is 19, about media bias. It was not until about five minutes into the conversation that I realised that he was talking about social media. His generation calls it the media – without the qualifier. When they talk about newspapers, which they hardly ever do, they call it the legacy media. We, in the print generation, are not just old. We are already dead.

When I asked a small group of first-year undergraduates at a British university whether any of them were reading newspapers or watching TV news, there was not a single one who did. Nevertheless, they were informed about what was going on in the world. It would be a complacent fallacy to think that young people are uninformed just because they don’t consume news in the same way that their parents do – and even more complacent to think that this is a phase they will grow out of.

Social media not only offers a different gateway to the news, but different news. Just go to X/Twitter, or Telegram, and search for Gaza. There you find all the unfiltered images you cannot see in the traditional media. There are good reasons television broadcasters blot out the faces of the dead. But it creates emotional distance. If you are young and seeing unfiltered footage of dying children, the effect must be profound.

The media universe young people inhabit is not only different from ours – it is also no longer the same as it was even five years ago. It has become more mature. The defining characteristic of a free media is not the freedom to say what you like, but to do this professionally. Journalism is not a hobby. That is true for alternative forms of journalism too.

Today’s alternative news universe is occupied by journalistic entrepreneurs such as Bari Weiss and Mehdi Hasan (whom the New Statesman recently interviewed), who operate in a variety of news formats: podcasts and interviews, live video streams and news documentaries. What they have in common is that they produce material that television viewers and newspaper readers seldom get to see.

More establishment journalists are leaving their legacy organisations to set up new companies. One recent example is Ben Smith, the media reporter and former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, who set up his own newsletter operation, Semafor, after leaving the New York Times in 2022. Smith’s media coverage has highlighted the growing divide between traditional news outlets’ Israel coverage and the pro-Palestinian views held by large segments of younger and left-leaning audiences.

Some of the new political journalists come from the tech scene. The traditional media’s interest in technology is usually confined to product reviews of the latest gadget, or laments about artificial intelligence.

One of the megastars in the techno-political sector is Lex Fridman, a Russian-American computer scientist, tech broadcaster and prolific interviewer of politicians and tech leaders. With a huge following on YouTube of almost four million, he has pioneered a new interview style that I would struggle to compare with anything I have seen in traditional news media. The pace is slow. The interviews can last for two and a half hours. You won’t find that on the BBC.

Technology is also providing new tools for increasingly innovative journalism. I was recently struck by the story about how an investigative reporter at Bellingcat – which calls itself an “independent investigative collective” – managed to track down a German terrorist who had been on the wanted list for 30 years by using facial-recognition software.

Bellingcat is another of the new news organisations straddling the worlds of alternative and established media. One of its great scoops was exposing the FSB officers who used a Novichok nerve agent to attack Alexei Navalny, the Russian pro-democracy leader, in 2020. But Bellingcat is as relentless on Israel as it is on Russia. One of its homepage stories on 13 May was a report about abuses by Israeli troops, with one quoted as saying they had become addicted to explosions; another was about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Bellingcat is not mainstream. But it is a professionally run news organisation.

Traditional media organisations are still better resourced, but they are in decline. When newspaper print sales started to fall in the first decade of this century, digital revenue initially compensated for the decline. Newspapers were often caricatured as a licence to print money. The industry operated a dual oligopoly in the markets for readers and advertisers. Both could freely choose between a handful of competing titles, but had nowhere to go outside of the cartel. Now, the cartel has given way to a competitive industry with low barriers to entry.

Digital subscriptions for newspapers have also started to decline. The Washington-based Pew Research Center noted that from 2021 to 2022 the average monthly unique visitors to the websites of the top 50 US newspapers declined by 20 per cent: down from 11 million to nine million. Print sales had fallen by two thirds since the heyday of the 1980s.

The Digital News Report 2023, published by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, contained a couple of astonishing observations about the divorce between young people and old media. In 2015 the proportion of people who accessed online news directly on a publisher’s website or app – as opposed to via social media or other intermediary channels – was a little over 50 per cent for each age group. By the end of last year, that proportion had fallen to 24 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds. Among older adults, meanwhile, the number remained steady: half are still visiting the titles’ own platforms and sites.

Another important trend is the decision to avoid certain subjects altogether. Among those who declared themselves selective news avoiders, the subject that ranked at the top of the avoidance scale last year among UK readers was Ukraine.

A further unexpected detail is that active avoidance of Ukraine news was highest in countries closest to the conflict. This tells us that the disconnect between the political establishment and the young is just as high in eastern Europe as it is in the West.

The Biden administration, too, is struggling to sustain political support for its foreign policies among a younger generation that has instant feedback on what happens after an Israeli bomb attack. It makes a difference whether your lead news item of the day is a video clip of a dying child or a report of a senior US official struggling to explain the president’s Israel policy. The communication departments of the White House and other Western governments are geared towards the traditional media – and they are no longer reaching an important segment of their voters.

We in the traditional media can express outrage about the protests at Columbia University, or letters written by academics in support of their students. We can mock the students, or worse, offer patronising sympathy. Chances are, they won’t even hear what we are saying. We are talking to ourselves.

[See also: Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life”]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink