Picture credits: @dylanpage/TikTok
Artillery Row

The age of the news influencer

TikTok reveals a broader existential crisis facing the media and our consumption of the news

Just a few hours into my Tik Tok News experiment I realised everything was going wrong. I had pitched an idea that would surely interest readers of this magazine: young people were engaging in a form of intellectual castration by bingeing on 1 minute summaries of the news delivered by Tik Tok amateurs. Surely by peering into the dark heart of this generational phenomenon, I could deliver a withering analysis of our collective doom. 

But I had found myself in a state of quiet bliss. On paper, Dylan Page was someone I should have hated. Going under the name “NewsDaddy”, the twenty something Tik Tok star has accumulated 7 billion views covering everything from the war in Ukraine to societal breakdown in the UK. And all while dressed as a member of a One Direction tribute band. He is part of a broader trend that terrifies the media industry. Former cleaners, McDonald’s workers and aspiring internet personalities armed with a 30 second script and a set of pearl white teeth are usurping their million dollar social media strategies from their bedrooms. 

via emotions that wavered between dread and sardonic amusement I had found a more honest fulfilment of my usual news diet

And I too had fallen under his spell. By the time I had left Dylan Page-world I had watched videos about lots of things: castration for child rapists in Madagascar, a coup in Chile, videos enticingly named: Warning for Americans! In other words I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the world. But via emotions that wavered between dread and sardonic amusement I had found a more honest fulfilment of my usual news diet. Crude as it was, Page had seemed to master the subtext of every media strategy in the digital age. For an audience, there is nothing more life-affirming than being immersed in the apparent decline of western civilisation.

I’m worried. Not so much about the young people, but the grown ups. Those who seem increasingly obsessed with this medium. It isn’t just TikTok, of course, but the vast swathe of Podcasts and Youtube channels that have increasingly come to define our news diets. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding the rise of “alternative media” is not, as Elon Musk believes, that it can replace the capabilities of the much hated mainstream media. It is rather that the desire of the old media to survive has caused it to bend to the new.

ITV News typified this preening obsession when they invited Dylan Page onto the channel to explain the mysteries of his TikTok hegemony. Using the platform was not so much a question of if but when: “It’s about working out the best way to create good, reliable content with the medium that is going to be the future,” he said in his trademark, upbeat rattle. 

Among journalists concerned with the future of their craft, Page’s prognosis is being taken seriously. Adapt, compete or die is the order of the day. “Newsmakers” must form a closer relationship with their audience. AI has been posed as a means to do so, with its ability to collate and understand “reader comments” on articles and videos as means of exploring new angles and concerns. Complicated flow charts with arrows pointing at words like “try a lighter and more playful tone” or “experiment with puppets” have popped up at conferences. The journalist Sophia Smith Galer, who appears to have successfully convinced the BBC of TikTok’s value, said journalists attempting to harness the potential of the platform should create: “personality and niche driven, platform-first content with infotainment and awareness at its core.”

Faced with this radically different relationship between news and a younger audience, journalists have gone in search of role models. Future news influencers who might offer a touch of the old sophistication. One of the rising Tik Tok stars favoured amongst sensible adults is Kelsey Russell, who reads out newspaper articles on her channel. But when pushed to explain her mission she let the mask slip. It’s mere “drama,” she told a reporter gushing over her success. “That’s why I want Gen Z to read it,” she said. It’s literally gossip, and you know we love the gossip.”

Think about this brave new world for longer than the length of  a Tik Tok video and the absurdity starts to dawn. It is rather like a composer, concerned with the demise of classical music, utilising the medium of a K-Pop band to deliver a Wagner Opera — or a hard up high-brow theatre utilising the popularity of the Chuckle Brothers by getting them perform the complete works of Henrik Ibsen. 

Yet buried in the various statistics concerning the news industry’s demise is an important, and overlooked, revelation that suggests TikTok does indeed offer a glimpse into the future of news. Increasingly, people prefer to be informed not by professional journalists, but by influencers on social media.

As an increasing number now actively shun the news. Ordinary people learn about the day’s events from other “ordinary people” on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. People who could conceivably oscillate between a potted history of the war in Ukraine and the latest dieting trend. People who could conceivably be your friend.

Andrey Mir is the media theorist who has struck most decisively at the appeal of the news influencer. Mir’s writing rests upon the frightening idea that there is nothing settled in the world of media. The presumed eternality of sophisticated media, with its role of tethering the informed citizen to a democracy, is but an illusion. There is nothing normal about the newspaper or the News at Ten. All are mere products of a particular age and the technology that defines it. And increasingly the age that defines our world is not news per se, but a more insidious, emotionally driven product derived from it: news content. 

Mir argues that the information age, rather than propelling us to an enlightened future, has in fact reverted us to what he calls “digital orality.” To understand the appeal of Page and his fellow dealers in news content, you must travel into the far reaches of the past to a time before even the invention of writing. In preliterate societies, as Martin Gurri writes in his review of Mir’s Digital Future in the Rearview Mirror, truth becomes “relationship oriented and relative to the speaker — a function of charismatic persuasion.” The latter concerns itself more with “emotional states,” which as Gurri puts it, turns the consumption of the day’s news into “one giant melodramatic space for affirmation.” Consumers of news content don’t want the turgid and time consuming business of wading through bloated information spaces. They want prophetic wisdom and answers. 

The real existential crisis is not, as we are frequently told, the proliferation of “misinformation”

The great irony is that for all the panic about young people on Tik Tok, many of its vices can already be found in some form in the existing media ecosystem. It’s the adults who are just as guilty in engaging with a more sophisticated form of emotional affirmation via the day’s news. The real existential crisis is not, as we are frequently told, the proliferation of “misinformation.” This is a mere symptom of a far deeper rupture: the ongoing upending of the old relationship between news and its audiences

I encourage you all to spend an afternoon watching Dylan Page, for only by immersing yourself in that surreal blend of dread and curiosity will the grotesque and elemental mysteries of our modern day relationship with the news reveal themselves. You will learn more about yourself than the world around you.

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