Conclusion: Social Justice and Communications Policy in Transition
Abstract Improving the condition of marginalized communities in society cannot happen without changing current information and communications policies. These policies should not focus on the contribution they make to the common good, which takes place at the expense of the needs and wants of subaltern individuals. Rather, they should aim at the fulfillment of specific needs as determined by society’s disadvantaged. The policy we suggest here is based on combining both Rawlsian and Senian approaches and it calls for providing those who do not have access to contemporary expressive media with such access, while ensuring that all four characteristics of new media are adequately provided. This will require teaching the marginalized to use and capitalize on these media.
Keywords New media policy • John Rawls • Amartya Sen • Justice
So what does communications policy have to do with the lives of the Ethiopian activists in the absorption centers who are trying to improve their living conditions and become an integral part of Israeli society? How can policy change the lives of the villagers of Al-‘Arakeeb, who struggle to stay on their ancestral lands and be recognized as the owners of that land? And what does this policy offer to the silenced storytellers of the Nakba?
Our three examples demonstrated three angles of the relationship between disadvantaged populations and contemporary media. The first
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016
Amit M. Schejter, N. Tirosh, A Justice-Based Approach for New Media
Policy, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41510-9_9
demonstrated how marginalized people perceive the utility of new media in their lives. The second showed how disadvantaged people utilize new media in their daily struggle, even in disconnected and remote surroundings. The third highlighted how a silenced story might finds its way into the new media arena, if indeed the capabilities are available to the silenced. This, however, is a unique case that represents an exception to the general silencing of Palestinian voices as the Palestinian minority in Israel is less connected to contemporary media than its Jewish counterpart. These three constituencies represent people who can be described as among the least advantaged in Israeli society, their disadvantage being related to their lack of a voice in the public sphere.
The three examples are a starting point—symbolic as well as instrumental—in building the argument for the transition that is called for in our media age. Indeed, media policy in the mass media era was built, as we have established, on utilitarian foundations. It was the ideological basis for economic policy in general, and it fit the nature of the broadcast medium: seek maximum gratification for the largest possible audience. Audiences were identified on the receiving side of a transactional communication process, and raising the effectivity of the broadcasting system was achieved by making it accessible to all. This was perceived as successful policy. True, there were limitations to this generalist view. As we have described, the fear of having too powerful a media system brought about the policy of diversity, which is (to be fair) also rooted in utilitarianism. Still, in the mass media unidirectional model, diversity policy meant little more than lip service to a desire for a representative diversity of voices. The nature of the medium and the nature of its economics created a structure that can be described by all who have lived through and studied it as a one-size- fits-all content-providing service with no more than token presentations of “alternative” or “divergent” voices.
With today’s media, we are still mired in the same old conversations. If we take the most visible media policy issues of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we cannot help but notice that they are taking place within the same utilitarian paradigm. The network neutrality debate, for example, the debate garnering the most attention in the USA in recent years, following a Federal Communications Commission ruling in 2015, is about the ability of corporations controlling the infrastructure to throttle the movement of data provided by corporations providing the content. It is an important issue, but when framed in this manner it does not rise to any new or different ground or reflect any internalization of the changes occurring in the nature of the media and the change we need as a result in our conversation about policy, justice, and democracy. Similarly, the deliberations regarding “the right to be forgotten,” a very European concern that emerged as a result of a European Court of Justice decision in 2014, ended with a ruling that gave one of the world’s largest corporations—Google—the right to decide for individuals what will be known about them over the Internet (Tirosh, 2016). The interactive, abundant nature of contemporary media was totally lost in the debate. Recent policy debates in Israel are no different. They too focus on a conversation driven by large corporate interests regarding the transmission of their signals over digital platforms, whether over the air (Davidson & Schejter, 2011) or online (Schejter & Tirosh, 2016). Worldwide, policy issues are driven by humongous “communicators,” and their rights and grievances dictate the debate. The media may be new or social, but the policy debate is still framed by the powerful and voice-enabled.
Nevertheless, building information and communications policy on foundations based on redistributive justice can lead policymakers to initiate a different conversation. If they are made aware of what contemporary media mean to, and can do for, individuals, then the discussion should begin by asking who the least advantaged are in this policy debate and how their condition could be improved. A close connection between the features of contemporary media and their potential contribution to a just democracy, in which the goal is equality in the freedom to express oneself, will compel decision makers to first address the need to ameliorate the condition of the least advantaged in this particular capacity: the opportunity to have their voices heard in the forum of public opinion. This consideration should also affect the so-called big policy conversations: How does network neutrality affect the messages of the voiceless? How can individuals impact the right to manipulate links to people’s history online? And in the case of the “right of way” over airwaves and platforms, we should ask whether there are ways to direct attention to the voices of the unheard.
