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New Media and Accountability

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Susan's blog on media literacy and the outcome of the Presidential Election in the U.S. reminded me of a discussion I recently had with several communication scholars, among them French sociologist Daniel Dayan. We were talking about the difference between "old" and "new" media, and their respective roles in society. The main point that refers to Susan's post and to development is: old media's function is mainly the dissemination of information. New media's function is entirely different! New media are a new form of audience, or rather, they are an extension of the audience. This extension enables the audience to participate. New media are therefore media of participation, going way beyond dissemination.

The idea of media as extension goes back to Canadian visionary Marshall McLuhan. In his book Understanding Media he argues that media are extensions of the human senses. For him, even a chair is a medium - it's the extension of the human backside. Mass media are an extension of vision and hearing. As such they only allow a passive form of consumption, what Dayan calls "witnessing." Witnessing is highly relevant insofar as citizens need to be informed about what their governments are doing, but witnessing alone does not close the circle to true accountability, as we advocate for here. For this we need another extension of the human senses: speech. New media extend our ability to speak, and to speak with far wider reach and impact.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly agree with Susan that (new) media literacy is vital for development. In order to achieve true accountability, which we consider a prerequisite for successful development, citizens need to hear, see - and speak. Speak up for their rights and speak up for their needs. The U.S. election has shown possibilities of new media that were hitherto unheard of. Just imagine what new media could do in countries where citizens are not usually granted a voice by their governments! The powers that be would have to listen, because the people would have the means to speak, and do so loudly.


 Photo Credit: Flickr user lilmasternabeel