New Media and the Nature of a “Democratic Society:” Deflating the Myths

Abstract:

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. 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 geography. 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 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 almost a decade 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.

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 its benefits 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, and is therefore 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, but 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, liberal 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. He’s 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.

In his The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Heidman argues that the same failures of old media are merely being reproduced in New Media. His arguments are almost impossible to dismiss without moving one’s own goalposts because it largely uses the search engines and corporate monopolies of search hits as his evidence. First, there is absolutely no evidence that the average user of the web or any more contemporary systems or devices has any real sophistication. Recent research, he reports, shows that only the first page of search results matter, and that the typical search does not take advantage of any of the features of an advanced search structure. This means that the near monopoly status of the major news-wires and corporations come up first again and again. This is because they have bought their positions (Hindman, 2011: 69).

Demolishing the typical, careworn utopian arguments that digital democracy and their corporate creators will bring justice to the world, Hindman shows in one day of searches that they almost always lead users to major news sites and not independent media. Furthermore, it is also true that most users are not involved in political causes, that those who are clearly are are not media savvy, and that even with the most diverse set of vaguely political search terms, they all usually end up on the same, mega-corporate news pages (Hindman, 2011: 72). 95 percent of all news search query terms use three or fewer words according to data furnished by Hitwise in November of 2005. More depressing, most political searches are based not on a topic, but on establishment sources of information (ibid).

There is no reliable information suggesting that anything has changed from television, to the web to the more portable phones and wireless devices. As numbers and profits have grown, the same establishment sources are used for news over and over again. Buying your way to the top of a search engine pile is extremely expensive and requires substantial expertise and cash. Hence, the web is as oligarchical as anything else (Hindman, 2011: 79-80).

The endless predictions about the “New Media” that bloggers were producing for the Obama, Clinton or Biden campaigns (or at least, that generation then coming of age) are largely false. That the media gate-keeping role, itself illegitimate at the best of times, was going to be highly limited by these “fresh new voices.” Part of the problem is that every corporation in existence has a stable of blogs and bloggers. Hence, by “blog” it is presumed to mean average Joe’s writing. This is not the case. Blogs that attract big audiences are of already established writers whose new “blog format” makes it look personal, but it is in fact just another corporate product.

Hindman’s analysis rests entirely on what mainstream press sources, print, television and internet, were saying about them. Without realizing it, his critique of the blogosphere also involves the fact that it became only as powerful or influential as the mainstream press wanted it. For every new discovery of the odd blogger in his pajamas, there are dozens of errors easily avoided that do occasionally gets picked up (Hindman, 2011: 112). Beyond that strange fact, it is clear that the top 10 blogs (as of 2006, that is) were mainstream journalists, software gurus or successful lawyers or professors. In other words, the blogs represented elite opinion, or something close to it. On the one hand, they had more ideological diversity than the mainstream press, but on the other, they were far from the average Joe. Most of the top bloggers hold graduate degrees, are otherwise wealthy, or are mainline journalists themselves. They are not a fresh or new voice at any level (Hindman, 2011: 121).

Williams and Carpini (2011) agree with Hindman. The fact is that media have such immense power socially, and largely irresponsibly, is itself debatable. That a New Media source or technique can itself bring about revolutionary change, or at least convince otherwise smart people that this is the case, is equally so. While the data at the present time do not accept such radical claims for the sake of technique, there is no doubt that New Media are changing things. What matters is whether or not it is for the good, and who, specifically, is benefited by these rapid and powerful forms of communication and information.

In political rhetoric today, direct online democracy seems inevitable, but this has nothing to do with 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 is can be a threat in a more abstract way: information overload forces everything into shallow rhetoric and eliminates the incentive for real debate. Read debate cannot be guaranteed by technological developments and is 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. New media exacerbates the qualitative 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 (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; the “mass” will use its weight in 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. 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 participation by reducing the procedure to the level of a sociological survey tracking consumer tastes. In fact, that’s what it is.

