Discourses

Kids across America know that ads are for skipping and blocking. Their elders are more anxiety-ridden. Having grown up in an America economically and culturally dependent on its fantasy-mongering industries, they look upon ads as key to unlocking the appetites, desires, and dreams that get people moving, and spending. But they also see the purity or good conscience of the fantasy-driven economy as under constant threat of contamination by the secularized sins of greed and selfishness.

So while ads mean almost nothing to everyday kids using social media, elite adults have been freaking out over the way those awful social media moguls have used our love of fantasy to “target” us with ads and “hack our brains,” turning our attention into their billions. If only there were a way to redistribute that wealth and restore the fantasy industry to its blessed purity…

A tax on digital ad spend (*cough* Facebook and Google) could bring in $2 billion for journalism. Free Press is suggesting an analog to a carbon tax on fossil fuels — but atoning for the attention economy’s perils instead of climate change.

Hello. What’s that you say?

Think of it like a carbon tax, which many countries impose on the oil industry to help clean up pollution. The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse.

Levying taxes on products like gasoline, cigarettes or lottery tickets, whose consumption may harm parties other than the user, isn’t new to U.S. policy. The resulting revenue has helped fund public health, infrastructure, education and welfare initiatives.

Unlike excise taxes on products, the tax on targeted advertising would be levied not against individual consumers but against enterprises that profit from targeted-ad sales. The revenues could be used to create a Public Interest Media Endowment, which would support production and distribution of content by diverse speakers — with an emphasis on local journalism, investigative reporting, media literacy, noncommercial social networks, civic-technology projects, and news and information for underserved communities.

Inevitable. Of course, if you really wanted to clean up our civic discourse, you’d skip ads like a ten year old, care less about what random strangers say online, and use the internet to seek out a readily available and roughly $0 education in civics and American history. But the mandarins of the crumbling fantasy economy don’t really want to drain the swamp of the so-called discourse. They want to sail the seas of fake news and useless takes, of performative rage and irrelevant opinions, like Gilligan on the S.S. Minnow — named, they may no longer recall, in “honor” of John F. Kennedy’s FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, who famously pronounced television a “vast wasteland.” Fun fact:

The phrase “vast wasteland” was suggested to Minow by his friend, reporter and freelance writer John Bartlow Martin. Martin had recently watched twenty consecutive hours of television as research for a magazine piece, and concluded it was “a vast wasteland of junk.” During the editing process, Minow cut the words “of junk.” Minow often remarks that the two words best remembered from the speech are “vast wasteland,” but the two words he wishes would be remembered are “public interest.”

If our wide-eyed media mandarins want to atone for something, it should (*cough*) be their own industry, which has long since ceased — as America’s kids already know in their bones — to be in the public interest.

is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.

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