Why study media? Because it’s under attack

A selection of media apps on a smartphone

At no other time in contemporary history has media, in all its forms, been under more public scrutiny and sustained attack than since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the USA.

And at no other time in contemporary history has the study of media, as state or privately-owned institutions, as news or information providers, as spaces for struggles over ideologies, identities and politics or as social and/or political forces, been more relevant.

The study of media does not mean learning how to be a journalist, a documentary producer, a PR manager, a speech writer or a communicator, but to address media (in all its forms) as dynamic entities, buffeted by economic, political and cultural logics and as significant players within them. As the late Roger Silverstone noted in a short book called Why Study the Media published at the end of the 20th century, studying the media means paying attention to media as elitist institutions, as entities allied to economic interest or to power elites, as producers of meaning and therefore, to how they are involved in meaning making and in making sense of the world.

Today, the rhetoric and binary language communicated by Trump and his team of advisers and PR manager is highly critical of mainstream media as elitist, as powerful and dangerous, as non-representative and exclusivist and as forces bent on spreading false news and misinformation to dupe publics and scare them into submission. Media, their narrative goes, do not report ‘real’ events, but ignore them. Media cannot be trusted and therefore cannot be allowed to carry out one of their main roles; that of holding power elites accountable for their actions and policies. However, it is worth remembering that while the term fake news has entered the contemporary mainstream vocabulary, the phenomenon is not new. Indeed, it is well known that despots and authoritarian leaders, as well as ideologues, have always sought to distort or manipulate events and used media to disseminate their version of reality to boost their power and subjugate their populations. It is also well known that mainstream media has a long history of working closely with power and economic elites in liberal democracies and in autocratic systems.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, we have seen diverse protest movements and grassroots challenges to political power and to the elitist control of media and its power by citizen journalists, marginalised groups and actors and by new forms of organisation and collective action in different spaces, but most visibly in digital platforms. These practices underline that these platforms, like other communicative platforms, are fluid and dynamic spaces.  In fact, digital platforms can be used for propaganda, for nationalist and exclusionary narratives, for the spread of hate speech, for the communication of spectacles of terror and violence and for spread of divisive language and images. But they can also be used creatively and imaginatively by diverse individuals and marginalised groups, as we have seen in various initiatives since the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement and numerous other movements calling for dignity, equal rights and representation.

Why does the study of media matter?

Why we need to study the media today is not different from why we needed to study the media in the past, but what is different are the ways in which the expansion in digital platforms and their accessibility to a variety of individuals and groups, has increased the capacity for manipulation of events, for spectacular politics as well as politics as spectacle, for the manufacturing of global crises around identity politics, security threats, protectionism, migration, displacement and religion as well as for the emergence of new forms of authoritarianism promoted as the new populism of the 21st century. The contemporary historical moment sees a global struggle waged by both democratic and authoritarian forces, mainly through communication, to close down what is seen as anarchic, chaotic, noisy and anti-establishment media platforms and spaces, to control or neuter them or to use them to their own advantage , as we see in Trump’s effective use of Twitter to bypass media, in Putin’s apparatus of political technology, in other words, his strategic approach to the management of information, and in the communication of religious-based ideologies by regressive forces, such as IS in the Middle East.

At SOAS, we recognise the challenges this historical moment poses to media studies which, like all the social sciences, remains a field broadly embedded in the historical experiences of Western industrial capitalism, liberal democracy and bounded nation-states. But we also recognise the opportunities this moment affords for media studies at SOAS that combines expertise in Africa, Asia and the Middle East with grounded contextualised analyses of why media matters in diverse socio-political and historical contexts and geographies. We ask how media is used and consumed, what possibilities new media affords to ordinary people in the Global South, explore the range of representations – the political discourses and cultural products produced from within and circulate about the Global South – and the continuous struggles over meanings without ignoring history and the long patterns of interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

Media programmes of study available at SOAS:

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