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, not to mention the leftist censorship of all tech platforms. 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 isn’t a society (Gurevich, 2009: 177-178).

For years, the political system of a country was faced with an interesting paradox: the most advanced online audience, a kind of vanguard of the middle class, for all its high politicization, does not go to the polls. At the same time, the “vanguard” is quite able to participate in a variety of network polls and daily debate. People trust the internet much more than the ballot box, and as a result we get a diminution of political representation of the citizens who are the most socially active.

Thus, the political will is separated from actual policy as users are separated from the civil actions of real participation. Blogs that have now become a routine part of public officials are a place for the promotion of the candidate and not places for serious analysis. Internet communications are used by officials not to extend the field of activity or to receive feedback from citizens, but usually to promote themselves (Murray, 2002: 493-499).

The real issue is that measures of quantity are meaningless in themselves. It is only the measure of quality which amounts to depth, discernment and mutual respect in debate, things that the nature of the internet are helping to destroy. Yet, those that do have the ability and sensitivity can be heard better than ever before. If those people, the backbone of any real democratic system, are able to be recognized as such, then New Media would have fulfilled its promise.

Everyone knows that Twitter and the various versions of “Facebook” do not exactly provide for any detailed debate. Most web-developers are aware that surfers do not read articles of any length, partly because there are so many of them. The result, just from any quick look at a Facebook feed, is one or two line arguments on complex issues are normal and constant. This is not political debate (Hindman, 2011: 2-12). Yet, the real positive here is that those who can focus and articulate well informed positions now can easily disseminate them.

In the positive column, the diversity that the web and its corollary devices has created is admirable. Major media before was the domain of a tiny handful of transnational firms who controlled the news with greater precision than any state media could. The internet has permitted this sort of oligarchy to be challenged. Whether policymakers or media-hacks like it or not, there are lots of people out there who are quite well spoken and educated who back non-mainstream ideologies such as Leninism or National Socialism. That they should be shut out is absurd, especially since ideas cannot be “offensive,” they can only be true or false. Claiming “offense” is merely a form of censorship. New media have solved these problems and continually offer new avenues of access to the marginalized, unpopular or just shy (Flew, 2002: 20-25).

One excellent use for e-democracy and New Media is to implement a system of public evaluation of representatives. “Electronic classrooms” and town halls can be used to improve debate by forcing real, identifiable citizens to write out problems rather than speak them. This is partly because in written form, more thought can be used, sources cited, and passions can be tempered as contrasted to speaking, where the only thing that seems to be rewarded is a glib tongue.

There, civic participation can be properly focused and specialized toward a specific person and the few issues that they might have associated with them. A form of proof that the commentator is actually from the district or state might be needed, but there is a chance that it can reward the thoughtful, whose ideas are often better in written than spoken form (Gurevitch, 2009: 164-167).

At the current stage of development, it is necessary to realize the minimum initial measures to overcome the corporate dependence of the web. Microsoft, one of the worst offenders in this respect, was sued in the late 1990s for performing as a monopoly firm, that is, that their dominant position was in restraint of trade and hence illegal. The Justice Department stated that the software giant controlled over 90 percent of this market, and of course, Microsoft is totally Leftist in its loyalties, as all conglomerates are. Microsoft Operating Systems become cheaper due to the economies of scale which also generates “network effects” for anything added to it (Stallman, 2005).

The essential charge of the Justice Department was that Microsoft involved itself in predatory pricing and, as such, it violated the Sherman Act. Their web browser was also hard wired into its own OS, which is non-competitive and, given the dominance of Microsoft, was an example of trade restraint. Other charges included recreating Java to only run under Microsoft products and keeping sector-specific information out of the hands of competitors. So much software would only run on the Microsoft infrastructure that it gave them a monopoly position far greater than simple sales figures would suggest. Richard Stallman writes:

Because Microsoft has so much market power, it can often impose new standards at will. It need only patent some minor idea, design a file format, programming language, or communication protocol based on it, and then pressure users to adopt it. Then we in the free software community will be forbidden to provide software that does what these users want; they will be locked in to Microsoft, and we will be locked out from serving them (Stallman, 2005).

