Llamas, Life Online, and Lessons Learned

Supporters of former President Donald Trump disagree with a man eating at a restaurant as they march during the Beverly Hills Freedom Rally on June 24, 2023, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

On February, 26, 2015, two llamas—Kahneeta and Laney—escaped while being unloaded for a visit to an assisted living facility outside of Phoenix, Arizona.

For a few hours that afternoon, the renegade pack animals, tracked by news helicopters overhead, delighted the nation as they evaded law enforcement and animal control officers—darting in and out of traffic and generally being hilarious—before some cowboys (llama lloopers?) finally lassoed them, one from the bed of a pickup truck. 

Kahneeta and Laney became instant celebrities, spawning a tsunami of social media content and the kind of roadblock television coverage usually reserved for natural disasters, tragedies, and major scheduled events.

So what does a goofy news story from nine years ago have to do with anything?

That year, the share of American adults on social media hit 65 percent—up from 7 percent when the technologies broke through a decade before. The llama frenzy demonstrated the power of users on platforms like Twitter, now called X, and Facebook to drive news coverage and the national discussion. It pointed to an ongoing shift from social media analyzing traditional media to social media directing traditional media.  

It was a fluffy preview of something much less tame.

There have been media frenzies for as long as there has been a media industry. But for most of our history, journalists could usually sensationalize only after events. That’s why hearings were such frequent vehicles for salacious, slanted coverage: Lizzie Borden, Alfred Dreyfus, and a variety of convenient villains for congressional inquiries. Ambitious officials obliged, sometimes holding juicy trials in theaters instead of courtrooms to accommodate the media throng.

Radio and television opened up new possibilities for live coverage, but the equipment and technology was expensive and unwieldy and required plenty of planning. Unless a reporter got very lucky, they were mostly limited to covering either things that had already happened or scheduled events.

The arrival of satellite broadcasts and cheap, portable video equipment started to change that. Still, breaking news either had to be of massive national interest or be so compelling and go on for so long, that the big media had the inclination and time to zoom in. 

But what if the whole world was your assignment desk and every person with a smartphone was a field reporter?

The 2016 presidential election, the first one entirely in the connected age, unleashed a toxic stream of hate, anger, disinformation and lies. We can blame Russian or Chinese meddling for some of it, but if we’re being honest, we know that Americans didn’t need much encouragement to tear each other apart.

And we in the news business amplified the problem, chasing clicks and rage revenue by following social media mobs into the darkest corners of political life. Elections—cyclical, schedulable, and dramatic—have always been magnets for media sensationalism. But the new tools turbocharged the worst tendencies in the press. Instead of trying to lead audiences to the truth, too many journalists followed the herd. 

Certainly we had some early hints about how relatively small groups of online users could gin up real-life consequences with the help of the traditional news media. But the pace of change found us very much unready. Two close elections and a pandemic later, it turned out to be a surprisingly short trip from a couple of leaping llamas to rage and riots. 

We got there in part because of the uneven distribution of social media addicts. Over at one end are the obsessives. In a prior political age, most of these folks would have been limited to letters to editors, calls to talk radio stations, mimeographed tracts, and ranting to family members or fellow bar patrons. But at the other end of this lumpy distribution was an accumulation of some of the most influential people in the world: In its first decade of existence, Twitter became a favorite of early-adopter, tech-loving elites, especially in the news media. 

By 2016, what looked like massive movements online were really driven by fanatical little groups of superusers. The most active 10 percent of Twitter users were generating 92 percent of posts. Tens of millions of Americans were signing up, but the middle was missing from the conversation. Obsessives and elites fixated on one another, each tending to overstate the other’s influence. 

As the great Megan McArdle put it, “when the user base is hundreds of millions, thousands of users saying the unspeakable is still closer to a rounding error than a vast social movement.”

Unable to adapt to the new paradigm of the big, lumpy world of social media, journalists often found themselves following social media trends instead of reporting on events. Since the rise of social media came at the same time as the fall of the old media titans, it was even more tempting to mistake “engagement” for popular sentiment as news outlets chased audiences in a splintered marketplace.

The result was coverage that was exhausting in its sensationalism, siloed in its worldview, frenzied in its approach, and incontinent in its attention. The news had never been easier to get, but seldom been harder to endure. 

In 2016, 51 percent of U.S. adults said they followed the news all or most of the time. Now, that number is much, much lower—across every age and demographic group—with the steepest declines coming among Americans in their prime working and child-rearing years, the time when we have the greatest need and obligation to be well-informed. Part of the decline is obviously a result of so much competition for our attention from so many screens, but some of it must surely be audience revulsion at coverage that is the product of mob mentality.

Burned out, they tuned out. And I don’t blame them.

The temptation for us in the news business is to blame the ills of social media and smartphones for the denigration of our national discourse and the devastation of our industry. But that narrative is not just incomplete—it’s dangerously self-serving. None of those problems happened without our complicity and, often, encouragement. 

Some of the social media companies themselves are backing away from rage revenue, understanding the long-term damage to their business from short-term profits. And for those companies still wringing revenues out of rage, public perceptions have changed. Eight years ago, many in the news business had utopian dreams of turning the tools of division and disinformation into weapons for accountability and transparency. Not anymore.

Like any tool, social media can be good or bad, depending on how it’s used. A turbulent decade has taught the news business the facts of life online: 

  1. The same human nature that has afflicted us for 10,000 years is no less and no more present in the digital age than it was before. Technology has changed how we communicate, but not who we are.
  2. Intensity is not the same as popular sentiment. In a country with 161 million registered voters, a social media firestorm among a self-selected group of obsessives tells us very little about what normal people think.
  3. The news media is every bit as much villain as victim in the story of social media radicalizing politics. We have the power as individuals and institutions to choose how to use these tools.

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about state laws that try to put governments in charge of policing political speech. The measures in question smack of the kind of pandering to addicted online audiences that took us from lovable llama hijinks to a violent flash mob storming the U.S. Capitol. Technologically and constitutionally obtuse, the laws seem unlikely to stand anyway.

The better remedy would be that this election year, we in the press and you, the voting public, show what we’ve learned. Maybe more journalists can show our independence and judgment and start to reverse that long slide in news consumption by offering you our best instead of chasing the worst.

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