Drowning in its own Bias? Thoughts on Waning Media Power and Social Media as Organising Tool

In previous posts we have discussed the fact that the Irish Water protests and movement has continued to grow despite being written off numerous times by mainstream media. Moreover  the movement has sustained itself  against overwhelming media bias, sensationalism and negative framing, in what has seemed an almost overt  attempted to de-legitimise the movement.

Yesterday Rory Hearn of the Geography department of Maynooth University published a paper which sheds some light on this process by (in part) looking at attitudes towards media among water activists and the use of social media as an organising tool, something we previously discussed here. This gives some empirical evidence towards the suspicion of waning media power among at least a significant segment of the population. A survey was conducted with over 2,500 anti water charge activists on their reasons for becoming involved, their attitudes towards the current government, tactics and future political preferences. Here we will highlight the reports findings about the media. The full report can be found here.

The report highlighted the mistrust of the mainstream media by the activists, and their preference of social media as a source:

The issue of the media was repeated as a significant theme in the respondents’ answers throughout the survey. They referred to the media portrayal of protestors as ‘biased’ and that the media was acting as ‘government supporters’. They criticised the media for its ‘failure to be objective’. They expressed strong feelings of contempt and anger at the coverage of the protests by the mainstream media. 86% of respondents described the media portrayal of the anti-water movement as negative. This composed of 45% describing it as ‘undermining the campaign’ and 41% saying it was ‘unfair’. Significantly Q 14 shows that protestors’ principal source of information about the campaign is overwhelmingly coming from social media as opposed to the traditional media. 82.6% were most informed about the campaign from social media. Only 6.4% of respondents were most informed from traditional media outlets

This is hardly surprising given the sensationalist nature of the mainstream coverage that would have been very much at odds with the lived reality of activists.  Moreover the report states:

In particular it was noted that they have used social media very effectively as a way of providing information that the mainstream media has not covered. The movement has, according to respondents, overcome the ‘propaganda’ from the mainstream media, gained attention of foreign media, and ‘brought the issue to national attention’. It has done this through ‘the effective use of social media to discredit mainstream media’. Respondents are concerned that ‘lies in the media with the help of the Gardai about the real number of protesters is unjust and unfair and if others knew how many were really there they might get interested and get educated about it’.

The report highlights issues that have been debated over the last number of years as  traditional media (print, television, radio) has been challenged by newer forms of publishing, social network sites and blogs that allow alternative views to be broadcast at a fraction of the traditional cost.   Easy access to alternative or external (extra national) forms of media through the internet allows people to escape the dominant media of their country if they wish, and on rare occasions so called ‘citizen journalism’ on the internet may break through dominant frames or agenda. However some research suggests that most news sourced on the internet comes from the websites of mainstream media groups (Castells 2009 p. 196).  However looking at the number of hits on youtube from uploads on by Irish water activists (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands) this may not be the case, though further research is necessary to confirm this  one way or another.

This so called ‘communication revolution’  may represent a paradigm shift in communications  as new forms of broadcasting through the internet have allowed for new forms of mass media and new forms of audiences and alternative forms of communication (Castells 2000, 2009). The contemporary media sphere sees numerous ‘entry points’ which can be utilised by producers/writers/reporters or political activists and has the potential of a mass audience.[1] The technological revolution for McChesney offers historical possibilities in other words the possibility that the internet might finally herald the advent of an open and inclusive ‘public sphere’ (Schuler and Day 2004 p. 3). And this has been certainly been the most extensive and  effective use of social media in Ireland to date. However it is important to remember that dominant groups have successfully usurped (or more commonly co-opted) such potentials many times before, and to date the traditional mass media still holds a vastly dominant position.  The success of the Irish movement’s use of social was made  possible by the mass dissemination of facebook in the Irish population with reports that up to half of the entire population have facebook accounts. This of course has inherent dangers as it gives a single company with little democratic oversight considerable powers.