It takes no imagination to move from there to using these “standards” in a political way. This is certainly the case in 2020 where the Right has been officially censored by these tech firms. “Standards” that a firm like Microsoft can impose have easily be shifted to economic or political opinion or what is “appropriate” or even important. The fact is of course, that to be involved in the construction and distribution of new devices, and, online, to gain the reputation of being “reliable” is a multi-billion dollar effort over years.

The high usage of New Media communications and mobile technology, along with a maximum susceptibility to new technologies and its tremendous development always will privilege Americans in this regard. Thus far, the “color revolutions” around the world have been in part due to this “New Media.” The problem is that every one of these groups has a generally pro-American stance or, alternatively, is operating in the American interest. If this is true, and some of the literature thinks it is, then New Media, again, is a democratic disaster (Anable, 2006: 8-17, in respect to the Georgia war). Guervich states,

It has never been easy for citizens to become informed and make their voices heard. While the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for people to access useful information and engage in civic activities, clear evidence shows that the New Media environment is blighted by problems of information overload and uncertainty about what to trust. There is a need, therefore, for sources of interpretive clarity. While search engines, recommended systems, and wikis are used pragmatically to find, filter, and scrutinize the abundant stores of online information that are now available, these are no substitute for the strong, authoritative signals that television traditionally afforded seekers of political knowledge (Gurevitch, 2009: 174).

Of course, this passage begs the question. All of these are openings for anyone with the social capital required to dominate this flow of information. It is easy to stigmatize political outsiders by claiming that they are “crazy” and hence, should be “moderated” by some authority. One of the ubiquitous and dangerous aspects of the Facebook debate is the reduction of political opposition to mental illness (Rosenstiel, 2005: 700ff).

In the context of the communications in New Media, the political process becomes a morass of information with which even specialists cannot keep up. The reliability of information has always been a problem, probably worse when a personalty such as Walter Cronkite can be “trusted” merely due to his image. Worse, hacks, paid writers or other mercenaries can put together first class arguments for highly shaky positions or candidates. The problem with information overload is that a gaggle of scholars can be found to defend even the most bizarre points of view (Williams and Carpini, 2011: 123).

To understand the potential of New Media forces the consideration of the phenomenon of the “public sphere,” which is, for some, expanding with the development of tangible online environments. On the other hand, since it is easy to disguise one’s identity for better or worse, and it is equally easy for a paid hack to put together glossy, first rate arguments and designs as the same as “fact” one can say that this sphere is not only contracted, but is now fragmented and lost (Hindman, 2011: 21-23, for a specific example).

If we compare the internet and New Media with the older radio and television programming, one thing is clear: the former can be individualized much quicker than the latter. The web, and by extension, the general run of New Media devices are individualized. Searches are getting better and better and the niche forums one can contribute to are growing, despite Google’s blatant manipulation of search results. Ideas once out of the mainstream have been “forced” into daily life because of some of these. The strength of New Media in general is that it allows individuals to communicate with each other. Thus, New Media might be able to have a positive impact on activism if it works with the other “mass” forms of communication. The former is individualized and idiosyncratic, the latter has a more mass audience (Rosenstiel, 2005: 701-705).

The Microsoft Problem seems worse than before: major firms do not individuate, they standardize. Individuation is done at the level of the user, but the near-monopoly status of Microsoft and a few others make it quite possible to develop invidious methods to stifle outsiders.

The truth is that this sort of rhetoric is created by the owners of New Media themselves. As these giants scream when governments censor their products, they engage in the identical censorship of its own members and users. For example, on abortion: “During a recent speech, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the social media company chose to block American pro-life groups from running ads on Ireland’s abortion referendum despite being under no legal obligation to do so.” In other words, they tried to fix the abortion referendum in Ireland by censoring all pro-life arguments on its pages. Needless to say, a flurry of “privacy” concerns was in the papers following this revelation.

