Media freedom & the net: social justice

The Internet has brought about many real world changes throughout the years, which brings much to the case of the idea that everyone enjoys media freedom. Networked publics have enabled people to exercise their media freedom to enact change to varying levels of success, based largely on the tactics used. Shirky (2008, p. 304) states that, “our social tools are dramatically improving our ability to share, co-operate, and act together… it is leading to an epochal change.” Around 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the Internet, the overwhelming majority of which are located in the developed world (ITU, 2014) – this does not include parts the developing world and therefore it is important to note that media freedom is far from universal. Nonetheless, the navigation of online to offline practices in effecting real world change can be examined through policy changes, activism, social groupings and interpersonal relationships, and more – however, the impact of the Internet is not wholly positive. The emerging networked public sphere has come with as many challenges as it has opportunities, and it is important to note all of these factors and both sides of the debate in going forward.

The demographics of democracy

It can be argued that in the past and even now, policy-making positions are largely dominated by straight, white, middle aged men – which led to a lack of understanding of what ways to improve society in certain sectors and suffocated potential for media freedom. The development of the Internet has led to media freedom for younger people, and people who lack the resources or experience to gain parliamentary positions. According to Habermas (1989, p. 227), “The limitation of freedom of speech and public opinion… individuals do not have the same formal education and material resources for participating in public sphere.” Information can be spread quickly and efficiently online, enabling change to be enacted through the assistance of a networked public sphere.

An opportunity for the networked public sphere exists in the media freedom achieved by African Americans in the midst of the current racial tensions between police and the public in many communities. Police brutality has been softened in mainstream media – however, many are taking to social networks to expose more facts about the situations. In this way, the distribution of information is spread over more platforms, allowing authority to be challenged. This can be evaluated in terms of how the networked public plays the role traditionally ascribed to the press, in analyzing events and highlighting important and relevant aspects for the public’s interest (Benkler, p. 220). One particular example is that of the shooting of 12-year-old African American boy Tamir Rice in 2014 by a white police officer in Ohio. Local media ran a story heavily focusing on Rice’s father, who had a history of domestic violence. Many twitter users expressed outrage at this, which led to larger media organisations reporting on the issue of racism in the media (Wing, 2014). The police officer who killed Rice has yet to be charged for the murder, and the active nature of the networked public has allowed for the spreading of information to be continuous. Tweets with hundreds of retweets and “favourites” such as, “never ever forget TAMIR RICE. The police officer has yet to be indicted after 6 months” and “Apparently Cleveland has finished the ‘investigation’ re: the killing of #TamirRice but is stalling to not interrupt NBA finals” – these members of the networked public on twitter exercise their media freedom to provide a continuing check on power and display a willingness to keep justice in the public mindset although mainstream media has a tendency to “move on” to more current issues. The networked public contributes to the active political discourse and appears to have a longer memory than those of mainstream media and political parties. In this way, issues that are personal as well as political can navigate personal and public spheres to reach eventual resolution.

This was also relevant during the 2014 Ferguson riots, where there was a media ban and most coverage came from citizen journalism. This decentralization of media power has brought new opportunities for the media freedoms of minorities and oppressed groups.

An Australian example of networked publics aligning to exercise media freedom is the recent Tampon Tax debate – ‘Stop Taxing My Period’, where Sydney University students petitioned Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey to remove the tax on tampons in the 2015 GST review, as it is a basic health necessity for half the population. Although it has so far been unsuccessful, as the subject needs the agreement of the New South Wales states and territories, it has inspired a movement amongst Australian youth to think more critically about the way legislation dictates gender issues. A petition on the website ‘community run’ garnered 99,290 signatures for the campaign in less than a month, proving interest in the matter, with many page comments from users aligning with and supporting the idea. ‘Pedestrian TV’, a website popular with users aged 16-35, posted several articles in support of the petition as well as a “Q&A” with the creator of the movement – as did blogs and other social media accounts. Benkler’s statement rings true in relation to this case study, as he noted that “fundamentally, the social practices of information and discourse allow a very large number of actors to see themselves as potential contributors to public discourse and as potential actors in political arenas” (p 220).

It is even more interesting to consider the dynamics of place that are altered and navigated when issues are spread in online networked publics to inspire an exercising of media freedom. The Australian movement for the removal of the tax on tampons was inspired by efforts in Canada earlier in 2015, where a ‘change.org’ petition garnered 74,664 signatures. In addition, a humorous YouTube video was made to spread amongst its supporters and to gather awareness, targeting a younger audience. This led to the removal of tax on the feminine hygiene product in Canada. The sharing and rallying around this issue led to changes in policy, and encouraged people of another country to do the same.

