Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Twitter and her sisters

Social-networking sites and other forms of new media have brought enormous changes to the traditional media landscape, transforming politics, the economy and society. But as well as serving as a means of liberation, they can also be used for social and political control, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

 Social-networking sites and other forms of new media can be used for social and political control
Social-networking sites and other forms of new media can be used for social and political control

It is impossible to ignore the perceptible and imperceptible relationships between the new social-networking media and the perceptions that govern human behaviour, shape world views, and clarify stances and outlooks towards events regardless of the importance or impact these events may have. 

The media was once regarded as a mere transmitter of knowledge, a vessel which we could fill with messages made up of words, images, signs and signals whose meanings, aims and values we controlled. This concept is no longer valid in the age of the new media, since this has become a participant in shaping the message and vivid proof that form is inseparable from content.

The new media, with its capacity to entice millions into playing (wittingly or not) the role of citizen journalist, has succeeded where the conventional media has failed in convincing people that it was ever more than a conduit. Many users of social-networking platforms have uploaded content that has attracted the conventional media, which has then retransmitted this content in printed or audio-visual form. 

It was clear from the outset that the Internet and the new media would bring enormous changes and spur a mammoth leap in human history because of the profound changes they have given rise to in politics, the economy and society and in the ideas and actions proper to these realms.

No development in recent decades has produced a greater change in politics and civil society than the rise of information technology and digital communications that brought us the Internet, the blogger community, a panoply of social media, and the mobile phone which has accelerated as never before the speed and facility of access to digital media. The world now has an astoundingly dynamic and entirely decentralised media that allows people and organisations to communicate and work together towards the realisation of political demands and the advancement of civil rights. This media is growing more and more dynamic and influential with the spread of education, the empowerment of youth, and the interweaving of civil society networks across the globe.

The new media is also the direct offspring of liberalism. We see in it the same basic values and principles, such as equal citizenship, broad public participation, respect for freedom of thought and expression, openness to the other, pluralism, decentralisation, accountability and transparency, the open market, and open government. 

Nevertheless, it is still too early to tell whether information technology and digital communications will continue to serve as vehicles of liberation, or whether they will be turned into instruments for social and political control by despotic regimes that have come to realise their significance and have begun to use them in the war against freedom.

 

THE SOFT REVOLUTION: The Internet has cut distances, broken barriers, erased the boundaries between work and play, opened a window to the masses to take part in the communications revolution, such that the term “revolution” is no overstatement for the magnitude of the change that is all around us.

It is the latest in the series of “soft revolutions” that have changed us all in profound ways without a drop of blood being shed. There have been five main traits of this communications revolution.

The first is that it expands public participation in the media and empowers citizen journalists. Anyone today can log on to a personal website and post articles, reports or analyses, or visit news sites and comment on or contribute to online press reports and journalistic investigations. This participation of the masses in the media is an ultimate realisation of the dream of advocates of the “theatre of the oppressed” who envisaged an art in which audiences would take part in the creation and staging of dramatic texts.

The second is that it reinforces an individualism driven by technological progress and changes in lifestyles. For example, the invention and advancement of the press brought an end to societies in which people needed to assemble around an educated or learned person in order to be able to read a text. People could pick up a book or newspaper and read it for themselves in the privacy of a secluded spot. 

In like manner, the Internet has increased the isolation of the individual from the family and from friends and acquaintances in his or her environment. It has simultaneously assimilated the individual into a “virtual community” in which one finds friends from all quarters of the earth. Sometimes, these friends may be faceless ones, but one communicates with them anyway. The implications for how this could shape the future of how identities and affiliations are forged are tremendous. 

The third is that it boosts knowledge economies. Just as oil was critical to the Industrial Revolution, the digital world is spurring the growth of modern economies that are searching for alternative sources of energy and working to create new types of products.

The fourth is that it presents a challenge to the political authorities as it defies their control over the media, their use of the media to justify and mobilise support for government policies, and their ability to distort awareness of tyranny and corruption. The new media has broken through the authoritarianism, officialdom, and inviolability of the conventional state-owned media and set up platforms to pressure the authorities to improve conditions in ways that can lead to greater freedom and better governance. 

Indeed, the new media has shown itself to be so effective in this regard that it has become the true monitor of government performance, especially under totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that have turned parliaments into talking shops, stripped them of their oversight functions, and used their legislative functions to produce laws that serve the circles in power. 

The new media bolsters the freedoms of thought and expression and the freedom to organise. It enables people to learn what is happening around the world and how people in the remotest places think and act. It exposes people to a diversity of ideas and facilitates the expression of their own ideas. It offers an important platform for the exercise of civil action and political opposition even against dictatorships, although it should be borne in mind that this media is a means and not an end. Calls to civil disobedience, strikes and sit-ins over the Internet need to be followed through on the ground if such calls are to have any real meaning.

