Through networked technologies, social media is merging together the private with the public, connecting people from a variety of relationships, thus restructuring our social landscape. A shift of roles have taken place prior to the digital, the student could now also be the teacher, the citizen can step into the shoes of a politician and the reader is now also the journalist (Lindgren 2017). What happens when the validation of trustworthy information and the ability to pass it further, in a one to many model, now lies in the hands of the user rather than the educated journalist?
In times of fake news traveling 6 times faster than true stories and user generated content being a significant part of tech companies’ very profitable business model, the question could not be more relevant. These new enabled roles have come to challenge and revolutionise the world as it was prior to the digital, having traditional entities such as news agencies and journalists struggling to compete (Lindgren 2017).
The fundamental change within our digital public sphere
Danah Boyd (2018), technology and media researcher, describes how journalism has played a central role in shaping the discourse of the public. With editorial processes news organisations have been serving as gatekeepers, choosing what to amplify with critics challenging this set of power and holding them responsible. A power dynamic that has come to be even more complex with new technologies enabling amplification (Boyd 2018). Sociologist Jürgen Habermas coined the theory of what the public sphere entails and how its structure has undergone a fundamental change. The public is a place for citizens to exchange thoughts, views and engage in dialogue. New societal changes, such as the rise of capitalism in England in the 17th century, were discussed in physical places such as cafes and salons. This created an arena where the private and the public converged and was, according to Habermas, a way for civil society to create a general perception on ongoing events. Due to capitalistic forces becoming dominant in the media at the time, Habermas raised the importance for civilians to have a strong public political discourse to keep the media in check (Lindgren 2017).
This is something that the interactive function of the internet has made possible further. Media scholar Allison Cavanagh believes that unlike passive TV viewing, the internet with its interactivity creates a more even distribution of power. But despite the more horizontal and democratic distribution of power, Cavanagh believes that we can not be sure that people will use this position for democratic purposes (Lindgren 2017). The same reflection goes for Lawrence Lessig (2017) arguing that despite the horizontal development, one can still interpret a vertical line of power in the capitalist structure where this increased participation takes place.
The universal pizza crust
This is something that researcher José Van Dijk (2017) describes as a pizza dough whose ingredients define pizzas baked around the world. The structure that these giants create becomes defining for how we use and behave in social media. She also addresses the fact that these privately owned giants have over time come to replace established government institutions that have traditionally anchored public values, such as democracy. She problematizes the fact that what used to be a state responsibility with the best interests of the people in mind, is now a private one with commercial interests (Van Dijk 2017). Who should be held responsible for a fair and democratic platform society is an ongoing debate highlighting the problem in which companies take no responsibility for content published on their platforms.
Going back to Habermas’ reflection on critical public discourse to hold the media in check, critic Christian Fuchs (2017) argues that scenario being far from reality. He questions the structure of, for example, Twitter as a platform and believes that it is not designed to create deep political conversations at all. Instead of a politically participatory public sphere, Fuchs believes that we have ended up in what Habermas calls the pseudo-public sphere – a hollow public that is dominated by the mass media and consumption (Lindgren 2017).
In contrast to Fuchs’ criticism professor Henry Jenkins (2020) has a more cyber-positive view on increasing participation online and believes that we are still learning these new ways of participating. In Jenkin’s world, discussions and meetings about entertainment in popular culture will be followed by political activism, education and increased understanding. An emerged collective intelligence online will then, according to him, put pressure on the big tech giants (Jenkins 2008).
Increased participation or ignorance?
At a time when visibility, popularity and the number of clicks have never been more important, phenomena such as fake news have emerged. Manipulating truths to attract readers is a business model that also plays on peoples emotional state, having content triggering emotional responses of users increase the likelihood of sharing (Martin 2019). The conduct of politics on digital platforms entails both possibilities, but also a number of complex problems. A contrasting aspect within this ecology of sharing is the claim that the enormous amount of information we receive in today’s media climate is making us ignorant (Lessig 2017). Lawrence Lessig (2017) describes that digital environments for public discourse are invaded by such a large amount of distracting information that many users simply choose not to participate.
Same reflection goes for digital sociologist Deburah Lupton (2014), who argues that in an age of citizen journalism a myriad of ways of representing events and views of reality is available, making it hard for users to navigate and make sense of this overload of information. During this sense making users are consuming the world presented to them by the screens used on a daily basis. The content of these virtual windows is something that Ann Friedberg (2006) explains dictates our worldview as we often believe what we see. Her arguments are strengthened by a recent survey examining the spread of disinformation on ongoing elections with Americans believing the fake news received.
“There is a democratic emergency happening in America right now, and Facebook is at the center of it,” – Fadi Quran, campaign director of Avaaz, an online activism group that commissioned the survey (Lee & Frier 2020).
The commercial center of gravity is a phenomenon that occurs when a lot of users online stick to a traditional, commercial, actor in mass media. Which in turn leads to these established players growing stronger. For the industry of news distribution it also has the potential to outperform other relevant players as well (Lindgren 2017). Looking at social media platforms as a growing distribution channel for news among its users, they decrease revenues for other agents within the media landscape. A fact that australian government is trying to balance out with a payment proposal towards giants suchs as Facebook and Google, to make the mediated landscapes for news a fairer fight.
A call for critical digital literacy
(Image retrieved from Pixabay)
José Van Dijk (2017) highlights that platforms are never neutral and that they shape society with its defined ingredients. Which from a socio-technical perspective can be seen in how the use of platforms has become so intertwined with our everyday social life and the evolving role of users now operating as personalized news distribution channels. We are operating and at the same time being profitable components in a larger business model. Habermas’ reflection of the need for civilian people to have a strong political discourse is therefore of huge relevance, not only keeping media in check, but also keeping our overall growing prosumer society in check.
Thereby holding the big tech companies accountable for creating a democratic enhanced environment as well as demanding critical literacy among peers, who shares and distributes news in our shared social media fields, thus playing an important role affecting the virtual windows in a one to many communication model. The increased ignorance addressed by Lawrence Lessig (2017) calls for a need of digital literacy, understanding the role one has as a prosumer in this new entangled mediated landscape.
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Lupton, D (2014) Digital sociology London: Routledge
Friedberg, A (2006) The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft Cambridge, Massachusetts: Mit Press
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Jenkins, H (2007) From Participatatory Culture to Participatory Democracy (Part Two)
Lindgren, Simon (2017) Digital media and society. Sage Publications Limited
Lee, I & Frier, S (2020) Most U.S. Voters See Misinformation Online and Many Believe I, Bloomberg. Retrieved: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-26/most-u-s-voters-see-misinformation-online-and-many-believe-it?utm_content=politics&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=socialflow-organic&utm_source=twitter&cmpid%3D=socialflow-twitter-politics
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