According to Papacharissi (2010, p. 131) the use of online petitions and social media to rally around certain issues establishes “an expression of dissent with a public agenda. [. . .] these potentially powerful acts of dissent emanate from a private sphere of interaction, meaning that the citizen engages and is enabled politically through a private media environment located within the individual’s personal and private space.” It can, however, be argued that these online acts of defiance cannot be regarded in isolation, as face to face, real-world contact is an important follow through of issues. This leads to a challenge present in the development of a networked public sphere and attitudes towards enacting media freedom – “slacktivism.”

Slacktivism and the Networked Public Sphere

The concept of “slacktivism” in the networked public sphere can be seen as an example of a challenge present for true media freedom in this arena. According to Morozov (2009), “while Facebook-based mobilization will occasionally lead to genuine social and political change, this is mostly accidental, a statistical certainty rather than a genuine achievement.” Morozov used a case study to support this statement – a Danish academic pretended that Copenhagen’s council was about to demolish a famous fountain – the petition garnered 27,500 signatures in mere hours. It can be said that the results of online activism can be unpredictable as the discrepancy in effort between clicking a button and actually physically mobilizing to support a cause makes it difficult to gauge the level of concern about certain issues. Morozov also argues that petitions are most successful when they involve a geographically bound area rather than a “global issue.” However, it is evident from the aforementioned discussion regarding the tampon tax that petitions in one area can lead by example and thus have effects elsewhere in the world. Slacktivism appears like a pessimistic view of online activism, and through networked publics and the nature of spreading awareness of information, it is perhaps possible to enact more effective change.

“Call out culture”

Another challenge and opportunity that exists within the emerging networked public sphere in regards to media freedom is the prevalence of “call out culture.” First, one can examine the negative aspects of this culture, which can often lead to wrongful persecuting of individuals. Call out culture can almost be seen a modern day “witch hunt” wherein the perceived dangers of the Internet can culminate in feelings of mistrust, and, a willingness to treat rumour as fact. The blurring of public and private shown through the capabilities and construction of social media – for example, using personal twitter accounts to retweet, and post tweets publicly – can lead to inflated ideas of the public’s “right to know” and the ability of anyone to spread this information. One such example is the case of Atesh Yurdakul, a web developer who created the open source extension “xkit” for the blogging website Tumblr. In early 2015, an anonymous user sent a message to the tumblr blog “Predators Exposed” – which aimed to call out Internet predators – claiming they had been sexually harassed by Yurdakul, but failing to supply any evidence. The blog moderators then publicly asked their many followers for anyone else who has had experiences with him to come forward. No one came forward, but Yurdakul received mass amounts of hate mail on his personal blog, and eventually left the website and has not updated “xkit” since. Social media, particularly twitter, has given rise to a hierarchy of speed of dissemination of information over quality of information being disseminated. In this way, in many cases people fall victim to assumption or lack of comprehension rather than consuming media critically and undertaking correct procedures of fact-checking.

An interesting case study in the networked public sphere can be drawn from “#GamerGate” wherein the concept of media freedom for ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ and their use of the networked public sphere infringed upon the safety of many high profile female gamers. Anita Sarkeesian, author of a web series on women’s representation in games, was subject to threats upon her life and was ‘doxxed’ – her personal details, including her place of residence, were leaked online. Actor Adam Baldwin, who created the hashtag, also retweeted the details of female gamers on his twitter account – where he has amassed more than 214,000 followers – which prompted calls for his invitation to appear at Australian popular culture convention ‘Supanova’ to be revoked. He also employs the tactic of replying to those who are critical of the movement and using the hashtag gamergate, which leads to his supporters abusing the original tweeters – in this way, fostering negativity through the network. The convention-goers who oppose Baldwin launched a petition on the website ‘community run,’ amassing 6,288 signatures for his removal. In response, Daniel Zachariou, Supanova Founder and Event Director, released a statement on their Facebook, stating, “Regardless of what the ultimate outcome is please know that we 100% agree with your right, as our fans, to have your say, to share your feelings, to create or sign petitions in the positive or the negative, to protest or support. We only ask that you don’t vilify or attack one party or the other for holding differing views in the process.” Ultimately, the convention decided to allow Baldwin to attend the event.

Brendan Keogh of the ABC stated, “the freedom of speech that ensures Baldwin can attend Supanova despite his bullying is ensured, while the freedom of speech that should allow those with concerns to voice them directly is dismissed.” This can be seen in relation to Fuchs’ notion that online activism can cause material and symbolic harm to the powerful, but a lot of online politics are harmless and ignored by the powerful (2013, p. 186). These notions of power politics in the online networked public sphere have not been removed in this situation, where material and symbolic harm has been done to the female victims of Gamergate, and where online politics engaged with by those making a stand against Baldwin’s actions have been ignored. This power discrepancy shows that in these ‘smaller’ matters, though the networked public has drawn attention to the issue, further actions have to be taken to create real change. There are also questions around the challenge of the notion of media freedom, and at what point media freedom is used as an excuse to harm or vilify innocent people. This is a complex case study as it displays the concept of media freedom in networked publics on all sides – Baldwin’s right to freedom of speech, the female gamers’ rights to freedom of speech and personal safety, and the rights of Supanova visitors to make clear their stance on Baldwin’s appearance at the convention and to rally to have him removed.