In all the aforementioned issues- net neutrality, the right to be forgotten, the transition to digital audiovisual markets—the least advantaged are people like the members of the communities discussed in this book’s case studies. It is true regarding many, most, if not virtually all of the issues that policymakers need to intervene in today’s media ecosystem: issues of privacy, of security, of exposure to harmful content, of access to e-government services, and the list goes on. This is step one of a Rawlsian- based communications policy: identify the needy and aim at bettering their opportunity to partake in public discourse about their future. This is the “primary good” they lack, and there is no place more evident to acquire it than through owning the means, the opportunity, and the capability to connect. What should the Rawlsian media policymaker seek in the pursuit of this fair distribution of communication resources? The solutions that will provide the least advantaged with an opportunity to put to use the four features of new media in the creation of information-rich messages delivered through existing means of communications.
All four features need to be in the hands of the user in order to fully unleash the potential these media offer. Each and every one of the four— abundance, interactivity, mobility, and multimediality—may have been available in some form or another in previous generations of media, but in a very limited form and not to every user. Information was available if you were connected enough to where it was stored; mobility has been around since the mid 1980s, albeit in limited forms of voice and then text and for many years as a privilege of few; the available interactivity was very limited as media systems were mostly oriented to mass audiences, while communications offered very little in choice; and, of course, multimedial- ity, while available unidirectionally, was not in the hands of individuals. It is the combination of all four and the fact that they can be put in the hands of individuals that make them potential contributors to contemporary norms of democratic life and the focus of attention of contemporary policy development.
The four features whose combination in one medium differentiate today’s media from their predecessors compensate for the absence of non- mediated presence, allow the effective use of information-rich communications, and as a result enable high levels of communicative presence. Applying an egalitarian-based theory of social justice to policies regarding the distribution of these characteristics among users would lead to the constitution of a just policy of contemporary media, in which individuals can better utilize their potential to communicate. Abundance, mobility, interactivity, and multimediality can be distributed in different ways as a result of the different normative choices that can be made, which were not practicable with the media of the past. A fair distribution of contemporary media’s qualities starts by identifying what communities lack the ability to communicate, inform and be informed in present and rich formats. These communities should be provided with those characteristics because they are the basis for their ability to express themselves, take part in the political life of contemporary society, demonstrate ownership of “primary goods,” and be able to use them. The answer to the question “communicate for what?” is: communicate for something meaningful to me.
Once this initial stage of identification and provision of characteristics is reached, we need to make a leap to a more challenging stage: how do we create opportunities to utilize the new media world we live in for the benefit of people? How do we make the fact that the voiceless have been provided with an opportunity to communicate also useful for them? Bringing Senian justice to the table requires taking a step beyond what traditionally has been regarded as communication and information policy. According to this approach, it is not enough to ensure that the least advantaged are given the tools that allow them to interact like the advantaged. Rather, policy should also focus on teaching the least advantaged how to use these tools and to guard themselves from the dangers these tools may pose. Adding the ability to use contemporary media to the provision of access to them requires that policymakers accept that policy silos need to be removed in order to make media possession meaningful and desirable. Information and communications policy thus extends beyond providing individuals with passive access to media to allowing full involvement in setting educational goals. In normative terms, as much as contemporary media are the outcome of a technological revolution, their governance requires a revolution in policy thought. At the end of the day, this paradigm shift in media policy discourse is based on the understanding that providing all with the capability to equally communicate is a basic tenet of democracy in our times.
Thus, to allow everyone to partake in democratic discourse in our times, media policy should be seen as an element in educational policies. It seems to us that this would require two separate stages of education: first, enabling utilization of the media and, second, developing what can and should be called “new media literacy,” or the ability not only to “read” its contents but also to “write it.” The first of these seems, on the face of it, more technical in nature—ensure access to the media and the knowhow to make use of them. Rawlsian and Senian philosophies diverge here somewhat. We would hypothesize that a Rawlsian solution would focus on providing the enabling technology. Its possession by those who did not possess it beforehand, and owing to its potential contribution to the bettering of their lives, could theoretically suffice as the end game of a policy in which the betterment of the least advantaged is the ultimate goal. A Rawlsian policy choice would require us to focus on the distribution of the means to communicate. This is a proactive policy choice, rather than a reactive defense of rights from potential violations. Rawlsian solutions would call for providing those who do not have access to contemporary expressive media with such access while ensuring that all four features are adequately provided before further developing access to those who already have it. The assumption is that access to these features would provide users with a means for creating a relevant contemporary voice that would allow them to exploit their basic freedoms. Thus, for example, a mobile connection to the Internet would not be sufficient as an access solution for the disconnected since this kind of access to the network still limits access to new media’s abundance.
On the other hand, a Senian approach would add to that goal the capability to make use of the technology, however, just enough so that it could provide new users with the ability to say what use they want to put the technology to and the capability to in fact fulfill that desire. A Senian interpretation would lead us to develop policies that ensure people could actually communicate what they wish to communicate while keeping their social presence high in a rich media environment. Senian solutions would also require teaching the marginalized to use the media and ensure that they are indeed expressing themselves through these media as they see fit.
This combined approach would require that this policy be implemented in such a way that equality is achieved, as without equality basic freedoms lose much of their meaning. Ensuring each and every person has access to the network, access that will provide him or her with an equal opportunity to communicate, is the common goal of the policy. In making this transition we need to make a conceptual leap from the focus on freedom to a focus on equality. This is needed since the new media environment allows the many to employ several forms of communication.