The fifth is that it is used as a mainstay in ideological debate in the world today — even excessively so now that religion has become a salient factor in international politics. This is the product of the US intensification of Islamophobia in the course of its search for a new “enemy” following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and of its strategy of fomenting sectarian and ethnic hostilities in order to promote “creative chaos”. 

It is also the product of the increasing skill of religious extremist and terrorist groups in using the Internet for proselytising, recruitment, mobilisation and incitement.

However, every revolution has its victims and its opponents. Today, the conventional media is facing a formidable challenge, but that does not mean it is facing extinction. The US computer guru Bill Gates once predicted that printed newspapers would disappear by 2018. He has been forced to revise his opinion and acknowledge that it is impossible to predict the future with certainty or to understand the laws that will govern it. 

In like manner, publishers who had imagined that reading on the Internet would end the printed book now design e-books to look like paper books that the reader can read while reclining on a couch, flipping their pages, and enjoying them under a soft light. The sales of printed books have also increased.

Those who had imagined that the printing press would join the Bronze Age axe in the museum by the time of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s death in 2048 failed to appreciate that progress does not proceed in such a linear fashion. Perhaps this was because of a tendency to confuse a tool with a product. New tools can render older ones redundant, but new products do not necessarily do away with previous ones, as can be seen by people today continuing to consume products that would have been familiar to their ancestors. 

Newspapers and books are products, not tools, and they will therefore remain with us for many years to come. This of course does not spare publishers and others from the need to adjust to the new realities and demands of the knowledge society, especially in terms of portability and content.

 

POLITICS AND A FREE MEDIA: The media has always played a political role, and governments have always used it to promote their policies, especially in times of war or conflict, as well as sometimes also to mislead or spread rumours. 

However, the relationship between the media and politics goes much deeper than the ways the authorities use it. It is also instrumental in the dissemination and development of political culture. This operates at three levels: the cognitive, which relates to how informational content raises public awareness; the emotional, which is connected to how the media shapes people’s opinions and attitudes; and the behavioural, which relates to how people translate the information, knowledge and values they acquire through the media into action in their day-to-day lives.

The relationship between the media and politics is contingent on the context in which the media operates. In dictatorships, the journalist is the mere servant of politicians. The reverse is the case in democratic societies, where the two may have a mutually beneficial relationship. The relationship also depends on how far the journalist believes in the need to remain independent and objective and to refuse to politicise media content or use it to mislead the public to serve particular political ends. The independence of the media is what sustains its credibility and deepens and broadens its influence, which is something that any sensible government realises. 

 An independent media does not mean that it has to be without feelings, kindled, for example, by a desire to safeguard the higher national interest or to champion truth, justice or beauty. This is where the media converges with politics in working for the sake of the public weal. Politicians and political parties ceaselessly claim to strive for this end, or, at least, they strive to generate a socio-political equilibrium that is beneficial in that it prevents any person, party, or political force from monopolising power without restraint or coming up against a counter-force that can check abuses. 

The modern liberal press is the most powerful in terms of its ability to influence public opinion, not only in democratic countries, but also in societies that do not enjoy the benefit of a free press. This is particularly the case in countries shaken by civil strife, ethnic and sectarian conflict, or class and regional clashes, all of which supply generous fodder for the foreign media which has the means to place itself at the centre of events and cover them in ways that draw audiences.

Could the new media have been born in a non-democratic environment? The answer is surely no, since non-democratic regimes cannot conceive of enabling people to freely circulate information, air their political opinions, or rally followers to protest against policies they believe are detrimental to society. Closed conservative societies are unable to conceive of a means that opens avenues to communication and the discussion of subjects that religious hardliners might consider to be taboo. Dictatorial regimes inherently fear any technology that might permit unregulated discussion or empower people with knowledge, a sense of solidarity, and the courage to act. 

Another face of liberalism, this time economic, was also instrumental in the birth of the new media. The spirit of plurality, openness, deregulation and free competition and the belief in laissez-faire appear to govern the new media as much as liberal economics. As one Western media professional has observed, the Internet offers a public and anonymous environment for criticism and a system for mobilising social discontent, both of which are considered good because much of the media today is either controlled by governments or corporate interests. In other words, if the spirit of laissez-faire cannot be found in the conventional media today, it is available to everyone via the Internet.

Capitalism has also contributed to expanding the contemporary reliance on artificial intelligence. This has facilitated government work and affected how decision-makers function, and it has also created partners that have a powerful influence on policy-making. Companies developing smart technologies are having a rapidly growing impact on politics, the economy, security and other areas of life, such as the media, of course.

However, the most important area where liberalism and the new media converge is in the realm of liberal values and principles, and in the ability of the new media to both benefit from and serve them (or, at times, contradict them). 

