New Media refers to cell phones with the power of computers ten years ago, high speed internet available anywhere without requiring a desktop computer, and rapid communications which can transfer not just voice files, but data of all sorts. Since the so called Arab Spring(s) starting in 2011-2012, it has been argued famously that these “revolutions” were made possible by the rapidity of communication. In other words, that new media made the transfer of ideas from one place to another easier and instantaneous. Ideas mean here video, audio, data or files containing anything and everything. However, the data suggest that this is not the case. Even if it were the case, that this new media is so class based (at least in the developing world) that it can be as dangerous as it is beneficial.
“New media” is a fairly difficult concept to define. This is in part because of its rapid changes in recent years, but most might agree with Flew's (2002) early definition, which, when taken together from different sections of his book, comes down to the “on-demand” ability to download any sort of data almost immediately. Further, that it also provides the opportunity for user commentary and even the formation of “virtual communities” around such content. These have broken down the barriers of space and geography in that distance matters not when all is relayed by satellite. Finally, that it is easy for anyone to post ideas, articles or their own opinions in depth is another substantially quantitative improvement for which new media can rightly take credit. This is an important start for a definition, but as all will admit, it is just a start (Flew, 2002: 13-15ff).
Famously, Noam Chomsky writes, in relation to new media:
. . . .while there have been important structural changes centralizing and strengthening the propaganda system, there have been counterforces at work with a potential for broader access. The rise of cable and satellite communications, while initially captured and dominated by commercial interests, has weakened the power of the network oligopoly and retains a potential for enhanced local-group access. There are already some 3,000 public-access channels in use in the United States, offering 20,000 hours of locally produced programs per week, and there are even national producers and distributors of programs for access channels through satellites (e.g., Deep-Dish Television), as well as hundreds of local suppliers, although all of them must struggle for funding (Chomsky, 2011: 307).
Originally written over ten years ago, Chomsky is making reference to new media which, at the time, was just making its presence felt. His point is that since information and communications is more decentralized than ever, rebellious ideas cannot be stopped anymore. The fact is however, that new media is as tightly centralized and oligarchic as old media and hence, the same problems arise. This paper will argue that there is no clear relation of any medium relative to politics, since it is quality, not quantity, that makes one society more free or more just than another.
Some Essential Ideas
The literature in this field is generally deflationary. They are claiming, from that initial burst of predictable utopian theorizing about new media, that even some of the benefits of new media in politics can be questioned. The well known (but slightly dated) article by Chadha and Kavoori argue that the only way Asian countries have been able to protect themselves from western penetration into their culture is to legally regulate the web and all forms of new media which, of course, is almost entirely based in the west.
On the one hand, it is an easy cop-out to say that this is censorship and hence illegitimate, but it is also significant in that controlling certain aspects of media being imported into a civilization be right and proper for its target. Cultural imperialism is fairly easy to see, measure and prove, but it seems that, to control the global penetration of firms such as Microsoft, certain legal safeguards have to be in place (Chadha and Kavoori, 2000: 17-22).
An important book by Hume (2004) argues that the development of new media abroad has been a direct and open act of cultural imperialism. The US government has spent a small fortune then and now to hook foreign voters to Microsoft-managed new media systems. This, of course, gives free access to CNN or FOX, hence is a clear manipulation of the target peoples. The point of this book and much else on this topic is that “new media” is not some abstract force. It is a corporate creation with a strong profit motive. Given that, there also must be a strongly ideological bias built in as well. It is not just that new media is able to bridge distances, but that this bridge is built by corporate America.
Lamay (2007) makes a similar argument, holding that the development of new media abroad is impossible to disconnect from American foreign policy objectives, the private-public nature of this medium cannot be ignored or denied. For him, “democracy” is a code word for capitalist oligarchy, cultural imperialism and a liberalism aimed at consumption and binge buying. This present author agrees with him and the critical approach any scholarship requires at its root. If he is even half right, then new media can be seen as almost an unmitigated disaster for the world unless local firms are their creators and that its structure has a local, rather than a western, source. Since that is clearly not the case, then importing the American agenda in one form or another is inevitable. Views like this serve to temper the “universalist” rhetoric coming from those corporate entities that claim that their own inventions are bringing revolution to the world.
Gilboa (2002) makes the familiar argument that rapid, global communications is completely neutral relative to democracy, at least in quantitative terms. Tyrants can use it no differently than anyone else. Elites who are already entrenched are not “threatened” by this, simply because they are in a position to profit from it long before their average citizen is. Gilboa is writing before the media-created “revolutions” around the world, all of which seem to depose governments more or less unfriendly to the US, capitalism or some form of postmodern liberalism. In a way, he anticipates the idea that it is not “new media” that is helping overthrow inconvenient governments, but Microsoft and Apple.
Hindman (2011) argues that there is no change in quality relative to the nature of the medium of information. This is the case in all fields, but more radically so in politics. His overwhelming use of internet search data from all major firms from Microsoft to Google shows, with little room for debate, that the main, powerful and biased news sources such as CNN, FOX, the New York Times or CSNBC are the main destinations for web-surfers searching for news. Even the blogs he analyzes are mostly from mainstream sources. In other words, this important book argues and goes a long way to prove that “new media” is just another means of getting the same uniform “analysis” of world events.
