So, uhh, how about that U.S. election? Granted, it’s become hard to recall when there wasn’t an election cycle going on to the south. Or pre-election. Or pre-pre-election. Or post-election stuff from the election before that.

Thing is, though, I bet if you actually gathered up all the actual, unique, discrete bits of data, important information and useful commentary, there wouldn’t actually be that much of it. Coverage from all angles has certainly been endless, but has it really been that substantial?

It’s not just the 2020 election. It’s any newsworthy event these days, especially one that takes time to develop or evolve. Our modern media landscape is not designed for patience or calm reflection.

The 24-hour news cycle was born in the very early 1990s. CNN gets the credit, though the network was a decade old before “all news, all the time” really became a thing. THE thing.

People will point to the Gulf War or the OJ Simpson SUV chase as early drivers of the phenomenon of endless, obsessive viewing. The doomscrolling of its era.

In some ways it’s hard to believe we’ve been living like this for three decades. Those labelled millennials and younger have never lived any other way. I know a lot of people for whom having the TV always on is just… how they live.

Imagine mainly getting your news once or twice a day from the newspaper or evening news broadcast, assuming you weren’t able to hear the radio during the day. All television was appointment television.

The average consumer may never have really noticed, but there has, traditionally, also been a significant difference between broadcast and print journalism. For reasons already listed and delved into more below, broadcast has rarely produced work as in-depth and analytical as print.

The 24-hour news cycle was only the first big media shift. The second shift overlapped with both the first and third, and really, is still going on. And that’s the decimation and consolidation of the news/media industry. Thousands of outlets have disappeared, in large part due to loss of revenue to online platforms (which may look like news producers, but aren’t).

At the same time as this breakdown was in progress, thousands, if not millions, of new “news” outlets have sprung up online, since anyone with an internet connection can put up a site, post on social platforms, create videos, send out a newsletter, etc., filled with literally anything they want to say, no fact-checking necessary. However, digging deeper into that shift and its reach would take several columns, if not several books.

The third shift brought broad adoption and growth of the internet, since platforms and channels were no longer the exclusive domain of big (mostly American) corporations.

But then, in the mid-2000s, came social media, the fourth and even bigger shift. Not only could all the news and information be had online now, so could everyone’s commentary. In addition to finding out what was going on pretty much in real time, you also saw every possible opinion, rumour, factoid, anecdote, meme, etc. that could go with it.

Now, at first things were downright wholesome – comparatively. I guess aggro and unhinged needs a certain threshold of eyeballs and opinions, which most certainly showed up and stayed. (I’m sure there’s a sociology paper or two out there about that…)

At this point, the volume of people accessing social media eclipses those accessing cable news shows, though the Venn diagram certainly isn’t two completely separate circles just yet.

The advent of the 24-hour news cycle, first on TV, then online, created hyper-competitiveness among networks and shows (and later sites and accounts). You win by having the most engagement, the most eyeballs.

But where news is concerned, everyone is basically working from similar raw material. The same footage of explosions and sand. The same footage of a freeway and a white Bronco. Or substitute every other iconic media snapshot over the last 30 years.

So you have to find a way to make your version more compelling. Brighter graphics, bolder text, more histrionic music, more “speculative” commentary, more dramatic guests with ever wilder opinions. Some of the people and tricks bringing us this new world of news pretty much became the brands. Did hate-watching even exist prior to that? (Yes, yes, Not All Networks...)

But does this media ecosystem actually provide the viewing public with anything better? Anything more? No. Because they don’t have anything more. Hell, after a day with too much online time, I’d argue we end up with less, given how my brain feels.

A lot less. Never have critical thinking and analysis skills been more crucial. Never have fewer people learned or used them. And never have more people with a stake in the media landscape and its influence counted on that.

Now, this media onslaught does produce plenty of “more”. Those already prone to anxiety are at risk of it getting ratcheted up at any moment. Even if nothing has happened to make a given and ongoing situation worse. Gotta build that drama. Gotta flesh out those conspiracy theories.

Now, depending on the outlet or platform, they might just polish up what information they have via the above-listed methods to make it sound more dramatic, more substantive or fresher. Statements can be vague, unclear, carefully phrased, use loaded terms, include qualifiers, or a hundred other ways to avoid them being out-and-out falsehoods.

Whatever needs to be done to stretch out limited information until more becomes available.

Other outlets and platforms don’t bother with that wussiness, though. They just go for it, fabricating drama out of whole cloth to really draw people in. Wild rumours, conspiracy theories, statements of “alternative facts,” deepfakes, threats, supposed insider statements, directives to specific audiences. It is a remarkably sophisticated and consistent playbook.

Not to skate too close to Godwin’s Law, but the Nazis were pretty clear and public with how that particular playbook works – what, you thought it was new? – if it wasn’t yet clear that this media shift is often anything but benevolent.

Of course, the National Socialists’ goals weren’t just to draw readers and incite comments. But then, neither are the players’ and platforms’ these days, either.

And nowadays, it’s not just a one-on-one relationship between you and the platform, with the platform getting you all invested, endlessly scrolling and heart thumping. No, the internet, particularly, is open for everyone.

It’s the ultimate one-to-many and many-to-many ecosystem, with the skills and knowledge to build that bright, loud, shiny, and largely empty husk of truth or information content in the hands of so many people. And all of them have an agenda.

Trying to claim it doesn’t affect you is pointless, and a lie, regardless of whether or not you’re willing to admit it. I actively tried to avoid American election coverage online, and I don’t have cable, and I still ended up with intermittent anxiety.

I also know a lot of smart, techy people, and every one of them has been taken in at some point by something fake online, yours truly included. It sucks and is embarrassing, but it should be less so when you realize that there is a professional army dedicated to that exact result.

And honestly, those on the side of the angels just don’t get the same level of engagement. They don’t rely as heavily on the same bag of tricks. Why? I don’t know. Taking the high road certainly doesn’t tend to do them any favours.

First it was the 24-hour cable news cycle. And the growth of the internet. Then there was the crumbling of the traditional news industry. Then social media. What the next shift in media evolution will be, I don’t know. But if you consider how much we are manipulated now, and how many players there are in the game, I can confidently predict that whatever the next shift is will be a doozy.

“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Mr. Twain, if you thought that was true in the 1800s, let me introduce you to Twitter…

(By the way, Twain is perfect for the internet era. Mark Twain wasn’t his real name – it was Samuel Clemens – and many, many, many quotes attributed to him are questionable, some predating his working years, and others more credibly attributed elsewhere.)

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at