- Discuss the relationship between new media and democracy.
- Evaluate the ethics of intellectual rights and copyrights in new media.
- Evaluate the ethics of content filtering and surveillance in new media.
Media studies pioneer Marshall McLuhan emphasized, long before what we now call “new media” existed, that studying media and technology can help us understand our society. In short, he didn’t believe that we could study media without studying society, as the two are bound together (Siapera, 2012). The ongoing switch from analogue to digital, impersonal to personal/social, and one-way to dialogic media is affecting our society in interesting ways.
The days of analogue media are coming to an end and, indeed, are over in many places. As a speech teacher, one of the technology struggles I have faced over the years is recording student speeches. For the past several years, while teaching at different schools, I was continually flustered by the difficulty of finding an easy way to digitally record and have students access their speeches. When I first started teaching, we rolled a camcorder into the classroom on speech days and each student brought his or her own VCR tape to class and would pop it in, hit record, do the speech, and then pop it out. It was the easiest method of recording I have ever used. It didn’t require waiting to upload, having to deal with length or file size issues when trying to post to YouTube or e-mail, or dealing with compatibility issues. But the last time I asked my students to bring a VCR tape was about five years ago, and when I asked, the students looked at me like I had five heads. “Where can we find one of those?” “Where am I going to play it? I don’t have a VCR!” It was at that moment that I knew the analogue era had come to an end, which is evident elsewhere. Now digital television conversion is complete in the United States and the European Union, and many old media formats are being digitalized—for example, books and documents scanned into PDFs, old home movies being turned into DVDs, and record players with USB outputs digitizing people’s vinyl collections.
These technological changes haven’t solved some problems that are being carried over from old media. Some of the same problems with representation and access for which the mass media were criticized are still present in new media, despite its democratizing potential. As we discussed earlier, new media increase participation and interactivity, giving audience members and users more control over content and influence over media decisions. Media critics point out, though, that participants are not equally distributed (Jenkins, 2006). Research shows that new media users, especially heavy users who are more actively engaged, tend to be male, middle class, and white.
New Media and Democracy
Scholars and reporters have noted the democratizing effect of new media, meaning that new media help distribute power to the people through their personal and social characteristics. Many media scholars have commented on these changes as a positive and more active and participative alternative to passive media consumption (Siapera, 2012). Instead of the powerful media outlets exclusively having control over what is communicated to audiences and serving as the sole gatekeeper, media-audience interactions are now more like a dialogue. The personal access to media and growing control over media discourses by users allows people to more freely express opinions, offer criticisms, and question others—communicative acts that are all important for a functioning democracy.
A recent national survey found that young people, aged fifteen to twenty-five, are using new media to engage with peers on political issues. The survey found that young people are defying traditional notions of youthful political apathy by using new media platforms to do things like start online political groups, share political videos using social media, or circulate news stories about political issues.
These activities were not included in previous research done on the political habits of young people because those surveys typically focused on more traditional forms of political engagement like voting, joining a political party, or offline campaigning. Political engagement using new media is viewed as more participatory, since people can interact with their peers without having to go through official channels or institutions. But the research also found that this type of participatory political engagement also led to traditional engagement, as those people were twice as likely to vote in the actual election. Although the digital divide is a continuing ethical issue, new media have had a more positive effect on places that are often left out of such technologies. For example, although many people in developing countries still do not have access to dependable electricity or water, they may have access to a cell phone or the Internet through NGO programs or Internet cafés. Many people, especially US Americans, may think the days of Internet cafés (also called cyber cafés) are over. Although Internet cafés were never as popular or numerous in the United States, communal and public Internet access is still an important part of providing access to the Internet all around the world (Liff & Lægran, 2003).
