Monthly Archives: May 2013

New Media and “Information” versus “Deliberation”

New media cloud

The answer to the question about what exactly defines “new media” is usually a list of new technological developments. Web 2.0 is most associated with new media because of its interactivity and user-generated design capabilities. Rather than passive viewing of content on a screen content can be created and shared by users. Examples are blogs, wikis, Facebook, twitter, you tube, pod casts, social networking, RSS feeds, and each have numerous marketing and social applications. The most popular of these are the social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube. For our concerns here, it is necessary to locate these technological developments within communication and deliberative political processes. We can begin by making the distinction between “mediated information” and the “deliberative experience.” New media is mostly helpful with the mediated information environment; that is, it stresses an information environment composed of the press, television, blogs, talk radio, etc., and the quality of discussion among people. It contributes more to the information community rather than the public. New media makes information available in asynchronous time and space. Except for research on online discussions new media is not usually associated with the deliberative experience which involves a form of dialogue to seek a new consensus. This is not to diminish its importance in the information society. Facebook, for example, has been successful at establishing discussion forums that facilitate public discourse. In fact, ideal speech conditions are enhanced in some instances.

During the 2008 presidential election, Facebook was used seriously for political communication. The campaigns followed traditional communication strategies, but included Facebook as well. Facebook can facilitate communication. It combines the features of local bulletin boards, newspapers and organization and places them in one location that is available any time any place. Also, political leaders can use Facebook as a medium to communicate with members of the public or their own group. It thus provides leaders with an effective way in which they can reach the public. The Israelis and Palestinians have numerous Facebook pages devoted to peace, friendship, the two-state solution, the nature of the conflict as well as partisan and ideologically narrow pages.

New media played a role in the 2009 Iranian elections as well as providing information and contact with the outside world during protests. Twitter was used by people outside Iran to spread information and report on what was happening. These media also made it possible for women, whose participation is restricted by Islamic law, to play a more significant political role. The mainstream media also benefited from new media because new media users send out information when the traditional media are banned. In other examples, social media played an increasingly significant role in the Gaza war of 2008-2009 termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Israel mounted its own YouTube site to show off the accuracy of its weapons, and Hamas used blogs to demonstrate their strength (Arab Media, 2009). Banning the traditional media, as was the case in Gaza, makes it possible for a political entity (e.g. Israel or Hamas) to have more control over the message. This empowers so called “citizen journalists” and gives them some control over content, but still lacks the depth and breadth of professional journalism. Not all new social media is very successful. Facebook, for example, receives a lot of media attention and can attract support, but its group formation requirements are so low that individuals show little commitment. People join Facebook groups to express personal identity and solidarity with others because it cost little and requires even less from them.

What we call new “social media” has a few unique qualities that sometimes, but not always, makes them adversative to the political process. The Habermassian public sphere is a communicative arena for rationale, inclusive deliberative discourse; it is an environment where participants in a conflict can get together for debate and discussion under maximally communicative conditions. But new social media are characterized by deterritorialization, that is, a mediated publicness of non-localized space. The participants are spread out geographically and the interaction is an attempt to be intimate and authentic rather than rational and focused on the common good. But this multiplicity of voices remains important to the deliberative process. As Mouffe explains, there must be a place for the expression of dissensus and this is especially true in political conflicts where, according to Mouffe, conflict is constitutive of the political. This is the notion that a fully constituted democracy emerges out of conflict or the clash of identities and political interests. The more there is a clash of differences the more fully articulated is the democratic polity or, in the case of ethnopolitical conflicts the more fully realized is the solution potential. One of the most powerful features of new social media is the extent to which they extend networking and linking. It is simply easy to tap into new networks of information and establish contact with others. There is, for example, a considerable amount of contact between Israelis and Palestinians. But none of this represents revolutionary implications for deliberation. Moreover, new media can be controlled, exclusionary, and fragmented: States actively filter the internet, bloggers are harassed, and users are often intimidated. Cammaerts warns that it is difficult to produce a deliberative sphere on the internet. And although there is potential for serious participation, these technologies are rife with contradictions.

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Democracy and the Defeat of Radical Islam

When groups or political parties form in society along religious lines they organize themselves into difficult political cleavages. And this is particularly true when the political party is radicalized and immovable with respect to consensual decision-making and tolerance for other points of view. These groups are a problem and difficult to contain but ultimately must be controlled and defeated.