It has also  been  argued that the online alternative media are at the core of (rather than simply reporting) the alternative social movements as they act as a force for organisation rather than simply reporting their actions and opinions (Coyer, Dowmunt and Fountain 2007).  This of course is nothing particularly new, as political newspapers were often seen firstly as organising tools and secondly as newspapers, or as Lenin (1901) expressed it the newspaper acted as the organisational ‘scaffolding’ for political movements or parties.[2]  The southern Mexican Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) movement were probably the first group to do so on an international scale in the mid-1990s. Since then many movements, most notably indymedia, have been able to use cheap production tools and cheap distribution on the internet to disseminate their views often breaking into the mainstream. However it is important not to confuse the dissemination of counter hegemonic views with counter hegemonic power, while sub-altern groups may be given a voice this does not guarantee political or economic power. For example the anarchist Worker’s Solidarity Movement (WSM), an organisation counted in the dozens, but with savvy programmers, is the second most popular political party on Facebook in Ireland with over 50,000 followers, this compares very well to Fine Gael (Ireland’s largest political party and major coalition partner) with only 10,000 followers. While the WSM is second only to a resurgent Sinn Fein (with 65,000 followers), nobody would argue that this popularity translates offline into political power.[3]

Others are  cautious around recent developments. For example theorists Chakravartty and Schiller (2010 p. 677) maintain that:

‘it would be at best naïve to assume that the authority of economic science that underpins digital capitalism and is reinforced across academic, policy and media fields can be simply undone through the transformative power of blogs, social networking and other user generated content’.

Moreover Blumler and Gurevitch (2001) also warn that the internet’s potential to facilitate more participatory political communication is dependent on considerable resources such as time and finance. David Simon in his testimony on the future of journalism discussed the need for a funded full time media workers:

But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not – in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Eugenia Siapera (2013) warns that some of the windows of opportunity for citizens and political activists opened by the new forms of media production and distribution are closing. This is due to the development of the new online media ecosystem that sees an increased concentration of distributive power on internet platforms such as Facebook or Google (Siapera 2013 p. 14). The new powerful internet distributors operate by the logic of what Siapera defines as infomediation.  This can be defined as a process of bringing together information producers and information users to exchange contents and secondly to record as much data on users as possible to sell onto third parties – the process of immanent commodification. This leads to not only an introduction of new categories of news and information content but also the likelihood that the hierarchies will be related to how the infomederies may ‘value’ and monetise their readers; as  different audiences will be of different value to various advertisers. This according to Siapera is likely to impact on the actual distribution of news contents customised to fit the appropriate type of audience (Siapera 2013 p. 16). While on the one hand social media allows the easy dissemination for alternative views and politics it may be also argued that political activists must be cautioned against establishing isolated echo-chambers rather than engaging with wider society.

References:

Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch, M. 2001. The new media and our political communications discontents. Information, Communication and Society, 4(3), pp.435-457.

Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. 2009. Communication Power. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Chakravartty, P. and Schiller, D. 2010. Neoliberal newspeak and digital capitalism in crisis. International Journal of Communication, (4), pp.670-692.

Coyer, K., Dowmunt, T. and Fountain, A. 2007. The Alternative Media Handbook. London: Routledge.

Lenin, V., I. 1901. Where to begin. Iskra,   

Preston, P. 2009. Making the News: Journalism and News Cultures in Contemporary Europe. New York, NY: Routledge.

Schuler, D. and Day, P. 2004. Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Ma ; London: MIT Press.

Siapera, E. 2013. Platform infomediation and journalism. Culture Machine, 13pp.1-29.

[1] Castells (2009 p. 55) calls these new form of communication mass self-communication, as they are potentially broadcast to a global audience and because the production of the message is self-directed and often the reception of the media is self-selected. These new forms of media hold a potential for subaltern groups and ideologies previously excluded from the mass media

[2] ‘The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour’ (Lenin 1901).