“Getting Plugged In”
Social Media and the 2012 Presidential Election
The election of 2012 has been called the “social media election.” Perhaps in today’s hyperconnected world of social media, we shouldn’t be surprised with the rate at which people took to their Facebook timelines and/or Twitter feeds to announce who they planned on voting for or to encourage others to vote for a particular candidate. In fact, about 25 percent of registered voters told their Facebook friends and Twitter followers who they would vote for (Byers, 2012). Candidates are aware of the growing political power of social media, as evidenced by the fact that, for the first time, major campaigns now include a “digital director” as one of their top-level campaign staffers (Friess, 2012). These “social media gurus” are responsible for securing targeted advertising on outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Reddit (among others), which now have the capability to narrowcast to specific geographical areas and user demographics. The digital directors are also responsible for developing strategies to secure Facebook “likes,” Twitter followers, and retweets. Smartphones also present new options for targeted messaging, as some ads on mobile apps were “geotargeted” to people riding a certain bus or attending a specific public event (Friess, 2012).
Aside from new methods of advertising, social media also helped capture the much-anticipated Election Day, including some of the barriers or problems people experienced. People used YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to document and make public their voting experience. One voter in Pennsylvania recorded a video of a voting machine that kept switching to Romney/Ryan every time the person tried to choose Obama/Biden, and before the day was over, the video already had more than two million views (Balke, 2012). People also used social media to document long lines at polling places and to share the incoming election results. The 2012 election was the most-tweeted-about political event ever with approximately 20 million tweets posted on election night and more than 11 million uses of the hashtag “#election2012.” When Obama’s campaign tweeted “Four more years” after he had been declared the winner, it was retweeted more than 225,000 times (Bello, 2012).
- How did you and/or your friends and family use social media during the 2012 election?
- What are some of the positives and negatives of the increasingly central role that social media play in politics?
Issues of ownership and control are present in new media as they are in traditional mass media. Although people may think they are multitasking and accessing different media outlets, they may not be. To help keep users within their domain, some large new media platforms like Facebook and Yahoo! create expansive environments that include news, social media connections, advertising, and entertainment, which allow users to click around and feel like they are moving freely even though they are not leaving the general owner’s space.
New media provide ways of countering some of the control and participation issues that audiences have typically faced as the lines blur between producers and consumers of media. The phrase alternative media is often associated with new media. Alternative media include a range of voices with diverse cultural identities and experiences, which counter the mainstream media outlets that are controlled by and include the voices and perspectives of more privileged people. Alternative media is very similar to and in fact overlaps with tactical media, which are more activist oriented and include dissenting and “radical” perspectives that challenge the status quo. From a truly democratic perspective, which is supposed to invite and encourage dissent, a plurality of voices, and civil debate, alternative and tactical media are welcome additions to the traditional media landscape that tries to diminish, rather than encourage, competing voices.
Blogs were the earliest manifestation of Web 2.0 and marked the beginning of the turn to more user-generated content and the democratization of information gathering and sharing. While “web logging” existed in various forms before 1999, that year marked blogging’s “big bang” as the software application Blogger made it easy for people who did not know HTML (the computer code used to build websites) to compose and publish their blog as well as link to other blogs and relevant content (Boler, 2008). Just as then, today’s blogs provide information that varies in terms of depth, quality, and credibility. Blogs that are most relevant to our discussion of democracy are those whose authors engage in citizen journalism and/or gatewatching.
Blogs are an accessible and popular outlet for citizen journalism, which is reporting done by individuals or small groups outside of the media establishment as a corrective to mainstream journalism, which may inaccurately report or underreport a story (Boler, 2008). Citizen journalists increasingly play a part in shaping local and national discussions of news and have received positive and negative evaluations from mainstream media and audiences.
One corrective function of alternative media and citizen journalists is the gatewatching function. Recall that earlier we discussed the gatekeeping function of mass media through which reporters, editors, executives, and advertisers influence what content and how much of it makes it to audiences. Citizen journalists revised this notion to be more actively involved in the process, so gatewatching refers to a media criticism practice that seeks to correct or expand mainstream media reporting. These citizen journalists look for stories or information that will be relevant to their often smaller more niche audiences. Since many people use new media to access information, they seek out information specifically targeted toward their interests and needs. New media make this type of “micro media” a viable alternative to mass media. The citizen journalists then transmit that information to their audience through a blog or microblog, such as Twitter. In this sense, they act as gatewatchers for the mass media and serve the traditional gatekeeper function for their niche audiences. They may comment on how one media outlet covered a story while another did not or how one outlet used more credible sources than the other. They may also critique a media outlet for shallow coverage or overcoverage. Interestingly, the information generated by these citizen journalists increasingly influences the mainstream media’s coverage. Stories that may not have been picked up by a major media outlet now get covered after they receive much attention through new and social media. People in such cases may demand that major media outlets cover the story, or the outlet may choose to cover it on their own to capitalize on the popularity of the story.
