Community Media Discussion – Community Media Advocacy

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about the ‘principles of advocacy’ that community media is founded on, which have a regard for civic engagement based on human rights, social respect and open discussion, deliberation and expression. How does the media that we create and share, independently of the corporate and industrial media producers and platforms, make a distinctive contribution to the development of a sustainable and successful society?

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It has long been apparent that the global media system that emerged in the Twenty-First Century is dysfunctional and unsuited to the dynamic needs of a modern socially democratic and mutually supportive society. This is because much of our media is process-driven and not relationship-driven. Our media has become highly centralised, and consequently top-down. Media platforms are brands that aim for a global significant, rather than being the lifeblood of our communities, based in tangible places and driven from the bottom up.

Our media culture is obsessed with brands and marketing techniques that use highly effective methods of manipulation to create the sense that what is being offered is, but which is really a highly generic and processed product turned out of an industrial system. Our industrial media is akin to the burgers sold in a fast-food chain, the frozen pizzas offloaded in a supermarket, or the margarine made from industrial by-products and marketed to simulate health and naturalness.

Perhaps this is understandable, as the market for our attention has changed considerably over a period of twenty years, as the Twenty-First Century gets underway. Anyone wishing to share content or programmes in this mediascape, now has to compete with numerous media platforms, driving content through intensely hyperactive social networks, while competing for legitimacy across complex and global information systems. These systems are designed to exploit and maximise the data and information we provide by interacting with them, through complex and automated information management systems. As many have said, we have become the product of the information age. We are what is bought and sold.

What was once a promising and enticing proposition, that the internet might foster greater social agency for individuals and minority groups, based on an inescapable push towards decentralisation and asymmetric patterns of communication, has become a disappointing reality. What was once an exciting promise of escape and transformation, to many now feels naive and hopelessly optimistic. The technology giants have come to dominate and control the flows of data and information, and we have lost our ability to access and control our own contribution into the cultural conversation.

Rather than reaching an audience, one now has to game the algorithms, anticipate the reaction of the echo chamber, and imitate the patterns of expression that breed success within the attention economy. On a global scale, this can only be challenged by assertive transnational governmental action. On a personal level, we might be able to play at the edges. On a local level, we’ve probably got no chance of challenging Apple, Meta, Google, Microsoft, or any of the pervasive media service providers because we just don’t matter enough. Put this to the test. Go and knock on the door of your local Google office and tell them you don’t like the way they design their algorithms. See how far you get with that.

The problem, which has been long predicted, is this concentration of power and the control of information in the hands of a few corporate organisations and individuals, who are always going to act in their own interests. These corporate systems are on a power-grab which means that collective and independent spaces for citizenship and personal expression, in what Habermas called the Public Sphere, are going to keep retracting and diminishing. As Kevin Howley pointed out nearly twenty years ago, “the public’s capacity to participate in decision-making processes in an informed and deliberative fashion [has been] severely compromised.” The loss of this capacity, according to Howley, is not just a minor reduction in our ability to renew our society and civilisation, but is, perhaps, “the great threat to democratic societies by corporate-controlled and commercially sponsored media” (Howley, 2005, p. 18).

To be an effective society, with engaged citizens who participate in the development of ideas and solutions to problems, we need an effective system of democratic communication. Presently, here in the UK at least, it feels that the process of active citizenship is being operated in parallel to our corporately controlled media. It feels that there is a divide between people in their local places and communities, and that a parallel system of communication is being managed by a cadre of professionals who have little accountability to the interests or wishes of the wider population, their fellow citizens or their neighbours. The only techniques for gaining consent and approval for the media services that are provided, are the focus groups and market-testing processes that reinforce the self-regard for their ingenuity, without ever opening up the process to transgressive and disruptive alternatives.

We run the risk, at this point in time, and due to a lack of critical discussion, that we will see a further erosion of any sense of community and citizen engagement with the large-scale media providers. As Steve Wurtzler noted, it has been common practice to remove the “community from community broadcasting,” either by “erecting institutional and policy barriers to citizens access” to media, or by allowing hastened market concentration of newspapers and radio stations, thereby limiting community access and control over “what were once viewed as local media institutions” (Steve Wurtzler in Merril-Squier, 2003, p. 52).

In her now iconic assessment of citizenship, Sherry Arnstein argued that

“Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step towards legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens – with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed ‘for their benefit’. The most frequent tools used for such one-way communication are the news media, pamphlets, posters, and responses to inquires” (Arnstein, 1969, p. 220).

