The Facebook Data Scandal and Why Anthropology Should get More Comfortable with Journalism

Investigative journalism might not be ethnography, but – like with everything – there’s a continuum to be appreciated. Journalists and anthropologists both work to uncover things. Journalists tend to investigate what people hide, while anthropologists tend to go for things that people aren’t even aware of at all. The world needs both.

Over the course of an exhausting last year, the investigative journalist and author Carole Cadwalladr got Christopher Wylie, the Facebook whistleblower, to talk.  She sought him out as her ‘source’ and built up his trust, such that he agreed to share with the world how it was that his 24-year-old self created a “Frankenstein”. On Sunday, Cadwalladr delivered the story in long-form for The Guardian. “After many months, I learn the terrible, dark backstory that throws some light on his determination, and which he discusses candidly”, she wrote.

It would have been interesting to hear an ethnographer’s take had any been able to investigate the intersection between Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and the Trump campaign. The fieldnotes might have been thicker, the write up would have taken longer, and it would have been propped up by a wide body of literature. The ethnographer might have chosen not to focus on Christopher Wylie per se.

This unfurling story uncovers rich anthropological material – such as the cultural intricacies of how social media networks are operated and engaged with, or how Big Data was able to build up the Trump vote by targeting ‘wall’-sitters with subtle patriotic inclinations like owning only American cars. But there are also important ethnographic elements to journalistic processes to consider.

A novice public anthropologist meets an award-winning journalist

At an International Women’s Day event this month, I had the privilege of getting a 6-minute mentoring slot with Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger. Although I tried to switch from my convoluted, thesis-thinking mode to a more pointed, ‘just-ask-one-clear-question’ mode, I quickly unravelled into a windy, wordy outpouring. Haussegger, however, listened attentively, related to my qualms about academia, connected dots, and we quickly discovered our mutual appreciation for Australian journalist and author Helen Garner. What a treat!  

My wordy question for Virginia Haussegger that got us there was how she goes about representing vulnerable people who might not agree with her representations. This is a topic I have blogged about in regard to human research ethics, but I wanted to know how she grapples with this in a more public realm. Haussegger emphasised that it is your intentions that count, but you run the risk of losing friends when you write contentious pieces. Hitting nerves can be worth it, though, if you are well-meaning and you get people engaged in stuff they otherwise can’t access. Haussegger reflected on Helen Garner’s similar experiences (which extend to Garner losing husbands by the completion of each major book). Garner makes strikingly relatable what is otherwise difficult or ‘strange’ subject matter.

I then found myself confessing to Virginia Haussegger that I’ve often thought that Helen Garner would make a great anthropologist. I’ve thought about how Garner essentially conducts long-term, fieldwork-style enquiries that result in her exquisitely humanising experiences that most people shy away from. Her finely tuned but clearly communicated observations often even draw on social theories, wider literature, and an incredibly self-effacing reflexivity. Haussegger and I agreed that Garner’s ability to execute all these things in one hit is a mighty challenge for academics, including anthropologists.

So, I now have a belated response to what anthropologist Christopher Kelty blogged in 2010: “I always walk away from quality anthropology with a sense that my brain has been rewired and that I now know better why things are happening the way they are… surely journalism can amplify that effect rather than dampen it?” My response is that there are journalist-authors, like Helen Garner, who do not pursue anthropology who are nonetheless making me feel like I know myself and others better after reading her work. She also happens to inspire brilliant journalists like Virginia Haussegger. What’s more, journalists can conjure up appetites for curiousity about people and the world – the kind of curiosity from which anthropology thrives.

What is the difference between Public Anthropology and Investigative Journalism?

Previous attempts at answering this question of course yield quite vague answers from anthropologists, such as, “anthropology exists as part of a conversation. But I’m not sure we can’t say the same for longer-form journalism. What’s more, public anthropology is not so much about writing up social theory as it is about communicating to a wider audience. Exemplary public communicators of anthropology include Tanya Luhrmann and David Graeber, columnists for The New York Times and The Guardian, respectively. Neither have compromised on contributing significantly to academic conversations, publishing and teaching commitments alongside their public anthropology.