New Media and Ethics
If you buy a song from iTunes, should you be able to play it on any device you wish? Should ideas or knowledge that can lead to positive change for many people (like an approach to international conflict mediation or a scientific discovery that could lead to a new lifesaving medication) be protected and kept from the public through intellectual property laws? How much information and creative works should be available in the public domain to help further knowledge and inspire further innovation and creativity, and how much of that should be protected? These questions aren’t easy to answer, and many answers spark controversy as they bring up issues of censorship and information control.
Censorship, which is the suppression, limiting, or deleting of speech, is an issue that predates the advent of mass media and new media but one that has become more prevalent as the amount, access to, and diversity of information has increased. Censorship is based on the notion of freedom of speech, which is a foundational principle of the US Constitution and was declared a universal human right by the United Nations (Deibert, 2008). I have chosen to discuss censorship in the section on new media because the Internet, which is the basis for most new media, has been envisioned as an avenue toward and an outlet for more free speech. Censorship is enacted and free speech limited in two primary ways on the Internet: through intellectual property rights and copyrights and through content filtering by governments or other entities (Deibert, 2008).
Intellectual Property Rights and Copyrights
As we learned earlier, one of the technological changes that made the birth and explosion of new media possible is the near universal compatibility of digital content. This along with the absence of a physical object onto which media content is coded (a DVD instead of a digital file on a computer or other device) has created issues with increased piracy, which refers to the unlawful reproduction and/or distribution of intellectual property or other copyrighted material (Deibert, 2008). This problem gained much attention following the mass popularity of the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing program Napster. Despite the numerous lawsuits and legal challenges that Napster faced, P2P file-sharing programs like Limewire, Vuze, and bitTorrent became the new way to legally and illegally share files ranging from software to video games, documents, books, music, and movies.
Once anything is digitized and makes its way to one of these networks, it becomes nearly impossible to control or limit its circulation. For example, media corporations and law enforcement and government agencies have tried to prosecute individuals, require Internet service providers to take action against users who illegally download materials or visit suspect sites, or shut down domain names based in the United States (Newman, 2012). None of these measures has been very effective, especially for sites based outside of the United States, but a renewed effort on the part of interest groups that represent the entertainment industry led to the introduction of two pieces of legislation that stirred up quite a backlash. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were introduced into the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to make it more difficult for sites, in the United States and abroad, to distribute pirated copyrighted materials ranging from movies, to music, to digital books. Although many people applaud the effort to stop the circulation of pirated material, many were also afraid that the regulations could lead to restrictions on other forms of information circulation such as open source sharing and crowdsourcing (Magid, 2012). To protest and raise awareness of these laws, several high-profile sites and hundreds of other online supporters engaged in the largest act of cyberprotest to date. On January 18, 2012, sites like Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist “went black,” limited content, or displayed information about SOPA and PIPA. Within a few days, support for the laws had dwindled, and both are now on indefinite hold.
Most new media scholars and commentators do not question the fact that some information should be protected as intellectual property and that many artistic creations should be copyrighted. Such practices help ensure that innovation and creativity are recognized and that the people who create them are duly compensated. Such protections actually help promote and protect freedom of speech and provide an incentive for people to expend considerable time and effort to produce innovative and creative products and exchange ideas and art that circulate and enhance our society (Deibert, 2008). Intellectual property rights and protections are newer and more difficult to enforce and even define than are copyrights. After all, putting protections on “knowledge” or “information” is more ambiguous than putting a copyright on a discrete item like a book or song. In the realm of academia, especially, the philosophy of open and shared knowledge has been applied to academic research and scholarship. Ideas and findings are free to circulate and be used and adapted (with the proper citation and/or credit given) in order to further knowledge and provide a system of transparency and accountability. Corporations and companies have long had a more closed policy to knowledge and information, keeping many product ideas and designs to themselves and considering them proprietary information. Such practices, including issuing patents for inventions or considering certain information confidential, help keep individuals and businesses striving for better and/or more competitive products or ideas. The increase in corporate-like application of such protections to intellectual property in academia and other scientific areas that were historically more open and collaborative has received much criticism. To reiterate, these issues exist independently of new media, but the fact that most ideas and creations are now in digital form and that the Internet provides for sharing and then rapid and uncontrollable diffusion of such material is what creates the issue relevant to our discussion. And the issue of enforcement is what brings us back to the notion and ethics of censorship.
