At no other time in contemporary history has a critical understanding of communication and the structures and regulation of complex media systems been more important and more urgent. During this current historical moment of multiple crises, marked by dysfunctional political communication practices (just witness the US election debates), the dominance of mainly US tech giants in mediation processes, digital surveillance, hateful speech and disinformation, communication is more vital than ever. It is a historical moment that has also seen an alarming skew in mainstream Western news media narratives by focusing on the ‘here’ and the ‘us’ so marginalizing or obliterating the ‘there’ and the ‘other’. It is what is going on in all these parts of the world so systemically overlooked that concerns us at SOAS.
Putting aside these concerns for a moment, there have been a number of recent developments to do with freedom of speech, the power of media and the political/media nexus, which also matter to the regions and the people we address. Among these was the US Department of Justice initiating an antitrust suit against Google the largest in the past two decades. The claim is that its practices of controlling the digital space and domination of search harmed consumers and deprived them of alternatives.
This action took place as the global battle against what is published in and circulated on social media giants – Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms – continues to gather momentum. What drives this are mainly concerns over how these platforms are seen to be interfering in politics, damaging societies, and contributing to hate or extreme speech, not to mention their role in state surveillance, propaganda and information warfare.
Partly in response to these concerns, Facebook and Twitter banned the circulation of a New York Post article critical of US Presidential candidate Joe Biden, sparking outrage among conservatives and stoking debate over how social media platforms should tackle misinformation ahead of the US election. Twitter blocked users from posting links to the Post story or photos from the unconfirmed report. Users attempting to share the story were shown a notice saying: “We can’t complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.” The Post called this an act of modern totalitarianism carried out by ‘Silicon Valley dweebs’.
France has in the past suffered from a spate of ‘terrorist’ attacks related to unresolved debates over freedom of expression and religious practices. A state prosecutor said there was a ‘direct causal link’ between the beheading of French teacher and an online hate campaign that was orchestrated against him for showing his students cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a class about freedom of speech.
In the UK, where debate about freedom of speech, racism and the media has a long history, who has the right to communicate was the lead commentary and lead news article in this week’s edition of the Economist magazine under the headline ‘Who controls the conversation? Free speech on social media is too important to be determined by a handful of tech executives‘. In the same edition, the periodical reported on the beheading in France under the headline ‘The sacred right to offend’ and an article about disinformation in Myanmar under the heading ‘Anti-social network’, in which it reported the dominance of Facebook and its use to fuel hatred against minorities.
The relationship of ‘communication’ and human rights is often discussed through Article 19’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has a ‘right to freedom of opinion and expression’, including the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. That communication is a basic human right at the heart of human and societal interactions and that communication is constitutive of politics are taken for granted, though little discussed, concerns in public and media debates. Indeed, communication is arguably intrinsic to our humanity as social beings. Our relationships are built and maintained through communication, our political systems, our education institutions and work depend on communication, and our participation in justice systems, political, and civic life are all negotiated through communication.
The debates about the right to communicate as a basic human right and the ability of ordinary people to communicate without suffering repercussions are recurring themes in media and communication scholarship. So are debates about communication’s role in buffeting national state systems, its role in war, migration, the circulation and legitimization of ideologies and in normalizing gendered, ethnic, racial, and other, differences. Such debates also need to keep in mind the expansion of tech giants, including Ali Baba and Tik Tok and how, or whether, they impact lives. They must also address the dynamics between capitalism and communication. Indeed, it is safe to say that no major industry has been changed by capitalist globalization as much as have global communication industries.
An important consideration is that the technologies underpinning digital media are designed with profit in mind and deployed through mechanisms that support a strong capitalist model created centuries ago. These are important elements of critical communication scholarship that go hand in hand with debates about the role of contemporary media technologies in grassroots protests against power, discrimination, gendered and racial inequalities, and in allowing previously marginalized groups to effectively communicate their concerns and participate in mediated discourse. For despite the affordances and opportunities of new media technologies and platforms for empowering marginalized voices, social inequalities have not diminished and the digital divide continues to exist as one of many divides between the haves and have-nots in contemporary society alongside divisions in wealth, education, health care, technical expertise, and status.
At this point, a critical approach to the predominant accounts of how media and communication work becomes imperative. Expecting the introduction of digital communications platforms to enable a process whereby these inequalities simply dissipate in the face of the deterministic properties of new technology draws on age-old European fantasies about Utopia. As Espen Aarseth reminds us:
‘The belief that new (and ever more complex) technologies are in and of themselves democratic is not only false but dangerous. New technology creates new opportunities, but there is no reason to believe that the increased complexity of our technological lives works toward increased equality for all subjected to the technology.’
More generally, the key terms in the debates are far from straightforward or unambiguous, as two examples make clear. The concept of cause (and so ideas of determinism) appears strong and rigorous, but it is anything but that. Any action has a large variety of necessary and sufficient conditions for it to happen or not happen. Where the media come in is in articulating one set of possible conditions among many as the cause.
In short, what appears commonsensical is in fact profoundly rhetorical. Similarly talking about ‘rights’ sounds admirable—but whose rights and whose definition? Are we talking about legal, moral, human, civil, political, economic or even ‘natural’ rights? The assumption that all these line up neatly is naïve and disingenuous. One person’s right is another’s infringement. (The libertarian right to personal free movement during Covid may well lead to another person’s illness or even death.) The purpose of critical media studies is to question such seemingly self-evident statements and challenge the abuse of power they involve.
This article was originally published on the Centre for Global Media and Communication’s blog.