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How "independent media" has tightened the noose on journalists
By replacing employees with contractors and salaries with selective "profit sharing", capital has increased its control over the media.
Over the last 24 hours, two stories emerged in the news that shed some crucial light on the shadowy world of “independent” Silicon Valley media.
First, in the Washington Post, Taylor Lorentz reported that Twitter has begun rolling out payments to people who use the site. Most posters on Twitter have been well aware of this since users have been loudly bragging about their payments over the past day, but they have also noticed a catch: only some people are getting the money. And so far, Lorentz reports, “the influencers who have publicy revealed that they’re part of the program are prominent figures on the right.”
Meanwhile, in The Nation, Jacob Silverman wrote about the ties of YouTube competitor Rumble to the hard right. In a somewhat tangential passage, however, he notes a detail of their operations that hasn’t been reported on in the past: Rumble reserves the right to cap compensation to site users at $1000. It doesn’t have to, but it can.
These are clearly two slight variations on the same business model — one that seems precision-engineered to keep “independent” content creators on a tight financial leash.
Silicon Valley has spun this model as “ad revenue sharing”. This phrase also, of course, can also describe the payroll of every corporate media outlet in the universe: we call them "corporate” precisely because they rely on advertising from corporate sponsors! This relationship between capital and media is so influential that Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann, in Manufacturing Consent, highlighted it as a primary propaganda filter: advertisers give companies a “license to do business” that serves “as a powerful mechanism weakening the working class-press.”
But by setting up this transaction between capital and media workers — and branding it as “sharing” — Silicon Valley accomplishes three major objectives:
It asserts absolute ownership of profits. Rumble and Twitter rely on content creators to provide them viewers who will bring eyes to ads, but does this mean that these workers are entitled to compensation for their labor? Evidently not; calling this “sharing” spins giving workers their due as generous and completely discretionary charity.
It cuts costs. Since payment is discretionary, capital isn’t doing anything wrong if it decides that it doesn’t want to cut workers in on the action. In this way capital can profit off of the labor of millions of workers while only paying anything at all to a tiny fraction of them. And even in this case the payments are trivial: calling it “sharing” is how you get Brian Krassenstein to brag that it took him more then ten years of working for Twitter to earn $25,000.
It obscures the quid-pro-quo. Here’s how Krassenstein explains it:
Far be it from me to criticize anyone who posts for the love of the game, but that doesn’t change the fact that Silicon Valley has commodified posting. By monetizing it they have given posters a financial incentive to say certain things — and created a financial deterrent against saying certain things. This anxiety rises to the surface all the time. In the Post, for example, conservative influencer Kris Ruby broods about the leverage Twitter has created: “Most conservatives don’t want to go up against the wrath of Elon and what happens when you criticize him…we’ve seen that he’s not really applying the terms of service equally across the board.”
This is the farthest thing from independent media. “Independent” content creators working on the new generation of platforms are in the exact same position as those in legacy media; the only difference is that their employer has even more control over them by reserving the right, at whim, to pay them anything or nothing at all. And as a result, we have a cohort of aggressively promoted influencers who just so happen to be exactly on-message with site management along with a massive reserve of content creators who are constantly auditioning for one of those roles. Silicon Valley has effectively replaced employees with independent contractors and phased out wages for capricious “sharing”; but rather than granting workers some kind of freedom, this has only strengthened the leverage of capital.
Twitter and Rumble aren’t the only companies where one can see something like this model at work; they’re really just the most vivid examples of a new corporate media model that the right has been fine-tuning since the Obama era. In language and structure, it’s a big enough departure from the fixed-wage employment relationship at the heart of legacy media that media critics often see no similarities at all. When one notices that one class still has complete discretion over payments, however, while the other class remains utterly dependent on its whims, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that capitalism is still firmly in control.
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