There has also been a suggestion that anthropology and journalism are complementary: “anthropology is the perfect accessory to an aware, mindful journalist, just as journalism and writing are essential skills for an anthropologist who wants to get their findings across to their audience”.

Without journalists, we would not know about many things that infringe on our lives in very explicit ways. Another recent example is the very personal investigative approaches of Ronan Farrow, who went to extreme lengths to respectfully listen, learn and then gradually uncover uncomfortable wrong-doings – his latest investigation into sexual abuse has seen him described as the “journalistic hero of the #MeToo movement”.

Ethnographers can take things further, to understand the things that infringe our lives in more nascent ways. And public forms of anthropology could better embrace how people think about journalistic qualities, so the buck doesn’t (publicly) stop at journalism.

Just as there is an anthropology of journalism (listen to this podcast from Cultural Anthropology for a sample of how it’s operating in the ‘post-truth era’), there is also – currently lying dormant in terms of recognition – journalism with glimmers of anthropology.

Journalism with anthropological windows

Just as Ian blogged last week about the powers of podcasts as ethnographic ‘windows’, I’m here inciting how public anthropology and intensive forms of investigative journalism (including podcasts) need not be viewed as so neatly distinguishable.

It is clear that journalists who become longer-form ‘writers’ and ‘documentary film-makers’ gain more public support when they delve a little deeper and take readers/viewers with them on their reflexive quests of curiosity. The problem is, though, that anthropologists tend to get a little territorial.

When documentary-filmmaker Bruce Parry released his popular BBC series Tribe, which gave viewers some snap-shot insights into the life of 15 different isolated ‘tribes’ around the world, it was received with more cold and mixed feelings from anthropologists. In response to accusations from anthropology professors that he was simplifying and cheaply branding ethnographic methods, Bruce Parry responded: ‘I’ve never pretended that I’m an anthropologist, we’ve never pretended that this is ethnography; this is just an ordinary guy, going in and living with a particular group in an ethical way, and that’s it.’

Well, I now see this as a missed opportunity for anthropologists to familiarise a wider (and highly engaged) public about anthropology. While our sensibilities usually draw us toward less attended-to subject matter rather than unpacking what happened in situations like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, how can we make the best out of efforts by future Bruce Parrys?

Well, Louis Theroux could inspire Ethnography

Numerous non-anthropologists have talked to me about how fascinating they find Louis Theroux’s documentaries, and how great his ‘unbiased’ approach is to ‘weird groups’ of people. I find such comments really exciting, because it’s an accessible way to begin to explain some key drivers for doing anthropology. Louis Theroux, like Helen Garner, I will continue to tell my non-anthropologist comrades, could be a kind of ethnographer.

Of course, it’s not quite ethnography or anthropology – and I will stress here that: 1) that our investigative agendas can never be as clear from the outset; and 2) that we are necessarily slower to process findings and embed them in a wider discourse – but there’s anthropological spirit in investigative journalism that anthropologists could better acknowledge. Regardless of whether it has a anthropology qualification attached or it is embedded in complex cultural theory, it is something that sparks thinking about the ‘other’; the ‘strange’.

If anthropologists want to share their more ‘nuanced’, ‘uncommon’ knowledge to a wider audience, we need to begin by embracing some similarities in our methods and minds. If we want the discipline to grow or at least become a familiar career option we need to highlight when there are inklings of ethnography in the types of journalism and documentary-making described above. Just think of all the younger generations out there watching and loving Louis Theroux with no idea that there’s this thing called anthropology for similarly inclined, curious minds.

[Image by Julia Brown]

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  1. Pingback: Making Bedfellows of Journalism & Anthropology in Sweden – Today in Sweden

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