I always find puzzling how easily techno-enthusiasts believe that new information software and gizmos can successfully address many problems for democratic communication. I guess it’s part of the perennial search for quick magic bullets to solve the miseries of the world. The centrality of social networking during the Obama campaign, the role of Facebook during recent political events (such as the Gaza-Israeli conflict), and the political uses of mobile telephony (whether for organizing public protests or denouncing corruption) have been recently submitted as evidence that new technologies tear down old obstacles. They bolster the claim that nothing can stop the marriage of citizens and technology. The future is on the side of net-savvy, empowered people.
It is hard to reconcile those buoyant accounts about technology with gloomy conclusions about persistent government manipulation of public resources and mechanisms to exert media control. I recently participated in a stimulating session on “soft censorship” based on a report produced by the National Endowment for Democracy. The methods of “soft censorship” are multiple yet strikingly similar worldwide, as if cultural diversity evaporates when government officials strategize how to reward sycophants and punish dissenters. The menu of options includes selective assignment of public advertising, contracts, and licenses; gentle and harsh threats; and doling out news scoops, travel expenses, and other goodies as if they were candy for well-behaved journalists.
No doubt, it would be mistaken to think that governments are the sole culprit. Those practices are part of deep-seated quid pro quo expectations involving the private sector as well as publishers, editors, and reporters. What is also striking is how many governments insist on spending astronomical figures in funding newspapers and other print media to secure favorable coverage, as if we were living in pre-broadcasting days. They also arbitrarily distribute funds and give orders to lapdog radio and television stations, and even prop up websites and blogs with public funds. Somehow, however, genuflect print media still has a tremendous appeal among public officials, even if newspapers are losing readers, audiences are glued to television and radio sets, and Internet use is growing everywhere. Reading favorable news on dirty, ink-stained paper must still feel good.
Why do these dynamics persist? Are governments and partners in corruption blinded to new forms of citizen communication? I presume that “soft censorship” is widespread because it still works for corrupt public officials. Politically astute creatures, they would place advertising on Facebook and Twitter if it would bring tangible results (maybe some do, but I am not aware). For them, as well as for those who live off the public piñata, the old ways ain’t broken. Ensuring docile media still brings tremendous short-term benefits, such as support during elections, ignoring political adversaries, keeping hush on economic crimes, distorting contrarian views, and so on. Even while some citizens are active in technological platforms that bypass the big media machine, the old media-political nexus has not gone out of fashion. It delivers political gains.
Techno-crusaders often make the mistake of thinking that new forms of communication inevitably replace established practices. Sure, it is silly to underestimate the opening of new forms of communication and their ability to promote novel developments. However, we should not think about patterns of political communication as blank slates created anew by the latest information technology. Instead, they resemble old cities where layers of architectural styles overlap. Power doesn’t gently change once new technologies arrive. Noisy debate on the Internet and rapid information exchange on mobile networks can live side by side with systems and practices coined long before modern democracy. A rhapsodic attitude vis-à-vis social networking technologies helps little to understand how they contribute to address old problems that continue to afflict democratic communication.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Matt Hamm