Among these values is equal citizenship, which means the equality of all before the law in terms of rights and duties and without discrimination on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliation, regional origin or language. This principle has given rise to the phenomenon of “netizens”, being individuals able to exercise their rights through the Internet.

Other values include privacy, the idea that there should be spaces for confidential communications between the users of social-networking platforms and the right of users to select friends and followers or exclude and expel unwanted intruders, and political participation or involvement, which is a basic liberal value that has been bolstered and reinforced by the new media that has opened vast realms for people to play a part in politics, policy formation and in international relations in an environment that is relatively transparent and inspired by a belief in people’s right to make governments more open and accountable.

 Civic liberties and human rights have also been promoted by the new media, since belief in the freedom of thought and expression was an essential prerequisite for the launch of social-networking sites that then opened channels for the exercise of such freedoms as never before, as have various types of pluralism, which has helped create “network thinking” between multiple, contiguous and interconnected entities for which social-networking sites are excellent platforms.

Decentralisation has been promoted by the new media, since this, though not a necessary condition for a liberal order, involves the idea of delegating responsibility, multiple centres of authority, and the representation of the peripheries, forming a landscape conducive to social-networking sites which share similar characteristics.

Lastly, the new media have bolstered the free market, since this value concerns ideas as much as it does goods. The concept also goes further to include open government, or the government’s responsibility to inform people about decisions and plans and guarantee their right to access information and take part in decision-making processes and make their ideas and suggestions heard.

 

LIBERATION OR COERCION? The new media has blurred the lines between news and opinion and between information and action. It has eliminated distance and the time lag between messenger and recipient, enabling immediate and spontaneous engagement and deepening discussion with the aid of mutual feedback. 

However, the crucial question remains of the extent to which the new media has strengthened freedom or facilitated restrictions on such freedom. 

The new media offers certain types of freedom that are unprecedented even in liberal societies. However, not everything one says on the Internet can be translated into action, even in democratic societies, because one bumps into the contrary will of others, not least those in the seats of power. 

Social-networking sites are now a basic component of electoral campaigns in advanced democratic societies and in emergent democracies as well. The mobile phone has contributed to democratisation through applications that make it possible to monitor and ensure the integrity of polls. The Internet in general has made it possible for people to compel their governments to be more transparent, to exercise oversight over how budgets are managed, to remain posted on anti-corruption drives and human-rights violations, and even to map abuses. Even in undemocratic regimes, social-networking sites and other Internet platforms have given people avenues to circumvent the authorities. 

On the other hand, the new media can also harm democracy when it fails to furnish the facts objectively and in ways that are free from bias. Sometimes journalists may rush to convey important news items to the public and may take shortcuts. They may not take the time to inform themselves fully or to ascertain all the facts. Some may even be driven to fill the gaps with guesswork or invention. This does not serve democracy, which thrives on the free market of ideas, the give and take between conflicting ideas, and people’s right to make informed judgements. 

At a broader level, the new media can also offer an easy way out of political participation. The facility with which people can vent their views on the Internet, often crudely, does not dispense with the need to take concrete action, for example by taking part in demonstrations or engaging in other forms of political activity.

However, offences can also be intentional and more pernicious. Dictatorial regimes and even some democratic ones commonly intervene in order to restrict freedom through laws and regulations that increase the government’s powers to monitor and control the media and to penalise those who use it in ways the authorities do not like. In addition, such regimes increasingly possess technologies to monitor the communications of Internet activists, to bombard them with cyber-attacks, to block websites and other material, and to cut off Internet access entirely in times of mass protest or unrest. 

The new media thus offers new ways in which dictatorships, with greater resources than their opponents, can control the flow of information to serve their interests or the views they want to disseminate.

Autocratic regimes can also use the new technologies to track dissidents, prevent protestors from rallying, disseminate slander about opponents, intimidate people with scare tactics and commit Internet piracy under the pretext of defending national security. Such regimes now even work together to enhance their powers of control by means of “network-linked tyranny”. It is ironic that democratic states that have used legal means to combat crime and terrorism on the Internet have created an environment that helps authoritarian governments use similar means with the aim of restricting the exercise of civic freedoms. 

Even in liberal democratic societies, many people now mourn the loss of their privacy for the sake of governmental or commercial interests. Many also fear the erosion of the liberal principles and human-rights guarantees enshrined in their constitutions as a consequence of the rush for technological superiority in the war against terrorism or the fight against Internet crime. 

At a more global level, the new media has become a cornerstone for imperialist projects, because of its power to support expansionist wars or aggression or to promote the ideologies of latter-day colonialists. 

In sum, the IT revolution has brought evil as well as good. Apart from the political ills mentioned above, this can be seen in the arms race in cyberspace, in cybercrime, in malicious hacking and leaks, and in the promotion of consumerist tendencies that render people vulnerable to voluntary servitude. 


The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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