One way such protections have been enforced is by actually building new codes directly into the content or technology. Again, this alone isn’t enough to constitute an ethical violation. But one media scholar and critic sums up the oppositional view of such practices in the following statement: “Many believe the restrictions are leading to the suffocation of works in the public domain for scholarship and a wholesale erosion of the global commons of information” (Deibert, 2008). The main criticism in terms of infringement on intellectual work rests on the increase in copyrights and intellectual property laws on the circulation of academic findings and publications. The Internet is seen by many as a tool to enhance academic research and sharing and as a place for collaboration, but such laws have limited or shut down some academic databases and the circulation of electronic journals and articles.
The main criticism in terms of infringement on creative works rests on the loss of revenue for artists, authors, and musicians whose works are pirated and losses for their representatives, such as distributors, record labels, or movie studios. Since piracy, which is the illegal or unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted product, hasn’t been successfully curtailed through threats of prosecution, the codes that I mentioned earlier have become the new means of protection. This practice, called digital rights management (DRM), involves embedding device- or program-specific codes into a digital product that limit its ability to be reproduced and/or used on multiple devices. DRM has raised much concern and controversy. I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated that we can’t get a song we downloaded from iTunes to play on a “nonapproved device” or experienced the annoying unintended effects of DRM. Even though that content belongs to us and we bought it legally, we are not able to take advantage of the portability and cross-platform compatibility that we learned earlier is so characteristic of new media. The use of these codes is critiqued because they limit choice for those who legally and/or rightfully purchased the content and because they lead to a dependency on certain companies (usually large powerful ones) like Microsoft or Apple, which can limit the ability of people, especially those who are already marginalized in terms of socioeconomic status, to access and use certain technology or products.
Content Filtering and Surveillance
Research shows that Internet content filtering is increasing as new technologies allow governments and other entities to effectively target and block Internet users from accessing undesirable information. For example, in 2002 only two countries, China and Saudi Arabia, were known to actively filter Internet content within their borders. Presently, many more countries, including the United States, engage in such content filtering. Content filtering can happen at different levels. Filtering or blocking can happen at the Internet backbone level, which is the method most often used to limit information at the national level. In such cases, content is filtered out at an infrastructure or gateway point before it ever enters the country. Internet service providers can also block or censor content at the request of governments or other groups. Institutions can block certain content using software or other technical means. This type of blocking may be carried out to meet the objectives or values of a particular institution—for example, to block sexually explicit information from school computers. Finally, censorship can occur at the individual computer level. In such cases, parents or others may want to control the information available with filtering software that is customizable.
Typically, blocked content includes pornography or other materials deemed sexually explicit, information deemed harmful to national security or public safety (e.g., bomb-making information), and information that challenges a government or regime’s power (Deibert, 2008). In 2009, Bahrain was reported to make the most substantial increase in filtering of any country, as it limited many social, religious, political, and human rights sites (Faris & Zittrain, 2009). In terms of politics and human rights blocking, China blocked access to Twitter in the lead-up to the twenty-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Saudi Arabia has taken a more targeted approach by blocking the accounts of two prominent human rights activists (Faris & Zittrain, 2009). Religiously offensive material can also be blocked as evidenced by Pakistan’s practice of blocking information that is offensive to Islam. The “Getting Critical” feature explores in more detail the often controversial practice of censorship for religious reasons.
YouTube and Free Speech: Should Religiously Offensive Material Be Blocked?
