The “creator economy” will be astroturfed

Over the past few years, the online creator world has gone mainstream. More journalists are building and leveraging their online followings, and an increasing number of homegrown content creators are covering big news events. With these changes, the media landscape is becoming more fractured and legacy corporate media is hemorrhaging talent and relevance among young people.

I predict that, this year, we’ll begin to see the emergence of a real and robust alternative to traditional corporate media in the form of highly engaging creator-driven independent media, and we’ll see rich and powerful people working aggressively to preserve their power in this new landscape.

This shift is evident when you look at the major news events this past year. The war in Ukraine was broadcast on TikTok. Millions of people followed the Depp v. Heard trial, or the FTX meltdown, solely through the lens of YouTubers, Twitter accounts, Substack writers and podcast hosts. And it’s undeniable that Platformer, an independent news Substack founded by Casey Newton, has broken some of the most talked about and impactful coverage of Musk’s Twitter takeover.

Perhaps the most significant example of this fracturing in the media world is seen in coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. As thousands of people continue to die a week, millions become disabled by Long Covid, and our leaders leverage corporate media to normalize unprecedented mass death and disability, a whole new class of independent creators has captured audiences by producing essential public health journalism.

Death Panel, an independent podcast, hosted by the authors Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant, provides a level of policy analysis almost wholly absent in traditional media. A myriad of independent Substack writers have pushed back on political leaders’ dominant narratives. And Peste Magazine, which produces deeply reported health journalism and commentary, continues to publish the sharpest writing on our current moment.

While there are many thoughtful and responsible creators who abide by journalistic principles, others will do or say anything to attract attention and make money. It’s easy for people who don’t know any better to be led down a rabbit hole by creators pushing conspiracy theories or hyper politicized misinformation.

Still, young people are gravitating toward this new landscape. Feeling utterly unserved by traditional media, they are significantly more likely to seek out news on social media and to get that news from an online creator.

For everyone who wants to leverage this new, creator-driven media landscape to build a better world, there are as many who seek to use it to reinforce old systems of power. These people constantly attempt to politicize the shift in media consumption, saying that young people are rejecting traditional media for becoming too “woke.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The shift away from legacy media is a broad, technological shift, not a singularly ideological one.

It’s a shift that the political right is aggressively trying to capitalize on. Take Bari Weiss, for instance, a Substack commentator who recently took time away from doing comms work for Twitter to announce a new media venture.

Though Weiss continually positions herself as a “fiercely independent” journalist, she, like many right-wing content creators, is simply selling old, legacy power structures back to the public in new shiny packaging. It’s why members of the legacy media class are so quick to excitedly and uncritically promote her endeavors.

Weiss is not the only online creator masquerading as “anti-establishment” media while working tirelessly to serve the interests of the richest and most powerful. Chaya Raichik, the woman who runs Libs of TikTok, has had a longstanding financial relationship with Seth Dillon, owner of the right-wing media site The Babylon Bee. Right wing influencer Glenn Greenwald, who once did journalism, now takes an “ample funding package” from Rumble, a far-right YouTube competitor backed by the venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Many legacy media journalists fall for these creators’ false positioning as outsiders because their view of the media world is so limited. They aren’t knowledgable about the broader online creator landscape, and so they can’t properly contextualize peple like Weiss, Raichik, and Greenwald. These creators are only known so well in traditional media because they remain tools of the establishment, backed by rich and powerful people who prop them up in order to retain their power and control in the new creator-driven landscape.

We are at an inflection point, and traditional media beginning to crumble provides a huge opportunity. We finally have the chance to build a more diverse and inclusive system that amplifies independent voices who are truly interested in holding power to account. To do that, we need to not only hold the platforms that incentivize outrage, harassment, and disinformation accountable, but we must also be sure not to replicate the flaws of traditional media in a new setting.

We cannot allow rich and powerful creators to disguise themselves as grassroots or to seize power online in order to promote extremist ideology. We must also encourage traditional media, which can still provide a crucial check on power, to learn, grow , nd adapt to serve a broader, younger, more diverse audience.

Taylor Lorenz is a technology columnist for The Washington Post.

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