Williams and Carpini (2011) agree with Hindman. The main argument here is similar: the mainstream sources of news and opinion have the best position to adapt quickly to new media. Some of these firms are themselves involved in the creation and dissemination of this new form of communication and they too, are the dominant sources of information in its use. Most of all, there is simply no evidence for any qualitative improvement in political debate, critical skills or any real ability to utilize the immense data available from any device. It is rare to find a source that does, outside of polemical articles.
In political rhetoric today, direct online democracy seems inevitable. Whereas in fact it is much easier, it does not promise any alteration in quality. Direct online democracy is portrayed as a “reward” for modernization; in adopting the techno-centered society, even democracy can benefit.
It can also be a threat. It can be a threat to specific governments who would rather keep their dirty laundry a secret, but it can be a threat in a more abstract way: information overload forces everything into shallow rhetoric and eliminates the incentive for real debate. Real debate cannot be guaranteed by technological developments and can be impeded by it.
Electronic or Internet democracy is not just another stage of global development in democracy nor is it just a means to an end. “Internet democracy” has forced thinkers to raise the question of quality and focused research as a key problem in any democratic system. New media exacerbates this trend downward. “Mass society” is a state that is specific to modernity, urbanization and the reduction of human thought to economic calculation. The mass are identity-less, almost an identical, standardized clump of alienated brains easily manipulated through their passions, especially the desire for cash and all the trappings that go along with it (Ortega y Gassett deals with this topic specifically, 1994: 107-113).
In the last decade, attempts to introduce certain forms of electronic debate in new media were carried out under the label of “direct democracy.” This was a response to the crisis faced by the “post-democratic” society. Such more or less utopian projects define the limits of, and identify, the problems inherent in the “digitization” of policy, which seems to require the dissolution of classical political institutions (Williams and Carpini, 2011: 50-60, among other places). The problem is that this demotion of republican institutions means that it is brought to the level of a twitter slogan and easily manipulated photographs.
There is a clear increase in the level of political participation, but one that is accompanied by a decline of political responsibility. Information technology remove barriers of all types, especially the geographic, and allows previously unrepresented groups to take part in political life. That is, “e-democracy” at its current stage is appreciated as the development and dissemination of general liberal project (LaMay, 2007: 5-8).
However, “network” forms of political participation, as a rule, are not able to initiate radical changes. This is because the greater the participation, the greater the chance of the classical bell curve will become even more solid. It is safe to bet that if every American, for example, over the age of 18 and not insane, were able to debate online (which is presently the case from comments in articles to congressional communication), then overall quality would go down as well as reinforce the average as the “mass” uses its wright of numbers to draw all to mediocrity. The mass, on the whole, has much on its mind other than politics, which is yet another reason to not get too excited about “new media” hype (Williams and Carpini, 2011: 286-287).
Electronic voting can aggravate these crisis tendencies in a democratic society. The desire to take into account of the general will, that is, to translate policy into a continuous referendum is not “direct democracy,” but just a more rapid way for the popular sound-bytes to further infiltrate any serious argument (Murray, 2002: 500-505). It can harm democracy by reducing the voting or speaking procedure to the level of a sociological survey tracking consumer tastes. Also important, and relative to security issues, is the fact that, if people know that their choice can at least potentially be known to outsiders or society as a whole (and the web gives just such opportunities), they will most likely vote differently or censor themselves. The point of a secret ballot is to protect those who are making unpopular choices. Constant security leaks in this digital age are creating the fear that people will know just how radical the voter can be. The consequences of this can be dire (Rosenstiel, 2005: 170ff).
The Real Potential of New Media
There is no gainsaying the fact that, structural problems are revealed in any analysis of the different models and projects of “e-democracy.” It is a privatization of debate, where the compromises of the civic group are opened to the narcissistic demands of people safe behind their keyboards and other forms of anonymity. There is a certain short circuit that “direct democracy” produces since the virtues of real civic activism are non-existent when each actor is anonymous or, worse, using false identification. The point is that a land of virtual citizens cannot be a democracy (Gurevich, 2009: 177-178).
New media cannot replace classical institutions such as the party, but they can upgrade accessibility. The functions of political parties was to develop and protect the collective interest, however narrow. They were formed to carry through certain urgent political tasks that people could not solve alone. Currently, parties as real, holistic institutions largely lost such functions and thus the interest of the voters was re-directed to television, then the web, and now, the miniature web, which is what portable, new media really is.
In the age of e-democracy parties can return to their original values, just with greater access for the citizen. People, seeing the internet as a political tool, can ensure that their participation is important that they are able to influence political decision-making. Of course, this does not obviate the need to coordinate efforts with like-minded people. Such coordination can lead to the formation of a new party system based on the ease of access, based on the Internet as a tool to consolidate civil activity, and at the same time function as a foundation for democracy (Flew, 2002).
It is, in other words, the political party enjoying new communicative technologies to return to their classical issues and real political struggles. This can revive political space, as well as remove the contradiction between representative and constituent. The party will no longer act as an intermediary between the people and “power” but act as a unit consolidation, discipline, education, and coordination of the interest groups and communities. Bureaucracies and less well known political entities, in the current form of communication, is not capable of dealing with long-term and responsible political participation. What will not be resolved is the main problem of e-democracy associated with the inability of the ordinary citizen to understand all the intricacies of managing a modern state and the inevitability of specialization (Murray, 2002: 492ff).