[3] Number of Facebook followers correct as of 22/04/2015.

Advertisements

Fear and Loathing in Talbot St

Media bias and exaggeration has gone into overdrive; but is anyone listening?

In our last post we discussed how mainstream media tend to be relatively objective and even-handed once a story remains within certain parameters, that is once media actors such as politicians, business or civil society sources play their part and don’t stray too far from what is deemed acceptable. However, if politics or if political actors stray from those relatively narrow parameters, all attempts at objectivity and even-handedness tend to fly quickly out the newsroom window. This was demonstrated clearly in the last week when a relatively minor protest in Jobstown, a working class district in south west Dublin, sent the Irish media into a stratosphere of fear, loathing, exaggeration and overt bias. This of course is not hugely surprising, as decades of international research into mainstream media has shown again and again that the media do indeed act as an ideological apparatus that can be counted on (by ruling classes) in times of crisis. The literature speaks of many reasons for this, not least ownership and the ever more concentrated nature of ownership of the mass media, (something not lost on the Irish public), however it’s important not to become overly deterministic about ownership as other issues such as institutional practices, changes in media markets, changes in media worker labour markets, the class basis of many journalists and the overarching ideological structures of a given society can play just as important a role. It is also important not to be overly deterministic as there are many cracks in the ideological sphere of the mass media, not least the reception of media content by audiences. As discussed by Stuart Hall, among others, there are many ways audiences interpret media content including outright hostility to the intended message of the journalist or media company. (In fact, after a front page headline in the Irish Daily Mail denouncing the Socialist Party, one enterprising comrade bought up as many copies as he could with the intention of framing and selling them to raise party funds, no doubt seeing the denunciation as a badge of honour.) The access of ordinary people to cheap recording equipment, found in most phones, and easily available distribution networks via social network sites means the gate keeping role of the mainstream media is seriously damaged if not completely defunct. For example a Dail (parliament) speech by United Left TD Claire Daly reached an audience of 250,000 (out of a population of 4.5 million) in less than a week via YouTube, likewise various aspects of protests and state violence have reached tens of thousands of viewers.

Again one doesn’t want to be overly deterministic about the role of technology, and talk of ‘facebook or twitter revolutions’ tends to be exaggerated; as always there are far deeper material issues underlying such events, however the easy access to recording, publishing and distribution networks have had a profound effect on political movements. Moreover, social media organisational tools such as direct messaging and social media pages and groups (usually Facebook) very much resemble the organisational ‘scaffolding’ as envisioned by Lenin’s description of the ideal party press.

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow   political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events.

I did a quick search of local facebook groups with the term ‘water charges’ in them and gave up after one hundred, most had hundreds if not thousands of ‘likes’.and seemed to be regularly updated. Interestingly facebook has overtaken the role of Indymedia.ie which was to the fore in the movement against the commodification and privatisation of waste services ten years ago. While there are obvious dangers in the monopolisation of  facebook, a private corporation, as an organisational tool no other social network has the reach or ease of use.

mob rule

To go back to Jobstown and the events which took place there, (for those living outside Ireland, Jobstown is a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin with an extremely high unemployment rate and all the associated social problems). The Minister for Social Protection and Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) was to visit a Community Centre to confer awards in an educational project. To give some context, Burton has been involved in the introduction of workfare to Ireland alongside much demonising of the so called ‘undeserving poor’, usually expressed by attacks on alleged social welfare fraud and the need for ‘work activation schemes’ which is code for cutting the welfare of people who refuse to work for free. Moreover, she has been part of an austerity government responsible for cuts in every aspect of life and as always such cuts tend to disproportionately affect poorer suburbs, such as Jobstown. Finally, Burton is also leader of the Irish Labour Party who ran in the last election with the promise that they would not introduce water charges: Therefore, it was utterly unsuprising that she might be met in Jobstown by some protesting residents, especially as we are in the middle of a period that have seen mass mobilisations on every corner of the country. The protest included a sit down protest that blockaded the Tanaiste’s car and left her trapped inside in for two hours, at one point someone threw a water balloon at her and some hours after the Tanaiste and protesters left a young man threw a single brick at a police car. A local Socialist Party representative, recently elected TD (MP) for the area Paul Murphy also took part in the protest. No arrests were made and there has been no evidence of violence, although both protesters and presumably the police were filming the event.

