Tawana Kupe | The promise of the new media to midwife a new society

Tawana Kupe | The promise of the new media to midwife a new society

Pluralism and diversity appears to be now possible at multiple levels in the media in part due to the internet and technology. Tawana Kupe writes that this should be used to create vibrant new media system that operate as open public space, nourishing democratic forms of life.
Pluralism and diversity appears to be now possible at multiple levels in the media in part due to the internet and technology. Tawana Kupe writes that this should be used to create vibrant new media system that operate as open public space, nourishing democratic forms of life.

Internet and online media heralded a new era and held the promise of freedom from political control through restrictive policies and regulations. It appears that pluralism and diversity never seen before is now possible: pluralism and diversity at multiple levels namely of ownership, of and in content, and multilingualism.
This new media system could provide access and reach beyond borders and boundaries, enable new media forms and narratives and serve new audiences across generations, especially young people who were alienated from traditional media forms, formats and menus.

For the first time it seems possible that self-created media for self-representation by marginalised groups could reach broader audiences, thereby garnering support from broader sections of society for their causes.

But has this new technological utopia materialised in ways that give hope to a new media landscape that could contribute to the creation of a new society? A number of constraints have emerged that complicate the story of immediate freedom from current constraints.

Inequalities

Access to the internet and digital technologies has followed inequalities of geography, social class, gender, race, income, literacy and education. While in the Global North there is an assumption and a reality of universal access and affordability, in the Global South in Africa, including South Africa, such assumptions are far from the reality.

According to a reputable site, the DATAREPORTAL, which produces a report on the digital status of countries globally every year, South Africa had 39.19 million internet users out of a population of about 60 million in January 2021. At the same time there were 25 million social media users, equivalent to 41.9% of the population.

This is significant by African standards but far from universal access. Lack of infrastructure, varying from digital connections to access to electricity, characterises the Global South.

Social and economic inequalities constrain both access and affordability in societies with developing economies. Affordability, despite the appearance of universal penetration of mobile phones in South Africa limits mass access, in fact leaving traditional analogue media as the more accessible media for the majority. In particular print media circulations have plummeted.

Affordabillity

Further access to rich content that would empower and not just entertain is beyond the reach of those whose access is limited by affordability.

Second, poor policy and regulatory responses, and regulators who are neither agile nor sufficiently autonomous to decisively keep up with advancing technologies have resulted in missed opportunities. An example in South Africa is the cost of data which is a barrier to online media access. Another is the failure to manage digital migration timeously, years after the International Telecommunication Unions’ deadline passed in 2015.

As a result, the SABC, a public broadcaster relatively autonomous by African standards, has yet to fully implement a multi-channel digital strategy that would provide more choices to South Africans. It has been a sad tale of policy inertia and bureaucratic bungling.

Given that the SABC is the nearest thing to a media institution that has universal reach and provides universal access to South Africans by broadcasting in 11 official languages, such failures have arguably constrained their freedom of expression. This is apart from the fact that over the 27 years of democratic rule the public broadcaster has faced challenges to its editorial and programming independence, as well as governance and executive management instability.

To make matters worse its funding and financing model has yet to be finalised. As a consequence, it has lost audiences especially among the elite who can afford digital subscription services or listen to privately owned FM radio stations. The opportunity lost here is that a digitally-enhanced SABC which enjoys editorial and programming independence from political and commercial forces and reaches every South African, would transform traditional media to new hybrid media that would empower South Africans with information that enables them to re-imagine a better South Africa.

The death of media moguls – not quite?

Third, the emerging new media landscape enabled by the rapid advance of technology and its disruptions of the old models could reasonably be expected to end old media monopolies. Alas, age-old media monopolies and media moguls still exist globally and in our South African context.

Some have leveraged the new technologies to consolidate their position. Their monopoly positions enabled them to attain the business, financial, managerial and technological expertise to take advantage of new opportunities. Needless to say, the slow or even self-interested responses by policy makers helped their cause.

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A case in point is the USA converged audio-visual media monopolies who created media companies that seem to relish occupying sectional political interests that deepen divisions in the United States of America along political and ideological lines. It appears no attempt was made to use the discursive space of the media to forge a consensus.

The lesson here is that the commercial imperative rather than the public interest and its associated politics, may lead to the total capture of what potentially was developing into free public communicative space.

In speed we trust?

One aspect of the novelty of new media and digital platforms is the speed at which information can be produced, sent, received and responded to. The question though is whether this speed means a better-informed public, able to express itself freely? Accuracy and veracity of information which gives news its credibility has sometimes been sacrificed for speed.

In news journalism checking and cross-checking of facts, information and reflection about whether the publication of a specific piece would be in the public interest are guarantees of quality and credibility. Speed in publishing in some media now trumps careful systems of checking and considered views of whether and when to publish has undermined news media.

Does fakery reign supreme?

A related development enabled by the speed at which digital technologies can send information has also provided opportunities for some who are not driven by the public interest. Add to that the share function in new media technologies and platforms, and anyone with a connected digital device is now a distributor. As a result, the story of new media and digital platforms is incomplete without a reflection on the rise of a genre of news now popularly called “fake news” which is a misnomer because what is fake is not news.

Fake news is better conceptualised as lies, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and everything that facts, science, knowledge, evidence, rational discussion and disputation represents. So-called fake news stems from the expansion of the role of producer and decision maker about what is news or information to include anyone who can use the technology and produce anything that can be circulated – with speed.

READ | Opinion: Tawana Kupe- If it is fake, it is not news

Traditional notions of what is news and its purpose in society and professional norms of news production have been undermined or disrupted. This development happens at a time when many traditional institutions and elites have lost the trust of sections of the public who do not feel existing consensuses have served them well.

