5th Forum of Emerging Leaders in Asian Journalism
Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University
June 8, 2010
New Media and democracy
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Democracy: a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
So the dictionary defines it. And so, let us begin by accepting it. But let us also assume that we are heirs of the view that Media firmly considers itself an unelected Fourth Estate in society, in the sense that Edmund Burke coined it to repress to the reporters in the press gallery of the House of Commons.
In terms of New Media let us adopt the Wikipedia definition, that “What distinguishes New media from traditional media is not the digitizing of media content into bits, but the dynamic life of the ‘new media’ content and its interactive relationship with the media consumer. Another important promise of New Media is the ‘democratization’ of the creation, publishing, distribution and consumption of media content.”
Let us look at both producers and consumers in the context of both media itself and democracy.
In Freedom of the editor, dating back to April 10, 1965, the late Teodoro M. Locsin Sr. assumed, as most mainstream media does, that at worst, press freedom is a necessary evil because a fundamental bulwark of democracy: one where media played a role in terms of what it is –a mass medium. The question then was whether media should pander, should surrender to serving as the least common denominator. And his answer was in insisting on personal standards for the whole. He proposed that freedom lay in being intelligent and informed, for “Freedom is responsibility and the affluent as well as the slave hate it.” And of these freedoms, he put forward three essential ones, and for each, let me give a recent example:
5. Per Locsin: The freedom to study.
Where once a reporter might get hold of a peculiar document like this one –this is a chart made by Romulo Neri Jr. to explain his theories on booty capitalism, Philippine-style- and try to make sense of it and possibly reproduce it in the pages of a newspaper requiring a subscription or pick-up from a newsstand, New Media allowed this document to be freely accessed, passed on, devoid of context but also, free of preconceived notions for the audience.
7. Per Locsin: The freedom to think.
Where, again, the dizzying complexities of influence-peddler’s payoffs would have been reported according to the canons of journalism, individuals, such as the Thads Bentulan (himself an opinion writer) could interpret and illustrate concepts and facts and secure a circulation for himself exceeding even the mainstream media, whether online or off.
9. Per Locsin: The freedom to express one’s self.
As an opinion writer, this is where I am the most confident because I publish my opinions in all media, old and new. So you will, I hope, pardon me if I put forward a bias for opinion writing –or speaking- and identify it as a necessary part of the formation –and maintenance- of a civic culture, in which the individual takes it as both necessary and honorable to engage in public debate –or conversations, as the current jargon prefers to call it. But I do believe that just as media must accommodate itself to being no longer involving mass audiences except in terms of entertainment, then as media practitioners we must also resign ourselves to the reality that we can no longer assume a civic culture exists.
As my Inquirer colleague JV Rufino illustrated it, the old news consumption model was based on the individual, forming part of the collective audience, receiving news and views as a part of that collective, from media sources.
In contrast the emerging model, according to Rufino, has individuals essentially delegated the task of filtering content for their social network peers. Various media pours in, and people trust others to pass on only the news and views they like. Critical thinking, then, ends up outsourced by many to the few, without the vigorous debate or mechanisms for consensus that civic culture formerly represented and produced.
Which brings us to Jaron Lanier’s strong views on the emerging dangers of New Media, a cautionary prognosis directly relevant to today’s theme of new media and democracy. What we may tend to view as the democratic attributes of New Media are, instead, opportunities for fundamentally undemocratic behavior. Lanier has coined some pretty controversial terms for three aspects of the behavior unleashed by online life, and which imperils the supposed benefits of New Media as a more democratic space for the exchange of information and ideas.
First, Digital Maoism, which he puts forward an opposite view to the currently fashionable “wisdom of crowds.” It warns of the Hive Mind, where like-minded fanatics swarm the Internet engaging in the online equivalent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Second, Cybernetic totalism takes off from this, and says there is a great danger in viewing technology as a kind of Great Revalation, operating on principles eerily similar to –and as dangerous as- the Scientific
And third, a Culture of Sadism, which he ties to the anonymous, spiteful commenters – the trolls in many an online comment thread- to technology which confuses online freedom with licentiousness.
All of which edges out New Media as the liberal, democratic, cooperative open society untainted by hierarchy we all hoped it would be. Instead, by way of Michiko Kukatani in The New York Times Review of Books last March, Lanier suggests we are witnessing the Killing Fields –or land of the Lord of the Flies- of media as paladin of democratic exchange and discourse:
Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn… There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.