Concerning Italian politics:

Facebook has shut down multiple Italian pages spreading misinformation, hate speech and political propaganda in the run-up to the European elections. “We have removed a series of false and duplicate accounts that violated our authenticity policy, as well as several pages that changed their names,” Facebook Italy said in a statement on Sunday. “We also took action against some pages that repeatedly spread incorrect information,” the social network said. . . A total of 23 pages with 2.46 million followers combined were shut down last weekend, according to Avaaz, which said that more than half of the accounts supported either of Italy’s two ruling populist parties, the League or the Five Star Movement. They included a pro-Five Star page that attributed false statements to the writer Roberto Saviano, a prominent critic of the coalition government, as well a pro-League one that shared a video purporting to show violence by migrants that was in reality a clip from a film (Local, 2019).

Facebook’s liberal proclivities are well known and the numbers above don’t lie. This is blatant election tampering, which is the Leftist stock-in-trade. The “spokesman” can say whatever he’s told. He’s not under oath. His job is to make the company look good, not tell the truth or even convey useful information. Those running these tech firms are politically ignorant, they hold positions and enforce directives created by management. This isn’t even about ideas. In the UK:

Facebook has banned 12 high-profile, anti-immigrant British organizations and individuals including the English Defense League, the British National Party, Britain First and Jayda Fransen. The silicon valley company said it took the decision because it bans users who “proclaim a violent or hateful mission or are engaged in acts of hate or violence.”

“Individuals and organizations who spread hate, or attack or call for the exclusion of others on the basis of who they are, have no place on Facebook,” it said in a statement. The following organizations and people are now prohibited from the site: The British National Party and Nick Griffin, Britain First and Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, English Defense League and Paul Ray, Knights Templar International and Jim Dowson, National Front and Tony Martin, and Jack Renshaw. They were all outlawed under Facebook’s “Dangerous Individuals and Organisations policy.” They will no longer be allowed a presence on Facebook or Instagram and posts and other content which expresses praise or support for them will also be banned.

“Our work against organized hate is ongoing and we will continue to review individuals, organizations, pages, groups and content against our Community Standards,” the statement added (RT, 2019a).

In condemning the “excluding” others, they exclude their opposition. This is Orwellian. None of the groups censored above were violent, though Antifa certainly is. Using terms like “hate” is a substitute for an argument. Its meaningless name calling. Its an Orwellian slang term used to silence others and permits the foolish to short-circuit any critical thought.

Of course, its Antifa that burns down whole cities and threatens death to all who oppose them, but the press claims they are a force “against hate.” Any group the Regime dislikes can have this accusation hurled at them and thereby be considered “violent.” Its a crude technique since they’re not capable of anything else. They have no right to do this given that they mediate civic debate. “Free speech” guarantees are useless if the means to render this speech public is itself censored. It would be something like saying that I can have full freedom of speech so long as I don’t speak in English.

In Hong Kong, the CIA has created a violent protest movement just as its trade war with China was beginning. China. This is demonstrated by the fact that anyone saying so is immediately removed from social media. RT says:

Twitter got the anti-China censorship ball rolling earlier this week, in perhaps the first-ever social media preemptive strike “proactively” deplatforming hundreds of thousands of accounts for the capital crime of “sowing discord.” Their crimes included “undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the [Hong Kong] protest movement on the ground.” One could argue that the protests themselves are a form of political discord, but resistance is futile when charged with such an inchoate offense.

None of the social media platforms have ever defined what exactly constitutes “attempting to sow discord,” though a common thread running through the mass deplatformings of the past year suggests it involves posting in support of a government the US doesn’t like – whether Russia, Iran, Venezuela, or China.