Jobstown is not somewhere that normally concerns the media, in a newspaper search of Irish titles on the Lexis Nexis database (using the search word Jobstown) in the week following the protest I found 79 articles: That compares to the 24 articles that included the word Jobstown in the entire year preceding the protest (12 of which were crime reports). Most articles seem to accept that ‘violence’ occurred, and denounce it to varying degrees.

Certainly the events in Jobstown were newsworthy; a minister was discommoded and even hit by a water balloon, there was a bit of a protest and  it was around the ‘hot’ issue of the water charges. However the reaction by the mainstream media has been incredible by any standards. The coverage has been dripping with overt  layers of class bias, fear and hatred. The accusations against the protesters have grown by the day, the protesters have developed from being  ‘a mob’ to being ‘rioters’ to being  ‘kidnappers’ and ‘terrorists’, finally a particularly gormless TD announced we in Ireland were ‘heading to an ISIS situation‘. In one particularly odd and distasteful piece in the Irish Daily Mail the protest was compared to the notorious incident in the Northern Irish troubles where two British soldiers were taken from their car and shot dead after driving directly into a Republican funeral. (A Republican funeral had been attacked by a Loyalist gunman the previous week, and in fact this funeral was that of one of the people killed in the attack, so tensions were extremely high).

Back to Jobstown: The single brick thrown was seized upon by the press as evidence of a violent ‘sinister fringe’ infiltrating the anti-water charges movement, ignoring the fact that literally hundreds of marches, involving hundreds of thousands of people, have taken place without the slightest bit of violence. In fact ‘the brick’ itself has become a minor social media celebrity in its own right. One Facebook group entitled ‘I bet this brick can get more likes than the Labour Party‘ has been set up and is well on its way to achieving its goal. And, social media has been flooded with memes underlying both the ridiculousness of the mainstream media charges and acting as an ironic defense to what are effectively ideological attacks on the movement – attacks that have the obvious intention to both divide the movement and scare people away from attending future protests.

donal falon brick

‘The Brick’ as pictured by Donal Fallon

tallaght compared to ni killing

Part of this framing denies the fact that working class people can have any agency and that protesters and ‘decent ordinary people’ are being ‘led astray’ by outside elements such as dissident republicans, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries. While the aforementioned would, doubtless, be entirely happy to create and lead such a movement, the left in Ireland does not have anything like the resources (human and otherwise) to create such a mass campaign and only an organic and self-organising movement could have sustained itself to this level for this long. Falling into this ‘outsider’ frame was Paul Murphy’s presence at the Jobstown protest; for the media this Socialist ‘ outsider’, was responsible for the trouble. The media also jumped on the fact that Murphy had a middle class upbringing. This suited the classist nature of the press as it explained that it was one of their own, a well-educated middle class man (rather than the great unwashed) that was responsible for protests, protests that were having such a detrimental effect on the status quo.

middle class paul

Murphy refused  to denounce the protest, denied that the protest was violent and refused to apologise for the discommoding of the Tanaiste’s photo-op. Murphy thus refused to play to the heretofore ‘agreed’ rules of the media game and stepped outside the ‘acceptable parameters’ of media debate. The fact that Murphy’s two SP colleagues in the Dail refused to distance themselves from the protest (and Murphy) shocked and enraged opinion writers further, leading to a sprinkling of ‘red scare’ articles in the press. ‘Responsible’ political leaders, we were told aren’t supposed to defend assumed violence in that fashion; contrite denunciations were both demanded and expected. The incarnation of overt class politics in Irish life is both misunderstood and unwelcome by the fourth estate.