The United States has often taken the military and security approach but this only goes so far. You can’t kill them all. So what is a political culture like the United States to do if it is going to address these problems politically? Political Islam stresses international grievances and includes their own anger, frustration, and humiliation. Surely broad scale international relations are part of the answer: American drone attacks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and genuine engagement with Iran are all part of the equation that might lead to dignity and moderation.

But this is not enough. These rigid authoritarian political systems, that produce frustration and violence, must be more directly confronted. In essence, these Muslim countries characterized by extremist religious parties are failing to provide economic development, political voice, and human rights. Something more direct must be done but that something must be moral and politically viable. Members of these authoritarian cultures typically report feeling humiliated and hopeless. In places like Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan large segments of the population are young and in need of jobs as well as a sense of self-worth that comes from something other than confrontation with the West.

Our military efforts in Iraq might be characterized as noble attempts to begin the process of regime change and redress of injustices heaped on the people by corrupt and authoritarian leaders. But American military presence just exacerbates the claims of imperialism and humiliation. That’s why political solutions are more important than military ones. And although no single approach or strategy will solve the problem the best way to achieve lasting change is through good democracies that protect freedom, control corruption, and have effective systems of checks and balances. These democracies cannot be what are called “illiberal” democracies; that is, democracies in name only but really have unfair elections, authoritarian leaders, and laws that limit personal freedom.

Democracy promotion in these countries is not easy. It is slow and risky and fraught with dangers. But here are some steps in the right direction:

1. There is much distrust of the United States and we must restore trust by not promising more than we can deliver.
2. We have to find better ways of stabilizing political cultures than supporting authoritarian figures such as Mubarak and Egypt. Support for Mubarak was of course practical but costly in terms of trust.
3. Our knowledge of other cultures must improve. As diverse and multicultural as the United States is, we still have shallow understanding of many cultures, and Muslim cultures in particular.
4. There must be a way to talk to Islamist political parties. This is not naïve. There are some Islamist parties who do not envision a new caliphate but would prefer to accommodate others. Moreover in the era of new technology there must be more creative ways to make contact.
5. Some people, and I include myself, consider the basic tenets of democracy to be universal values. We need to use new media to broadcast these values.
6. Most of the world is highly sensitive to basic human rights and the rights of women. The argument that women should be liberated and have increased freedoms should be pressed such that cultural and legal repression is challenged wherever it occurs.

Wherever possible the United States must push for transition to democracy. There are a variety of paths to democracy and different countries must move at different speeds. But principles such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, constraints on corruption, and protection of human rights are easy enough to defend. The United States is an important player on the international scene and is in a position to intelligently and seriously push for Democratic reforms. This takes skill and nuance but it’s possible with some rethinking of how to promote democratic principles.

Captions and CutLines Lie Like Cameras

The two photos below represent different captions designed to frame the story in a particular manner. The first photo is from AP and was reported by Elder of Ziyon.

scuffle

A Palestinian rioter tries to grab a weapon from a plain clothes Israeli police officer, right, during clashes in Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Palestinians scuffled with Israeli security forces, after an arrest operation triggered clashes in the camp the day before.

The second photo is from Reuters

scuffle1

An undercover Israeli police officer (R) scuffles with a Palestinian youth suspected of throwing stones while trying to detain him during clashes in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Clashes erupted between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police that entered the refugee camp, a Reuters witness said on Tuesday.

The caption for the two photographs is actually quite different. In one sense, the descriptions do not contradict each other. They both described the scene. But it is possible to conclude with some different interpretations on the basis of the caption alone. In the Reuters version the Israeli appears to be the aggressor because he is trying to “detain” the Palestinian. The readers conceptual background might easily identify the Palestinian as engaged in legitimate revolt and doing little more than throwing stones at the bigger more well armed soldier and his comrades. It is the classic David and Goliath image. Anyone writing a caption should have the typical reader in mind. But in the AP version the Palestinian is characterized as more aggressive because he is trying to grab the weapon and will probably use it on the policeman. The policeman’s aggressive behavior would of course be justified in this case.

In the Reuters version, the fighting “erupted” and apparently the Israeli police entered the refugee camp which was sufficient provocation. But in the AP version there was an arrest operation that provoked the violence. The websites “Elder of Zyion” and “Honest Reporting” claim that the Reuters organization used an Arab stringer for a description of the events.