The social media Ministry of Truth has become increasingly open about the irrelevance of truth in what constitutes actionable disinformation. One group of “experts” in the spread of disinfo online even published a paper this week explaining that true statements could constitute disinformation if they were arranged to serve a purpose, calling for platforms to expand their definition of “inauthentic behavior” to include anyone reposting information portraying the “good guys” in a negative light (Buyniski, 2019).

Mocking the reader, they claim to do this in order to fight the “repression of free speech” in China. They’re well aware of the discrepancy, but these tech companies are part of the ruling class and act to defend its interest. The press doesn’t exist to tell the truth, educate citizens or even to provide information. They exist to tell a good and exciting story that both benefits the Left and gets viewers. There’s no law that says major media have to tell the truth or educate the public in any way. They’re part of the entertainment world. Telling CNN that it’s biased is like telling a dairy farmer he sells milk. Truth was never the standard and its not why CNN exists.

What makes it more than just ideological immaturity is that social media tries to destroy all targets of the CIA and the ruling class in general, no matter how obscure to the general public. There are no exceptions to this. In Ecuador:

Facebook has apparently blocked the page of former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, which was used to share Wikileaks material. The move also comes after he bashed his successor for allowing to arrest Julian Assange. Correa took to Twitter on Thursday night to decry the block, which he called a “show of desperation” following the publication of the INA papers, a trove of documents leaked last month that show current President Lenin Moreno’s involvement in a corruption investigation. Correa had been publicizing the papers on his Facebook page, which had 1.5 million followers (RT, 2019).

I suppose he’s motivated by “hate” too. In addition, pro-Venezuela groups were censored as the US threatened the Maduro government there (Sputnik, 2018). “Venezuela Analysis” is one of the few solid and actually independent sources for news and analysis outside of the mainstream “consensus.” “Fake news” is just news the oligarchs don’t like or don’t want to hear. In January 2017 the Director of National Intelligence put out a report called “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” Its main argument? That RT and Sputnik, in challenging the false media consensus, were “seeking to foment radical discontent” on behalf of the Kremlin. This means Big Tech and the CIA work together (Sputnik, 2018). CNN wrote:

Facebook removed 22 pages connected to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his fringe right-wing website InfoWars. The move came as part of a broader effort by Facebook to enforce its recently updated recidivism policy. 89 pages in total were unpublished on Tuesday afternoon as part of the crackdown, a Facebook spokesperson told CNN Business (RT, 2019).

InfoWars is a direct competitor to CNN. Condemning him as a “fringe” figure implies that big money always has the truth; he larger organization must be the correct one. Jones has been critical of every powerful establishment in this country without fail. Big Tech doesn’t have the right nor the competence to decide which are “harmful” to society and which are not. Not coincidentally, CNN is an important target of Jones, and properly so. Its a total control matrix where all information is tightly monitored by capital.

One of the most common arguments defending social media companies who censor their platforms, used by both neoconservatives and Leftists, is that “private companies can do whatever they want with their companies.” Its a stupid argument designed to short circuit the reasoning faculty with its surface plausibility. Its easy to dismiss. Can Google search its employees’ cars when they want? Can they tap their phones on a whim? Being a private company doesn’t render them beyond Constitutional protection or common decency, especially on such a foundational issue.

Keep in mind that the entire infrastructure of the web was designed and built using public funds. It was initially a military enterprise. These companies are all benefiting from infrastructure that was paid for by taxpayers going back decades. Even today, taxpayers also are forced to pay for improvements in new Internet infrastructure. There’s not a tech company out there that hasn’t received mountains of tax breaks, credits, subsidies and grants to promote different projects.

The first prototype for the internet was developed in the late 1960s with the creation of ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Originally a military system, it permitted multiple computers to communicate on a single network (Andrews, 2013). In the 1970s the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP was established with public funds. It was a communications method concerning how data could be transmitted among multiple networks. These two were united to become the “web” in 1983. Every penny spent on this came from taxpayers (Andrews, 2013).

