Complicity in Amplificaiton

President Trump is planning to address the nation from the oval office tonight, a speech which will be aired live during prime-time by all of the major broadcast networks. Even amidst his constant barrage against news media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” Trump is relying on the major networks to provide a platform for his message. This decision has raised several questions about what it means to provide a message with a platform, and the role that others may have in spreading and amplifying that message.

It’s worth noting that the President addressing the nation from the Oval Office is not a new thing. Countless Presidents have done so throughout history, and the major broadcasters have chosen to air these addresses live. Although it is more uncommon for the address to take place during prime-time, it is not entirely without precedent.

However, given Trump’s uneasy relationship with truth, there was an immediate negative response to Trump’s planned address. People anticipated a vitriol-filled, politically charged, and misinformation-filled tirade and decried the major networks’ decision to air the broadcast live. Many had hoped that the networks would decline to air the speech live, and suggested that by carrying the address they were merely providing Trump with a platform and were thus complicit in spreading his propaganda.

Notably, in 2014 the major networks chose to not air President Obama’s speech on immigration due to concerns that it would be overly-politicized. In 2006, they did air President Bush’s prime-time address on immigration, however. Clearly, the decision to provide (or not provide) a platform is a difficult and complicated one.

I certainly don’t envy the job of a network executive. However, I think it is also worth keeping in mind that the broadcast media are not the only ones exposed to this ethical dilemma. In the age of new media, convergence, and spreadability, it is all too easy for nearly anyone to spread and amplify a message–willingly or not. Media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner describe it as “spreading seeds.” Even if you share something for the purpose of satire or criticism, the original message is still carried along and reaches wider audiences. Phillips describes these issues in greater details in her report “The Oxygen of Amplification.” I wholly agree with her assessment of the conditions surrounding amplification, but remain uneasy with the implications for reporters and scholars alike. Those of us who attempt to report on, criticize, and understand these kinds of media issues may find ourselves complicit in amplifying messages that we do not agree with whatsoever.

I am going to watch Trump’s live address. I think it’s important–as a politically active American, but as a media scholar as well. I am very curious to see how he handles this media coverage, and how the news media responds in turn. I will also be paying close attention to how the address plays out, is discussed, and responded to throughout Twitter and other social media. I think that there are lots of potentially important and interesting research questions that may emerge, but given the potential of complicit amplification, I am still not wholly certain how best to handle and write about them.

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