Why New Media Plays a Powerful Role in Politics

While it is hard to directly and accurately measure its impact, new media play a legitimate and valuable role in politics. New media has enabled social movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ to garner both localised and international attention through online assemblies. Castell and Aday explore the fifth estate’s ability to mobilise the public sphere to act on their collective opinions and thus enhance democracy or alternatively, create digital democracy.

Liberalism suggests media’s fourth estate role serves the contemporary audience by presenting unbiased information to inform and educate the public. It was initially imagined as a tool to enhance public discussion and enable better management of the government. However, Keane (1991) notes power relations inhibits the media from being objective. The hierarchical communication structure was proven to be more prone to cater to those socially advantaged which, under the theory of neoliberalism, disrupt and potentially corrupt the ecology of a ‘free market’ (such as the internet.

Thus the media landscape transforms into a battleground where political and commercial powers fight for the monopolisation of communication channels. Through monopolisation, those holding the monopolisation gain political power to reconstruct society according to their demands and interests. Thus it becomes difficult for the rest, particularly minorities, to voice their respective interests and correct misrepresentation against seemingly immutable values. Therefore, the unrestrictive nature of new media has allowed spaces such as online forums and social media to perform as the fifth estate and create a platform for minorities to voice their own concerns and interests.

For example, in August this year, CNN put forward a new release of Sylville Smith, the sister of the Milwaukee shooting, requesting the rioters to stop the violence. However, its legitimacy was exposed by a YouTube video which juxtaposes the narrative presented by CNN. In this video, it shows Smith was, in fact, encouraging rioters to redirect their violence towards the suburbs and “burn that shit down”. CNN reacted by amending their story, saying they “unintentionally gave the impression she was calling for peace everywhere”. This case showcases several points – media’s inability to be objective due to commercial agendas, the difficulty for minorities to voice their values without it being obstructed or filtered by normalised values, the public’s unfulfilled expectations of media to report the truth and new media’s ability to achieve these expectations.

As new media provides a platform, citizens are enabled with tools to showcase their engagement with normalised values. In doing so, Castell argues the internet facilitates democracy by providing an autonomous space the government fear and corporations aim to exploit and control (2012, p.2). The ability to efficiently communicate to each other almost instantaneously revitalises the arguably inactive public sphere, as we are given (once privileged) access to genuine human voices and experiences. The public’s interests are once again heard and emphasised. As an accumulation of genuine human voices confess the humiliation they endured, empathy or sympathy transforms the public’s initial fear of the powerful into outrage and hope and empowers the social movements that respond to such feelings.

For example, the news of Philando Castile’s shooting circulated strongly among the public sphere due to Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook Live. Although there has always been grainy phone videos and recounts posted on social media of ‘unjust police brutality towards black people’, the inherent instantaneous nature of social media combined with revealing video footage captures Reynolds’ raw terror and exposes a provocative unedited and unscripted ‘truth’ that not only amplifies sense of space towards the scene but our collective inability to prevent the situation from occurring (thus our collective humiliation). Hence the powerful emotions surrounding Castile’s death has become one of the main catalysts of the Black Lives Matter protests. Additionally, behaviour such as the reciting of names of black people killed by police at protests and the exhibition of signs which references Trayvon Martin’s unjustified death fuel the protests’ remorseful atmosphere and showcases Castel’s theory that emotions are the backbone of social movements as the protesters are compelled to physically engage in the movement. The shift towards the public’s emotion ensures the public is accurately represented and their needs are catered to.

Democracy is further enhanced, or rather, protected by the global attention new media generates. Its ability to network extensively encourages the public to unite and puts global pressure on the government to respond to social movements and address the problem the social movement puts forward. These online assemblies, according to cyber enthusiasts, allow the contemporary audience to achieve once “unachievable goals”. This is arguably proven by the protests that materialise in the streets of Europe as following the shooting of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, European protesters marched in solidarity with their American counterparts. The coordination necessary spans countries and would not have been easy or as immediate without the enablement of new media (McKenzie 2016, p.1).

Yet to assume new media is essential for revolutions to occur is inaccurate and belittling; cyber skeptics often reference historical communities which have managed to gather and drive revolutions protest without online tools for centuries. Nonetheless, if we attempt to measure the timeliness of progress enabled by social media against those who relied on traditional forms of political organisation we notice a clear difference between the two. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement began shortly after Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, the movement has generated enough political impact for it became necessary for America political candidates to address in 2016. In comparison, the Civil Rights Movement, which fought against the ‘Separate but Equal’ doctrine established in 1868, first saw some form of success nearly eighty years later. The doctrine legally supported state-sponsored segregation which by 1950, had at least 11 cases were challenging its implications of white supremacy. Its legal power was revoked in 1954 by the Brown v. Board of Education case but socially, it was still a widely accepted mentality. Furthermore, although cities such as Greensboro declared their full support of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling the same year, it was only till 1971 they began their transition to a fully integrated school system. Although it is inaccurate to suggest the evolving communication technology is the only factor responsible, it does establish new media at least have some impact on how quickly a social movement is recognised, both politically and socially. In the words of Aday, social media is a vital bridging tool for information and updates in “real time” (2012, p.4).

It can be argued democracy isn’t always enhanced by the internet as the internet isn’t completely autonomous. Democracy can only be practised if another point of view is accessible to the audience. Large corporations still maintain a certain level of leverage on the internet as we trust known institutions and expect it to produce more quality and authentic information in comparison to unknown sources. This is encouraged by search engines such as Google, which not only sorts out the results according to a site’s traffic but also filter results according to our search history and personal information. We are counterproductively (in a political sense) encouraged to cater to our individual interests and arguably, the public sphere becomes more fragmented. The internet also lacks complete autonomy in the sense that corporations and power blocks also have the ability to utilise new media for their own purposes. In turn, this means new media enables them to counter or control the resistance to their power and prolongs their lifespan. Misdirection can lessen the impacts of potentially power destabilising evidence.

For example, All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are trending social movements that formed in response to Black Lives Matter and its claims of racially charged police brutality. Blue Lives Matter, in particular, is a pro-police movement centred around an active Facebook group which focuses on hate crimes directed at law enforcement. Lennard evaluates the necessity of this movement; highlighting America’s consistent concern for its law enforcement such as the minimum sentence for the murder of a police officer (life in prison) and unapologetic pro-police celebrations (2016, p.1). Perhaps the aim of the movement, as hinted by the name’s appropriation of Black Lives Matter, is to devalue the core premise of the social movement and in effect, effectively maintain the government’s institutionalised interests by characterising its law enforcement as heroic and just.

In conclusion, new media enhances our sense of community and allows citizens a platform to efficiently communicate their own interests and values without being excessively filtered by those who monopolise traditional communication channels. While accurate measurements of its impact cannot be determined due to a variant of uncontrollable factors, social movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ would not have gained international recognition and status at such a rapid rate without new media.


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