And so, as the drunken Irishman bellowed at an unfamiliar person at a family wake, I am tempted to thunder, “who is this intruding on our grief?”
Just when New Media, as I see it, is sheepishly beginning to realize it is as much Media (with a big, self-important “M”) as the Old, instead of the satisfaction of New joining Old in a reinvigorated Fourth Estate, what all media is discovering is that it’s cannibalized itself to become a mere niche. The price of modernity is thus relative obscurity in the fringes of society. And thus, like democracy itself, it has become peripheral in the dominant organizing of society, which is along Consumerist lines.
It is as consumers, not as citizens, that we are viewed by those who hold the real power and to whom we are expected to “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers put it and has gained currency since the 1950s. If media, whether Old or New, is expected to speak truth to power, then we must ask ourselves what truth and what power? Consider these snapshots of public opinion and public attitudes in the context of the recent presidential campaign and election.
Going into the campaign, Yoly Ong of Campaigns & Grey shared this, which showed that in terms of the most influential source of information in choosing a president, TV is king, with the rest of media, including New Media, having only marginal shares; but overall, media in toto comprised a far greater influence than any other institution or part of society.
These are the findings, fleshed out. They point to these preferences –this media dependence- entrenched across all classes and parts of the country.
When the Manila Standard Today survey asked voters the most helpful means in deciding whom to vote for, they gave a healthy plurality to the news: though the public also put ads on par with the news as a helping in their decision process. Only about half as much in turn looked to debates, news in the papers or on radio, as helpful sources. So far, so good, perhaps?
No. A closer look at this snapshot illustrates my point: you and I will agree that in terms of television news, ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol and GMA’s 24 Horas are precisely what they are: news programs, delivering news as the network sees fit to deliver it; but in terms of the public –consumer-citizens- they themselves put the noontime game show Wowowee on par with the news –as a source of news on candidates. The same applies to radio, where Bombo Radyo and DZRH deliver the news, but with Love Radio coming third, showing, incidentally, the rising tide of FM versus the traditional king, AM; and the same goes for print, where the Philippine Daily Inquirer still has pride of place, followed by the Manila Bulletin, but also, the tabloid Bulgar thumbing its nose at the broadsheets.
And as anyone in the media, particularly print, will tell you, the audiences of tomorrow are already tuning out today. As a McCann study put it in 2007,
Teens are watching less TV, listening to less radio, reading less books and magazines, are doing less sports, interacting with friends face-to-face less frequently, and spending less money on traditional consumer items…. thanks to virtual connectivity technology like text messaging and the internet.
Just today, Nielsen and Yahoo revealed (you can find more via the hashtag #NetIndex2010) updated facts that I’d like to juxtapose with slightly earlier ones, courtesy of the International Social Media Research Wave that Smart Communications used in a presentation to student journalists just last year.
In terms of the New Media, can we say Social Media is king? Social media, Nielsen tells us, has four distinct areas: social networking, user-generated content, community groups/forums and blogging.
Yet in terms of blogging, Filipinos, for one, are passive consumers, reading instead of writing.
In the Philippines, social media is used to stay in touch with friends and family (66%), send emails (64%) and IM (63%). What else do people do with their online time?
They network. Friendster fell from 92% in 2009 to 84% this year, while Facebook went up from 4% in 2009 to a staggering 83% this year.
26. But most of all, what people do is entertain themselves. Most popular activity for online entertainment? Music videos: 73%, movie trailers: 26% comedy: 26%, TV shows: 17%, entertainment news: 16%, cartoons: 15%, sport clips: 15%.
People are looking for things that amuse. Searching has grown from 58% to 76% to become the dominant online activity, surpassing email and Instant Messaging. But what are people looking for? Images, 62%; videos, 52%; information, 48%; audio clips, 31%; phone numbers, 17%; blogs, 13%; jobs, 11%; news, 11% : these are the items searched online. If blogs on social and political issues are a small fringe, you can see that news is a fringe preoccupation, too.
