While last year’s lockdowns were justified by the need to contain the COVID-19 virus, they also provoked an array of new crises. One such crisis, perhaps trivial in the scheme of things but nonetheless culturally eloquent, was a seeming dearth of events in 2020. The illness and death caused by the virus itself were largely private and undramatic compared to the more spectacular forms of mortality favored by the media: mass shootings, plane crashes, and the like.
Meanwhile, millions of internet users were at home, hungering for stimulation. At least before the George Floyd protests, this situation left news purveyors facing a deficit of content—even as demand increased.
It was perhaps no coincidence, then, that viral videos came to dominate coverage like never before. They were already a driver of news cycles well before the covid event deficit, but the combination of new rounds of cuts to media organisations likely combined with the sense that nothing was happening to lend them yet more prominence. Instead of deploying salaried reporters to identify and cover stories, outlets in the Covidian media ecology can simply circulate and recap amateur video clips uploaded to social media, then follow up with round after round of commentary on the twists and turns of the resulting outrage spiral.
Some viral videos, no doubt, feature something approximating conventionally “newsworthy” incidents, but most involve inconsequential altercations between previously unknown civilians. Consider the numerous ‘Karens’ who attained brief notoriety after being captured on video refusing to wear masks in public. Whatever the actual effects of their defiance, their influence on the course of the pandemic was undoubtedly far less significant than the inconsistency and incompetence of political leaders and public health officials—and yet, the Karens were more outstanding villains in the public mind than practically anyone else save Donald Trump.
The outsized prominence of these low-impact incidents in shaping media narratives is a new phase in an evolution of news coverage towards a preponderance of what Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events.” In 1962, early in the age of television, Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, a study on the rise of a new type of “event” that existed only to feed the media’s insatiable appetite for content. Anticipating many themes later associated with postmodernism, Boorstin argued that media technologies had in effect immersed Americans in a fake reality, since their sense of the world was increasingly shaped by prefabricated “pseudo-events,” which he defined as a “new kind of synthetic novelty.”
The sort of pseudo-events delineated by Boorstin arose from a complicity between media organs and publicity-seeking corporations, politicians, and celebrities. Decades before the rise of cable news and social media-driven news cycles, the news industry had seen its work accelerate as multiple editions of daily papers and radio and television broadcasts made coverage effectively nonstop. This left outlets with a perpetual need of more content to maintain the public’s attention, which enabled the sale of ever more ads at higher rates. Meanwhile, various parties realised that they could exploit this demand for publicity. In the resulting positive feedback loop, the burgeoning supply stimulated the public's demand for yet more news.
Boorstin’s enumeration of pseudo-events included forms of political entertainment that have since become familiar to us but that, at the time of his writing, were new productions of the television era. Two examples are party conventions and presidential debates. Both had existed in some form prior to TV, but their integration into the rolling spectacle of audiovisual broadcasting turned them into events whose primary purpose was to feed content to TV stations and flood the news with images and soundbites. Nothing of real consequence for national affairs might transpire at such events, but they could attract weeks of nonstop coverage. Press conferences, interviews, and leaks came to serve a similar function. Rather than being featured on TV because of their significance, their significance derived from being on TV.
It was not a foregone conclusion that the technical capacity to directly broadcast events to tens of millions would lead to this augmented artificiality. As Boorstin notes: “An innocent observer might have expected that the rise of television and on-the-spot telecasting of the news would produce a pressure to report authentic spontaneous events exactly as they occur.” While this did happen, it was not the most important effect: “ironically, these, like earlier improvements in the techniques of precise representation, have simply created more and better pseudo-events.” As a result, consumers of news were gradually conditioned to “prefer the vividness of the account, the ‘candidness’ of the photograph, to the spontaneity of what was recounted.”
Moreover, as people became accustomed to the conventions of televisual entertainment, reality had to remake itself in compliance with their preferences. Boorstin discusses reports and surveys carried out at party conventions, parades, speeches, and other public events early in the TV era, at which spectators reported frustration “because they usually saw very little (and that only briefly) from where they happened to be standing, but also because they knew they were missing a much better performance (with far more of the drama they expected) on the television screen.” In this manner, as Boorstin explains, “[v]ivid image came to overshadow pale reality.”
From the perspective Boorstin provides, the perceived news “shortage” of 2020 was not an aberration, but a magnification of tendencies intrinsic to the technological media system established last century. As media channels have multiplied, the capacity to deliver news instantaneously has accelerated; with the public riveted constantly to communication devices, the demand for content always risks outstripping the supply. Accordingly, the production of good, old-fashioned stage-managed pseudo-events can no longer keep up. The viral video, whether strategically circulated or not, has emerged as a way to fill this gap.
Viral videos also signal a shift in the nature of the pseudo-event. The fakeness of the vintage kind of pseudo-event is of an artificial and prefabricated quality, under the guise of a performed spontaneity. They tended to feature people perceived as important prior to the event’s arrangement, and they were largely covered for that reason. Conversely, the new type of pseudo-event is often a genuinely unplanned occurrence, featuring previously unknown individuals. It is thus neither newsworthy in the old sense, nor an artificial performance for the benefit of TV cameras in the classic Boorstinian manner. Instead, it is usually covered because it furnishes a moral parable that neatly fits into a prior narrative.
While the new pseudo-event seems to contrast with its predecessor in its genuine spontaneity, the distinction also proves illusory. As early as 1962, Boorstin noted that TV had already conditioned average people to imagine themselves performing for the camera, which meant that nominally spontaneous interviews with bystanders simply activated this preexisting fantasy. As Boorstin put it, “[t]elevision reporting allows us all to be the actors we really are.” Likewise, what viral outrage videos tend to reveal is the degree to which people’s spontaneous everyday behavior is now scripted according to media narratives. Pseudo-events can be crowdsourced because we have fully internalised the values of the media system we are immersed in.
The Covidian mediatic spectacle has swirled around the void of a diffuse, invisible, and elusive contagion. The virus is a catastrophe with no visualisable material core. This sets it at the opposite pole from 9/11, the prior epoch-defining disaster of this millennium (thus far). 9/11 was the climactic final event of the TV era, just before the internet became the dominant media technology. Covid, whose viral spread mirrors the operations of our volatile media dispensation, signals the completion of this shift. The new age it has inaugurated, lacking a central Event at its center, is dispersed into an endless series of crowdsourced and evanescent pseudo-events.
Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. His blog and podcast is Outsider Theory (http://outsidertheory.com). Follow him on Twitter @daily_barbarian.