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explicitly states that his suspension of InfoWars is a means of controlling Jones’ arguments and thus restraining his influence. He said that his action is “intended to promote better behavior from its users. . . We’re always trying to cultivate more of a learning mindset and help guide people back towards healthier behaviors and healthier public conversation,” he uttered.

RT reports:

Under tremendous pressure from politicians and mainstream media, Facebook and other social networks have turned to purging content, viewpoints and even users that the powers-that-be have declared objectionable. Still angry over the 2016 US presidential election, Democrats blame social media for giving President Donald Trump and his supporters a voice and claim the likes of Facebook and Twitter have served as platforms for “Russians” to “influence” US public opinion – against Hillary Clinton, that is. Repeatedly told to sort out the “Russians,” Facebook, Twitter and Google have turned to throttling posts, suspending and even banning some users. First it was the “suspected Russian” accounts, based among other things on whether they were posting in Cyrillic. Then they demonetized, throttled and flagged accounts of Trump supporters such as Diamond and Silk. Last week, Facebook, Google, Spotify and several other platforms deleted the accounts of Alex Jones and InfoWars (RT, 2019).

The problem is that most still believe that only governments can repress. It sounds strange to be “repressed” by a private entity. The public prejudice says that a newspaper owned by the state is “controlled,” but one owned by a corporation is “independent.” But this is merely a bias built into the American way of thought, a bias created by an economic system that relies almost entirely on controlling ideas to function.

The power of the major media is almost beyond description and its controlled by a handful of powerful families. At the time the US Constitution was written, there was little by way of “media” and it certainly couldn’t dream of this level of power. As it stands by the 2020 election, all right wing content will have been removed from the public square. Just as the economic market is unfree, so is the marketplace of ideas. Both are monopolized.

This remark by Williams and Carpini shows the good and the bad in the literature on this fundamentally misunderstood topic

Cutting across the three regimes that dominated from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century (the partisan press, the penny press, and the age of Realism) are the relative absence of distinctions between fact and opinion, politics and culture, news and entertainment, personal and political, journalist and citizen, and so forth, which were much more common in recent periods. Also characteristic of these earlier regimes was the notion, articulated and instituted in various ways, that mediated representations of the public world were midpoints on the continuum from the occurrence of events and emergence of issues to their interpretation and use, a continuum along which citizens themselves played an active, deliberative role at all points (2011: 284).

This reiterates the basic arguments of this paper and the literature concerning New Media. Primarily, it shows that each New Media regime, whether it be mass readership or television, has had its initial utopian speculations deflated. Since these are all mere means of communication, they have, of themselves, no impact on the ability of citizens to analyze and to act critically, especially at the level of fundamental principles.

It seems that this comment above is mostly negative. There is nothing good about the blurring of the fundamental lines between fact and opinion, or worse, news and entertainment. Since all forms of communication and the data they transmit are brought forth in a oligarchic setting, these media are only as good as the lowest common denominator. Information as it is presented, it as much a form of manipulation as a means of enlightenment.

Events are not experienced by media consumers (of course), but the information that then becomes the foundation of subsequent debate is already analyzed and interpreted before the debate begins. Most of the literature in this paper accepts this idea, but refuse to draw out the clear conclusions, fearing professional repurcussions. Even if the claims for “New Media” are true, it still does not get to the heart of the matter until the sources of mainstream information are understood. It matters not how many Iphones are out there if it means that CNN’s prepackaged ideas are what is being beamed from one country to another.

There is no evidence that “citizens themselves” are anything but passive consumers. Debates certainly take place, but only on issues major media deem significant. Worse, none of the literature analyzed in this paper dealt with the complete lack of expertise of most media owners or writers on foreign affairs. Hence, the demonization of Serbia in the 1990s or the invention of anti-Trump stories were not met with any mainstream corrective. The riots and coup in Ukraine in 2014 showed an almost comic lack of knowledge about the situation, as reporters and editors relied on official reports and western NGOs financed by corporations (Gilboa, 2002: 732-740).