Yet all is not lost. Writing on the recently-concluded presidential campaign, my Inquirer colleague John Nery observed,
In the first place, online is the only medium without specific spending restrictions; it is a gray area candidates will certainly exploit… In the second place—and this is the considered opinion of experts who have actually studied the matter—what online does very well, even in the Philippine setting, is to create buzz. It is not (yet) a tool for converting the undecideds or for raising substantial campaign donations, but it can certainly be used to create word of mouth, to pique public curiosity and interest, to drive old media coverage.
Those of us who tweet, who spend time on Facebook, who blog, all know it works along similar lines: no one has quite figured out how it actually helps our employers or ourselves, but it certainly creates buzz for offline media properties.
I don’t suggest that Nery means New Media is valuable only as titillation. But I do find his point useful in suggesting that even if relegated to a peripheral role in consumer’s lives, it can still, subtly, yet significantly, nudge us in the direction of a new civic life, a new civic consciousness.
This is an apocalyptic picture, but in it lies my reason for hope, because I am extremely hopeful about New Media being a partner for a democratic renaissance in all our societies.
Ondoy followed by Pepeng, twin typhoons, twin disasters, led to a closer cooperation, even mutual dependence, between formerly increasingly detached audiences and, perhaps, overly confident media, which found itself, like all our institutions, literally swamped. Common cause was found in speaking truth to power: to fixing problems government could not or would not solve; in saving lives and contributing to the rescue and rehabilitation of the many, which inspired the comfortable few to experience the rare satisfaction of giving more than they take out of society.
It was a moment when media and the public were one, where distinctions between Old and New media disappeared, and it would take another talk to enumerate all that was demonstrated and learned. Let me give you just one example. In the aftermath of typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng, the public was able to scour official records, often in real time, analyze government policies, scrutinize official actions, and raise red flags. It resulted in the Secretary of Social Welfare Esperanza Cabral filing a libel suit against a blogger, not for herself, she claims, but for her fellow public servants. This is a reminder that those who oppose the medievalism of the Catholic Church are fully capable of launching their own inquisitions.
And so, to look even further back, in terms of New Media and Democracy, what is appropriate, to me, is the lament of Titus Livy, on the decline of Rome, as quoted by William Shirer to explain the Fall of France:
We reached these last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.
Our world, our media, is now far removed from Old Media’s assumption that it was an integral part of the lives of millions as they threshed out vital issues.
If all media –increasingly even TV- in normal circumstances, is only relevant to democracy in the sense that bread and circuses were relevant to governance of the caesars, then because of extraordinary circumstances like Ondoy and Pepeng, we can see our vice and the cure. Our vice is exemplified by the Greek myth of Narcissus, for New Media at its worst, is Narcissism writ digitally.
We cannot be so self-absorbed as to be so fascinated with our changing circumstances, only to end up ignorant of how our place in society itself has changed. The new has conspired with the old to present us with all the challenges, and the opportunities, you see here.
We call it executive privilege, the Thais may call it lese majeste, the Chinese, their Great Firewall; everyone seems to call it National Security, and everyone in media has to wonder who its real allies are in fleshing out the distinction between legitimate official secrets and an effort to backhoe evidence of official crimes.
The other day, the House of Representatives did what everyone expected it do, which was, to wriggle its way out of ratifying the Freedom of Information Act.
The online response was peppery and immediate. But it was like a pebble thrown into a pond; the ripples radiated from the House of Representatives and then vanished: not least because how many in officialdom even encounter New Media on a regular basis?
In this they aren’t very different from the electorate they claim to serve. For it is a bother to the consumer, for the political to intrude into the commercial.
And it is a bother even to many of our brethren themselves, to not only ferret things out, but then, to also make sense and report and explain what’s been ferreted out, to an increasingly distracted public.
And all around us is a rising tide of entertaining and engrossing data but much of it susceptible to false alarms and hoaxes, yet also necessary and vital in connecting people not only with each other, but with all human institutions.
Of which we are part. So let me close with the antidote to Narcissism, which is very seductive: it can be seen in what is obviously absent in this room. Non-media, non-academic people, the very young, and the obsessively consumerist in orientation, aren’t here. Without our audiences to tell us what, in their mind, civic life requires, we cannot address the need; and if we do not address the need, we cease to be relevant.
If we cannot engage our audiences democratically, there is no sense in discussing New Media and democracy. But we have done it before, out of necessity, in times of calamity; so we should simply continue it, along the lines of that fashionable New Media cliché, by way of a continuing conversation.