Inform and Communicate for What?
Regardless of the disagreement about the actual effect contemporary media may have on the individual, it is impossible to overlook their potential broad social effects on the quality of communications in light of their distinctive characteristics. While the Internet has taken the world by surprise and its history implies that it was never meant to be in the hands of every Facebook-loving child, once it matured and was privatized, its origins and the original motivation behind it were forgotten as it unleashed unstoppable levels of creativity in fields originally unforeseen, in particular the commercial arena for which it clearly was not developed. Its potential for changing social norms was also realized early on, although “naturally” this aspect played a backseat role to the dominant economic activity in capitalistic systems. Indeed, as early as 1995 it was noted that “increasingly there are fewer comments about the wonders of technology and more about the new forms of community brought about by CMC [computer- mediated communication], about the new social formations” (Jones, 1995, p. 2). This new community structure has been called “cybersociety” (Jones, 1995), “the network society” (Castells, 2010; Van Dijk, 2006), and a host of other names attempting to encompass the technological attributes of the network with its social implications, following its pre-Internet depictions as the “post-industrial society” (Bell, 1973), the
“wired society” (Martin, 1978), and, ultimately, the “information society” (Webster, 1995).
The Internet, however, was not created in a vacuum, nor was it the first communication technology deemed to have a society-changing impact. As Elihu Katz (1987) noted, a predominant medium might affect the social order by telling us how to both think personally and organize socially. While one could argue what these effects are, or how they are mitigated by psychological, sociological, political, and cultural circumstances and peculiarities, it can be agreed that the potential of communication technologies to effect social change is universal and emerges regardless of individual and local conditions. It is indisputable that the Internet carries the promise of inclusiveness as a mass medium because it is not only received by the many but also created by the many (Schejter & Yemini, 2007). As such, it serves as a basis for a “global web of horizontal communication networks that include the multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous” (Castells, 2007, p. 246), which can be described simultaneously as “mass communication,” “multimodal,” and “self-generated in content, self-directed in emission and self-selected in reception” (Castells, 2007, p. 248).
Thus, in addition to its economic potential, the Internet provides a unique venue for civic engagement, exposure to information, and opportunity for education. This can be termed the democratic vision of the Internet (Schejter, 2013) and as a consequence of contemporary media as well. However, this “cyber-enthusiasm sustained by techno-libertarianism,” which consisted mostly of enthusiasm about the network’s democratizing potential, is “increasingly mocked as utopian musing” (Breindl, 2010).
In this sense, the Internet is not alone. It is just like “every major new electronic and media technology this century,” which “has spawned similar utopian notions” (McChesney, 1999, p. 119), and while it has apparently taken the same route of all its predecessor communication technologies in “promising” to be the avenue for democratization, in fact it has become just like those forerunners, a tool for commercial revenue driven by the for-profit motivation of the corporations that control it. Government regulation in the case of the Internet, as in the case of other communication technologies, has eventually succumbed to serve the needs of the controlling corporations by focusing the measurement of “success” on the quantification of connectivity, with no qualitative value being addressed (Taylor & Schejter, 2013). But the Internet, as stated, is different and the established frameworks that guide the regulation of traditional media are not necessarily suitable for this new form of communication because they fail to address its multiparticipant character (as opposed to the limited- participant technologies of “old media”), and the abundance created by its innovative technological form (as opposed to the scarcity which characterized “old media”). Here arises the urgent need to address this debate in its appropriate context (Schejter & Yemini, 2007, p. 139).
It has long been established that the media have a role in maintaining and developing democracy since one of democracy’s basic values is free expression, and the media are a central vehicle for expression in society. Yet, as we will further elaborate on in Chap. 4, focusing on freedom alone is insufficient in describing the normative role of media in a functioning democracy, in particular, when the media provide the potential for enhanced sociability based on enhanced capabilities and opportunities to interact, at any time from any place, while accessing large quantities of information, which can be transferred in a variety of forms.
The characteristics that differentiate new social media from their predecessors are at the heart of the democratic potential of these media and may call for a different set of assumptions to govern policy. Abundant amounts of content and the channels through which it flows allow for a more informed citizenry to partake in public debate and, more importantly, in social movements for change (Howard & Hussain, 2011); mobility of access to media allows more citizens to engage in democratic deliberations, regardless of where they may be, and foster more decentralized forms of contention. Indeed, a major contributor to the so-called Arab Spring, for example, was a “dramatic increase in citizen connectivity created by the explosion of steadily less expensive cell phones with video, photo and Internet capability” (Tufekci & Wilson, 2012, p. 367). Interactivity, as Dutton (2008) explains, changes human activity over mediated communications from the mere sharing of content to collaboration in the creation of new content and further on to the actual cocreation of content; and the multimediated form of new media “liberate[s] individual creativity and enrich[es] social discourse by thoroughly democratizing the way we produce information and culture” (Benkler, 2003, pp. 1245-1246).
Unleashing the aforementioned potential of new social media requires making policy decisions that should focus on the fair distribution of previously described characteristics of these media and on the ability to use them. To do this, a new framework should be introduced to the policy debate: a framework focused on justice.