On the other hand, the above examples can be recast relative to New Media from the advent of the web until today. For those who care about the Balkans, Serbian or Russian views were readily available for anyone who wanted to read them. For Ukraine, both Ukrainian and Russian sources, in English, were available giving a more expert opinion on all sides of these obscure but significant events. The problem, as seen in both Hindman and Williams, is that only a handful take advantage of these more “private” blogs or sites. Today, even a foreign language site can be quickly but poorly translated on the spot (Williams and Carpini, 2011: 300-301).

The ruling class claims that the so-called “New Media” will provide a wide scope for individual self-realization. The citizen gets the opportunity to interact with those texts, ideas and concepts that used to be discoverable online. At their best, such a citizen becomes fluent in the general vocabulary in a subject and learns to remove the chaff from the wheat. From this, reaching other people should be fairly easy. This, of course, is the theory.

Some studies have concluded that Arab youth, for example, would not become the vanguard of the “political awakening” in their own countries, if not possessed by these new, highly effective tools. Facebook has acquired a cult status among Arabs and has spread with breathtaking speed. Of course, this is only good if a) it’s true and b) the reader agrees with the agenda of the “awakening,” or at least that of its leaders and western interpreters.

However, there are other points of view on the role of New Media in the creation of a democratic, revolutionary consciousness. The experience of political struggle, which activists have accumulated over several generations, might be far more important than the latest instant messaging tool.

Political consciousness does not arise from day to day, but can only take form only as the result of the activities of several generations. They criticize the excessive preoccupation with the New Media, leading to an underestimation of the importance of other forms of civic engagement. This assumes, of course, that the “revolutions” whose orchestration by the US is not a matter of debate any longer, are something deeper than American agendas in the Arab world or the frustrations of Americanized, elite youth who will not wait until they turn 20 to take the power that is owed to them (Hume, 2004, intro).

The fact that young, rich youth in the third world enjoy using Twitter to spread political slogans is meaningless except that politics is now even cheaper and more superficial than before. Since New Media, in much of the world, is the exclusive property of westernized, urban elite youth and the older aristocracy who would benefit by their violence, its influence (and hence that of the western world inherently) is nothing but dangerous. It is the new voice of oligarchy having nothing but a sympathetic, if almost totally ignorant, news media backing them in the EU. In other words, “New Media” is only a panacea if wealthy, liberal youth in the cities of Tunisia use it (Gilboa, 2002: 735ff for an earlier analysis of this phenomenon and Anable, 2006: entire, for this development in US-Georgia relations).

Thus, there is every reason to deflate the utopian claims of communications media. What really matters is what is being communicated, not how. Mass society has destroyed not only the ability to critically analyze fundamental principles, but worse, has brought the level of discussion to sound-bytes, symbols and vitriol. Further, that the firms disseminating New Media, controlling its content and monopolizing the concept of “reliability” are often identical. New Media itself is a buzzword invented by capital to justify their almost absolute dominance over the mind of Postmodern man.

 

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Matthew Raphael Johnson

Matthew Raphael Johnson is a scholar of Russian Orthodox history and philosophy. He completed his doctorate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1999. He is a former professor of both history and political science at the University of Nebraska (as a graduate student), Penn State University and Mount St. Mary’s University. Since 1999, he was the editor (and is presently Senior Researcher) at The Barnes Review, a well-known renegade journal of European history. Dr. Johnson is the author of eight books. Six are from Hromada Books, "Sobornosti: Essays on the Old Faith;" "Heavenly Serbia and the Medieval Idea;" "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality: Lectures on Medieval Russia;" "The Ancient Orthodox Tradition in Russian Literature: "The Foreign Policy of Mass Society: The Failure of Western Engagement in the Middle East;" and "Officially Approved Dissent: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Strategic Ambiguity in His Critique of Modernity." And two published by The Barnes Review, "The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism and Orthodoxy;" and "Russian Populist: The Political Thought of Vladimir Putin."

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