In some cases, call out culture can be effective – seen, for example, in holding certain celebrities or people in positions of authority to account for their words or behaviour. Media entertainment commentator Giuliana Rancic was called to account for making racially insensitive remarks about actress Zendaya’s hair at the 2015 Oscars. Zendaya implemented Instagram to write a letter explaining why the remarks were offensive, garnering more than 300,000 likes. In this way, the networked public sphere enabled her to employ a public platform to achieve understanding about issues of race. This overtly public response combined with user ability to comment and like the photograph shows a collaborative response against casual racism based on, primarily, assumptions of support. Habermas’ idea that the networked public sphere erodes the authority of traditional media can be seen in this example, where an individual actress has achieved an apology from someone involved in a popular media outlet through the support of social media (1989, p. 231).

Anonymity

A challenge and possibility for the networked public sphere in regards to media freedom is the notion of anonymity. While anonymity can be important in protecting the identity and safety of those speaking out against authority, it has also been used as a tool to exercise control and fear over others. The abuse of the functionality is allegedly caused by a sense of invincibility in the lack of face-to-face contact. According to Santana (Konnikova, 2013) who analysed nine hundred random user comments on articles about immigration, 53 per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, while 29 per cent of registered commenters were civil. Anonymity may encourage users to post, but their posts are more likely to be negative because they lack accountability and responsibility. There is also a question of credibility and what impact false information can have, as seen earlier with the Atesh Yurdakul example. This has caused many websites such as USA Today, news.com.au, the Times, Wall Street Journal and more to remove the functionality, which in turn sacrifices the high likelihood of creating user discussion on these particular websites and limits the media freedom of users. However, this is balanced out by the share functionality, which enables users to repost the article to various other social media, where discussions can ensue. Bronco (2004, p. 131) also outlines the many positive aspects of anonymity and pseudonymity online, including the idea that it encourages sharing of ideas and honest feedback, and the focus is on the content itself rather than the source. It is evident that anonymity is both a challenge and a tool of possibility for the networked public sphere in regards to notions of media freedom – it can encourage the exchange of ideas and defend free speech, but can also be used for deceptive and ulterior purposes.

Sell (2013) states that preserving the opportunity for anonymous public communication is important because “compulsive exposure of one’s own identity or ‘true name’ only leads to a culture of silence – which is not at all compatible with democratic negotiation processes.” People may be less likely to share their views, especially views that are more controversial but may need to be heard, if they do not have the option to speak anonymously. This would no doubt result in less diverse and lively discussions and prevent understanding and change. For example, women who are pro-choice about abortion have been coming forward talking about their experiences under pseudonyms or anonymously, due to the heated nature of the debate. This has resulted in other women coming forward, inspired and emboldened by anonymity as protection against backlash and targeted attacks (Anonymous, The Guardian, 2012).

Conclusion

To conclude, it is evident that the Internet has allowed a greater sense of media freedom for much of the world’s population, but the challenges and opportunities for the emerging networked public sphere are many. While there is access to functionalities that increase the propensity for media freedom to be exercised, there are many users who abuse these features. MacKinnon (2012) states, “It is time to stop arguing over whether the Internet empowers individuals and societies, and address the more fundamental and urgent question of how technology should be structured and governed to support the rights and liberties of all the world’s Internet users.” As technology is ever changing, and the networked public sphere is ever growing, and its users are learning to experiment with the intended use of certain functionalities, the policy decisions behind Internet use are slower than the progression of the technology. In this way, it would be useful to have a clearer fundamental understanding of the ways in which the networked public can affect society in positive ways, and work to have those progressive ideals upheld – whilst respecting the media freedom of its users.

 

Bibliography:

  • Benkler, Y (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. London: Yale University Press.
  • Bronco, S (2004). Benefits and Drawbacks of Anonymous Online Communication: Legal Challenges and Communicative Recommendations. Washington, D.C.: National Communication Association.
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  • Papacharissi, Z & Mendelson, A (2010). Look at Us: Collective narcissism in college student Facebook photo galleries. The Networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. Illinois: Routledge.
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  • Shirky, C (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising without Organisations. Penguin Books.
  • Wing, N (2014) Police gunned down a 12 year old and somehow local news decided to run this story. The Huffington Post. < Retrieved 1/6/15 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/26/tamir-rice-father_n_6227312.html>

Other references:

 

 

 

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