It is important at this point to recall that neither Rawls’s nor Sen’s approach is aimed at achieving total equality in society. While we are advocating here the utilization of media’s contemporary capabilities to achieve what we call “equality in freedom,” this does not mean that it will lead to full equality in any other aspect of people’s lives. It will only provide them with an opportunity to use the tools of democracy—speech and voice—to be heard in the debate about their future. It may seem a small step for individuals, but it is a giant leap for the societies they are part of, which are not accustomed to hearing their voices. Undeniably, these goals may end up being too minimalistic for actual impact. We saw this in our case studies: levels of disadvantage vary. Technological capabilities change at a very fast pace. The needs of different silenced communities call for a variety of solutions.
It is legitimate, therefore, to ask at this point how such an approach would affect the Ethiopian immigrants residing for years in absorption centers, the people of Al-‘Arakeeb living among the ruins of their village, and those wishing to tell the silenced story of the Nakba. When we embarked on this project, we were aware, as we still are, that the difficulties discussed here facing these and other groups in Israel and other countries, whose voices are not heard on traditional media, are not their only difficulties. That is why we chose to provide the context of their hardships in each of the case studies. The assimilation of Ethiopian immigrants into life in Israel amid their racist rejection by the establishment will not be fixed over the Internet, Al-‘Arakeeb will not be rebuilt by social media, and the injustices that emanate from silencing of the story of the Nakba will not be resolved by an app. Speech has always been but one tool. What the new environment we operate in suggests is that since this tool can now be provided to those who need it, we should first attend to the neediest, listen to them, and try to meet their needs.
Unlike the assumptions of media utopians or “celebrants” as McChesney (2013) calls them, a transformation of the place of members of these communities in society cannot happen without deliberate policy based in a new social justice paradigm. There is no magic in the medium that makes contemporary media capable of transforming society. Yet these media have unique capabilities their predecessors did not. If you put these capabilities in the hands of the voiceless, they can contribute to a modification of their position in society. The change is gradual yet necessary if we believe that every member of society should have the opportunity to acquire a voice regarding the basic needs society provides him or her. Media policy has never been dedicated to giving a participatory voice to the voiceless. This is where Rawlsian- and Senian-inspired policies come into play: in focusing the policy on those that do not have a voice and in combining it with a policy that provides them with the capability to acquire one.
Unlike a philosophy aimed at ensuring the common good at the expense of the needs and wants of subaltern individuals, as we have grown accustomed to in the traditional utilitarian media world, the adoption of philosophies that aim at correcting predetermined disadvantages individuals have in society and at concentrating on meeting specific needs as determined by the disadvantaged will fundamentally change the direction of communications policy and bring about a truer form of democracy like no other communication policies ever have. Our claim is that the unique nature of contemporary media provides us with the rare opportunity to develop measures that counter the injustices associated with the division of power today. We believe the case studies presented demonstrate what contemporary media have the potential to do what previous generations of media could not and, as a result, why a rethinking of underlying policy assumptions is needed and what it should entail.
The role of communication media in human existence did not change with the emergence of contemporary media. People still access the media to be informed, educated, and entertained. The media still help gather information about the environment, interpret it, and pass it on to the next generation (Lasswell, 1948); they still entertain us (Wright, 1960), and they still serve as conduits of social mobilization (McQuail, 1987). Even “the one-to-many dynamic at the core of the meaning of ‘mass communication’” (Napoli, 2010, p. 509) persists. There simply are more instances of it, which expand the ability to mass communicate from a select few to a much larger portion of the population. A big part of choosing the proper theory of social justice will have to do with agreement on the model that best describes contemporary media.
In the old media model, the inability of individuals to communicate with large numbers of people left them out of the equation and situated them at the receiving end of the communicative relationship. Freedom of expression in the media was a right that was reserved for those with the power to communicate using them: broadcasters, newspaper owners, and multichannel television operators. Contemporary media are rewriting those rules since individuals can now disseminate rich formats of information to others, both as individuals and as audiences. Contemporary media are also changing the linear nature of the communication process in that they allow people not only to pass on information but also to create new knowledge. The information transmission model, which served the development of media and information policy for a century, has lost its exclusive position, creating a point in time to also evaluate our normative choices. As a result, contemporary policy debates no longer need to be resolved with old communication models and utilitarian philosophies in mind. The combination of the technological capabilities that brought us to this point with the introduction of a parallel philosophy that so evidently complements them should only leave us with a dilemma of how far we can go in building a truly social media environment, one that serves all of society and is built on the foundations of a just democracy, one whose goal is to provide equal access to the ability to speak out.
One may wonder at this point what the role and goal of established media institutions are in this ideal environment we are describing. Being minimalists, we do not at this point believe any dramatic changes need to take place in that arena. Undoubtedly there were instances in which strong public broadcasters fulfilled important social goals. Even commercial broadcasters have from time to time provided meaningful programming. But that alone was the end game in that particular media era. These powerful entities still need to abide by the public interest goals they were established to achieve. A change is taking place in the media world, yet traditional media still function alongside contemporary media; they even transition much of their content to the new media platforms. There is no contradiction in maintaining the oversight of their public service remit even today.