INM protest

Protest at the headquarters of Independent News and Media

So what of the effect of this media barrage on the left and the anti water charges movement? Protests are continuing unabated with large protests in Sligo, Cork and Waterford in the last week, alongside local protests far too numerous to mention. The Socialist Party seems to be gaining popularity from its new found media infamy and certainly has won respect for standing beside the protesters under considerable pressure. The latest party political poll to be published today (Sunday, 23rd of November) shows that Independents and small parties are polling at a historical high of 30%, while Sinn Fein is polling at a historical high of 22%. What we are probably witnessing, amongst other things, is a crisis of legitimacy for the mainstream media. By attacking what is a genuinely organic and mass movement with exaggerations, overt bias and outright lies, the media sphere is losing credibility, and credibility once lost will be hard won back, if at all.

Thoughts on the Political Economy of the Internet – A call to Bloggers, Writers and Activists

Critical Media Review will begin a series where it will gather and collate blogs, articles, thoughts and comments on issues surrounding the great ‘public sphere’ of the twenty-first century – the internet. CMR calls on bloggers, scholars, activists and any interested individuals to send their thoughts, articles and links here.  Short articles and links to already existing work are welcome.  CMR can be reached at criticalmediareview@gmail.com

CMR is interested especially (but not restricted to) the following areas:

The Internet, privacy and the commodification of everything – one reading of the growth of the internet and especially social media is the encroachment of our private lives by capitalism. Now alongside the privatisation of such services as water and power, in recent years  our most intimate private lives, friendships and networks have become mere informational commodities to be recorded, commodified and traded. Moreover our ever connectedness through smart phones and other mobile devices mean we are connected to our workplaces, the markets and advertisers twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. It allows for the dystopia of the surveillance society as predicted by Orwell and Foucault. And finally  is the very success of social networks built upon the commodified free-labour of users themselves?

The internet and open-source as an alternative to capitalism as we know it – the internet its connectivity and its potential for collaborative and co-operative work offers a model to move beyond commodity capitalism.

The internet and the alternative media – the internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to working class and subaltern groups, firstly as it offers a cheap and effective platform for the production and dissemination of alternative views and news; secondly as it offers the possibility of two-way and three-way discussion. It bypasses traditional gatekeeping practices of the mainstream corporate media and even within the working class movement bypasses traditional gatekeeping by party hierarchies (by access to party publications and networks). However is so-called ‘citizen journalism’ a match for the resources and power-structures of the corporate media?

The internet as a site of struggle – As seen in the Arab Spring and in battles over copyright legislation the internet is becoming more and more a site of struggle itself. How will the state react to perceived threats coming from hacker activists and how will users of the internet react to current state policies attempting to bring capitalist laws on copyright to the cyber sphere?

The internet and its relation to the material basethe internet and other communicative networks can be perceived in terms of the base/superstructure as defined by Marx. In a rethinking of the base /superstructure concept what is the relationship between material ‘reality’ and the internet. How does the internet effect the economic and social base in terms of politics and class struggle and indeed how does the material base of class and the relations of production affect the development of the internet itself?

Facebook as a Digital Public Sphere: Processes of Colonization and Emancipation – Bjarki Valtysson

The first entry to Critical Media Review is somewhat fitting, in that the very idea for this blog was first discussed on a facebook page.  The entry links to an article in the latest issue of the journal ‘triple C’, entitled ‘Facebook as a Digital Public Sphere: Processes of Coloniszation and Emancipation’ by Bjarki Valtysson. The article discusses facebook in terms of Habermas’ public sphere as a process both of colonisation and a potential tool of emancipation. Colonisation as the private thoughts and lives of facebook users are constantly commoditised and sold onto third parties, and at the same time as a potential ‘emancipative media environment’ for rational critical debate.

http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/312