Arnstein’s precinct and well-grounded observations, somewhat depressingly, feel as if they still apply today. While public organisations have become adept at using online and social media platforms to shape ‘narratives’ about their services, or to keep their stakeholders informed of their ‘engagement metrics,’ one can’t help but feel that media-based consultation and engagement has been hollowed out. As Arnstein argues, if consulting the public is “not combined with other modes of participation,” this type of participation and engagement would still be a sham, “since it offers no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account” (Arnstein, 1969, p. 221).

Reading Dan Gillmor’s words now, and we can’t help but feel a twinge of ironic distance or even distain for the nativity of the sentiment that many expressed at the time, myself included. Gillmor wrote that “in the emerging world of Internet-enabled communication, obfuscations and lies will work even less well than before. Activists and informed customers will catch the cheaters and hold them accountable” (Gillmor, 2006, p. 68). This has certainly been put to the test in the age of Trump, Putin and Johnson. Do many of us still have faith in the idea that “blogs can be acts of civic engagement” (Gillmor, 2006)?

Perhaps not in the reverberant and hopefully liberating political way that we once expected the new forms of media to contribute to. The expression of person ideas and experiences using platforms that formed a network with others willing to share their creativity, insight and challenges through personal testimony. What was once an expression of exploration, was, unfortunately, overwhelmed by the position-takers, the obfuscaters and the manipulators. The internet was given over to the expression of participation in a world without care or regard for the value of others. The internet became a place in which ethics and morality – social solidarity – was wiped away. As David Weinberger describes, “morality arises only because we share a world with others about whom we care. If we shared a world with creatures about whom we cared nothing, we could do whatever we wanted without feeling any moral constraints” (Weinberger, 2002, p. 190).

When do we stop and use our communications platforms to focus on exploring and considering our moral responsibilities? When do we stop to ask what distinction can be drawn between what we care ‘about’ and what we care ‘for’? The internet offers an endless, infinite capacity to find a topic or a matter that we can care about, but it is only when we stop and examine our experiences of what we actually care for that we can measure the value of our contribution to society and the stewardship of our world. Benjamin Stokes warns that “as a society, we cannot simply design more civic tools, without offering participants more meaningful choices” (Stokes, 2013, p. 144).

If our media does not offer us meaningful choices, then perhaps we ought to repurpose the platforms and systems so that they do help us. So that they can become more conversational, for it is “through conversation,” Stokes argues, that we “develop the social ties to sustain participation. Through conversation, we reflect and build the skills and identities to become more effective in civic life” (Stokes, 2013, p. 146).

My belief is that community media can play a stronger role in constituting the relationship between the powerful and the weak in society, and that by supporting and building both technical and social capacity, and thereby empowering people to speak for themselves, and hopefully overturning any prejudicial narratives that have built-up in the collective mind, that we can address the common social problems we have, and which are becoming more urgent by the day. Community media has the capacity to be a distinct process of engagement and citizenship, enshrined in human rights that afford respect and due regard to all, regardless of social status and class.

Donatella Porta and Alice Mattoni articulate the task before us succinctly, as they point out,

“Deliberative democracy refers to the decisional processes that occur under conditions of equality, inclusiveness and transparency, and where communicative process based on reason (the strength of a good argument) are able to transform individual preferences, leading to decisions oriented to the public good” (Porta & Mattoni, 2013, p. 173).

As Robert Putnam famously said, “citizenship is not a spectator sport” (Putnam, 2000, p. 341), which suggests that our job as advocates of community and citizen media is to open up our “doors and the airwaves to discussion, negotiation, and conflict mediation” (Howley, 2005, p. 42). For the ability to speak freely, to be heard with due respect, and to deliberate with others openly, is the mark of a healthy and potentially successful society. Community media, I believe, has to be a viable and clear alternative to the controlling and exploitative nature of industrial media, and to the pressure to conform and stay dutifully in one’s place that limits many people’s expectations of what they can do to communicate for themselves. As James Curran said many times, all media producers, broadcasters and platform providers “should have a public duty to give adequate expression to a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints, and to facilitate the participation of different groups in the collective dialogue of society” (James Curran in Liebes & Curran, 1998, p. 196).

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224.

Gillmor, D. (2006). We The Media – Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. O’Reilly.

Howley, K. (2005). Community Media – People, Places and Communication Technologies. Cambridge University Press.

Liebes, T., & Curran, J. (Eds.). (1998). Media, Ritual and Identity. Routledge.

Merril-Squier, S. (Ed.). (2003). Communities of the Air – Radio Century, Radio Culture. Duke University Press.

Porta, D. D., & Mattoni, A. (2013). Cultures of Participation in Social Movements. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 171-181). Routledge.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster.

Stokes, B. (2013). Restructuring Civic Engagement – Meaningful Choice and Game Design Thinking. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 143-152). Routledge.

Weinberger, D. (2002). Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Perseus Publishing.

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