This poses an interesting question with respect to the newsgathering process and how stories are framed. Some news outlets have websites and phone numbers that one can call in order to report a story. So anyone can fill out a form on the web and provide a description of some event or activity and perhaps attract the attention of a news organization. The person leaves phone numbers and email addresses where he or she can be reached and the news organization contacts them. This of course can be an excellent source of news and is the sort of contact that results in specified and situationally-based stories. But on the other hand, this process can be abused. It can result in stories that are biased as a result of the selection process or stories, even worse, that are staged or distorted in some significant way.

Actually, the description underneath the photographs is a cutline and not a caption. A caption is a little headline and a cutline describes the photograph in more detail. Reader psychology and tendencies are important because the photo sparks interest and then readers typically move underneath seeking explanations. It’s important for cutlines to perform their duties. Cutlines like stories answer the who, what, why, when, and how question of journalism. When cutlines are more on the objective side of the dimension they satisfy reader’s understanding of the picture but have not necessarily told the reader what to think. The more cutlines are politically motivated the more they draw the reader’s attention toward some specified reality on the part of the news outlet.

A picture may be worth a thousand words but each of those words is capable of altering the meaning of the picture. A skilled cutline writer knows these things and chooses his words carefully.

The Deficient Traditional News–and Then There are Blogs

To the dismay of many communication scholars, the Internet and forms of new media have not become very effective mass communication outlets. Most websites do not reach as many people as television or other traditional forms of media. It is true that some blogs have become more effective than traditional media and this is because they satisfy reader needs and help compensate for the deficiencies in the typical press. An interesting article pertaining to these matters appears here. The article makes the case that the media fail to reach standards of democratic expectations as well as not living up to their own professional expectations. There are four reasons for a deficient traditional media and I will describe and elaborate on these four below.

1. The author of the article in the link above (Deva Woodly) begins by making the point that too much of the press originates with public officials and represents elite opinion. This charge has been leveled for some time and charges the press with hegemonic political communication. The press is owned by influentials who have interests in managing the debates in society. The solution to this problem is for more information and dissent to bubble up from the populace. I think this happens more than the author realizes but remains a difficult process. The relationship between the press and a democratic community is often characterized as a conversation. In other words, an exchange where elites and owners present ideas which are responded to in an effort to continue the conversation. The conversation metaphor is appealing but strained.

2. The second symptom of an anemic press is the emphasis on entertainment and titillation designed to attract viewers. Again this point has been made numerous times and is a standard criticism. It carries plenty of truth but it applies less to quality press then to the numerous press outlets available in the United States. It is true enough that news has increased its entertainment value but the literate reader and consumer of news can find serious information-based news sources easily enough. Moreover, a new story will focus on celebrity personality over deep analysis of social conditions but again these analyses can be found even if it increases the burden on the consumer. It is more common to leave consumers on their own to fend for themselves in finding quality news.

3. One of the most basic principles of American journalism is objectivity even though any high school senior knows that true objectivity is impossible. Still, objectivity can be at least approached or remain an ideal to strive for when the story calls for a straightforward narrative. I have always thought the burden on the news reporter for objectivity is too great. He or she is required to adopt a neutral pose and take a position on a story that is usually contrary to their instincts. There is a difference between bias and perspective – where bias is conscious distortion and manipulation – but perspective is just fine. Some media environments for example in European countries avoid the appearance of objectivity altogether by stating their perspective upfront and expecting the reader to realize the perspective of the press outlet. So, one will choose to read a communist newspaper or conservative newspaper realizing altogether that these perspectives are present. The literate consumer purposely seeks out the Communists press or the conservative press in order to see what they are thinking. This is a more uses and gratifications approach to reading the news because the consumer is making active intellectual choices. I prefer this approach to news.

4. And, according to Woodly, media consolidation is the fourth deficiency of so much news. The media market is dominated by a few large corporations and this is a disturbing development for democracy. This is the result of the tension between the news media and their commercial profit-making interests as opposed to their responsibilities for an informed citizenry. The influence of corporate parents can be even more insidious as the corporation directs the news. Profitability and bottom-line concerns are truly troubling but there’s also little that can be done. News organizations must turn a profit and size is sometimes an advantage in terms of the development of new products and administrative ease.

Traditional media is still powerful and reaches more people than other forms of media. But the blog sphere and the easy availability of user generated content is influential on the structure of political communication. For example, some traditional media use websites and twitter messages to circulate new ideas and influence the debates including what counts as newsworthy. New social media are increasingly an effective pathway to more powerful media and help amateur users influence the issues. Finally, some research seems to indicate that blogs are more argument and evidence-based. This clearly has the potential to expand political knowledge and turn blogs into a more commonly accessed resource.

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