The issue of censoring information deemed to be religiously offensive gained worldwide attention in September of 2012 when a video trailer for an anti-Islamic movie made in the United States made its way onto YouTube, which sparked protests in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Tunisia, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, and many other countries. In response to calls from some of these countries for the United States to remove the video from YouTube, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton condemned the video but affirmed that the video is protected under the right to free speech promised by the US Constitution. Google, which owns YouTube, also stated that the video doesn’t violate US law or Google’s terms of service and would therefore not be removed in the United States. Google did make the unprecedented decision, in the wake of an attack on the US embassy in Libya that killed four US Americans including ambassador Chris Stevens and in the face of increasing protests, to block the video in Libya, Egypt, Indonesia, and India (Rosen, 2012).
- Should the United States have completely removed the video from YouTube in the wake of the protests and violence it sparked around the world? Why or why not?
- Discuss Google/YouTube’s decision to block the video in several countries. Do you think this was the right or wrong decision on the part of the company?
- Review YouTube’s “Community Guidelines,” which can be accessed at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/t/community_guidelines. In your opinion, should anything be removed from or added to these guidelines?
To further limit information, some governments also block access to foreign news or information from human rights organizations (Faris & Zittrain, 2009). Blocking software can now also limit access to translation sites, which a person could use to get around the filtering since most of the information that is blocked is in the native language(s) of the country. This was the case in Bahrain, which blocked access to Google Translate in 2009. Web access can also be limited due to security reasons. In 2009, the US Marines announced that soldiers would no longer have access to social media networks, because they can lead to cyberattacks or allow people to leak information. Some of the major critiques of this practice include the collusion of corporations who own certain Internet platforms with governments that block content. For example, a company could turn over, at the request of a government, logs or archives of information about the Internet use of a dissident. At the request of the Chinese government, Yahoo! turned over e-mail records of three people, which led to their arrest. Additionally, people have raised concerns about the fact that US companies supply many of these countries, with whom the United States doesn’t have relationship with or with whom those relations are strained, with the software that is then used in ways that go against US and UN policies for the protection of free speech and human rights (Deibert, 2008).
Electronic espionage has been around since communication technologies like the telegraph, sound-recording devices, and radios were invented. Many countries, including the United States, have long had limitations on and protections against the use of electronic surveillance on US citizens, but after 9/11, these restrictions have been lessened, loosely interpreted, or only selectively enforced. With new media come new opportunities for electronic surveillance. Internet based “wiretaps”—the unauthorized and unknown monitoring or collection of e-mail, web-surfing data, or even keyboard strokes—are now employed, and that information may be shared with law enforcement or intelligence agencies (Deibert, 2008).
- New media have had a democratizing effect on society, as they help distribute power to people through their social and personal characteristics. Instead of media outlets having sole control over what is communicated to audiences, media-audience interactions are now more like a dialogue. The personal access to media and growing control over media discourses by users allows people to more freely express opinions, offer criticisms, and question others—communicative acts that are all important for a functioning democracy.
- The digitalization of media products allows them to be more easily reproduced and disseminated. Due to increasing rates of piracy, media outlets have started a more aggressive campaign to reduce copyright infringement through threats of prosecution, collaboration with media providers to identify offending users, and digital rights management (DRM).
- The democratizing nature of new media hasn’t been welcomed by all, as governments, institutions, and individuals engage in various types of content filtering.
- The connectivity afforded by social and personal media also create more possibilities for surveillance in terms of electronic “wiretaps” by law enforcement and collection of web-browsing, consumption, and online communication data by corporations and organizations.
- Discuss the ways in which new media have democratized access to information and allowed people to participate in more of a dialogue with media outlets, government officials, political candidates, and/or individuals.
- Democracy Now is an alternative media outlet that is accessible in many different new media platforms. You can visit their main page at the following link: http://www.democracynow.org. Take a few minutes to visit the website and watch or listen to the most recent broadcast. How does the content of this news differ from mainstream media?
- Discuss digital rights management (DRM). What are some of the positive and negative effects of limiting the ability of a digital media file to be reproduced or used on multiple devices?
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