In these types of context some politicians and political parties, organisations and individuals exploit the situation to advance their own interests, in the guise of being those of the public. In particular, they practice populism which is the simplifying of complex societal issues with no easy solutions in ways that resonate with public discontent or wishes. To add to that, the populist purveyors of the so-called fake news position themselves as being against science, experts, facts and knowledge which they associate with what they characterise as aloof and alienated elites.

While it might be true that some elites have lost touch with the interests of sections of the public and sometimes the majority, the panaceas of the populists using both traditional and online digital platforms and social media can cause harm by promoting or creating environments that enable racism, sexism, incitement to hatred and violence, homophobia, xenophobia and religious intolerance.

Ironically populists take advantage of freedom of expression and promote the silencing of others by fanning intolerance of difference.

Beyond the policy and regulatory arm?

A seductive and attractive idea that has proven to be at odds with reality was that it is beyond restrictive policy and regulation and therefore better able to protect and advance freedom of expression and the media.

It is very much a view held strongly by commercial actors in the digital tech space and new online media environment.

A critical approach to the study and analysis of media policy and regulation should look at policy and regulation as the outcome of not only formal political processes in legislatures or those who control government, but also the actions and practices of powerful actors in business and the private sector as well civil society.

Recent appearances of the CEOs of tech giants Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others before the US Congress and some parliaments in the UK and Europe revealed that they not only obfuscate and are disingenuous but want to operate beyond any regulatory regime, however benign. They want to perpetuate the original myth of the internet as a space free of control by anyone and which should be left beyond any policy and regulatory framework. Yet the internet and online and digital spaces have come to be driven by private commercial interests represented most openly by the tech and social media monopolies. They have arguably colonised the digital and online information space in ways that have the potential to destabilise democracies and distort democratic processes that were already creaking under the weight of their own dangerous contradictions.

Among often cited examples are the 2016 US elections, the last Kenyan elections and the Brexit referendum; in South Africa the activities of the former British PR firm Bell Pottinger which in the employ of the Gupta brothers tried to fan racial tensions in support of an ANC faction’s economic transformation agendas.

The tech giants are criticised for business practices reminiscent of the Wild West aimed at eliminating the very competition and diversity that the potential of the technology promises! These practices include buying small firms and merging the larger firms which has the practical effect of reducing diversity. Again, here we see a combination of concentration and conglomeration (not to mention mega profits and the creation of millionaires and billionaires). Super profits are being made in the online space by the few. Their use of information and data they gather has raised disturbing issues about privacy and data abuses that infringe and violate individual rights.

And let us not fail to mention the sucking out of advertising revenue from traditional media platforms. This is compounded by the failure to rein in abuses of free expression that undermines free expression by promoting values, practices and speech, images and discourses that do not enhance our humanity.

Hate speech groups, fake news purveyors, conspiracy theories, quacks and, in the present, anti-vaccination groups and individuals flourish without restriction. So, in the name of free expression, the traditional editorial and programming controls by professionals working with ethical codes and frameworks are cast off. In this free-for-all, the mundane, the absurd, the very personal, the unchecked, and the ridiculous compete for public attention with facts, science, knowledge and the weighty matters of society with no curation.

And the traditional censors live on …

Internet shutdowns during protests and elections are the latest threats to the openness of digital technologies that repressive regimes have resorted to. Some countries, like Uganda, have even tried to introduce a tax on social media. The technology can be controlled with difficulty or in the very least, not as easily as shutting down a newspaper or broadcast station, including surveillance of individuals and groups which has happened across the world.

That technology enables freedom does not mean freedom automatically happens. Lived freedom is the product of the contestations in society.

The liberalisation of production and a renaissance of pluralism and diversity? With the advent of the emerging new media and hybrids, are we in the age of the flourishing of media pluralism and diversity?

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the fastest growing categories of information on the internet are commercial and pornographic content with a crossover of the two in ways that promote the violation of women and children, including trafficking.

Such representation (in some cases, self-representation – women advertising for sexual services) enables the abuse of the vulnerable and powerless in unequal societies. Child pornography and sexualised images of women reinforce intersectional forms of violence.

The preponderance of sexualised images in itself dulls and normalises society’s awareness of the harm that it promotes while passing for free expression and freedom of choice. A deluge of information sustains the illusion of plenty. Yet what is needed is careful curation sensitive to public information, communication and entertainment needs and wants to empower people to understand issues and themselves better.

In a disrupted and confusing world, large amounts of increasing information of any type is not better.

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The exponential growth of fake news in circumstances of constrained media and journalism affects all those who produce and need information in the broadest sense of the word. The ability to influence, shape and change society is dependent on the public being informed in ways that enable them to make rational choices.

The disregard for facts, evidence, analysis, reasoned debate and dialogue and science undermines all those who produce knowledge in the academy.

In the context of the current pandemic, vaccine hesitancy and denial feed disinformation and disregard for scientific facts and scientists. It stands to reason therefore that the study of the media, educating and training of media practitioners should be enriched by perspectives from across all knowledge areas.

Media reforms on a large holistic scale are needed. The reforms should start with changing policy and regulatory frameworks to create an enabling and nurturing environment for new media ecosystems that inform, educate, alert, sensitise, enrich the soul, and provide open spaces for a diversity of representations and voices on all of the most critical issues of the day.

This means breaking up media monopolies and tech giants that have captured the public spaces. It also means sustainable funding and financing of public media that is innovative in its use of new technologies, enjoys editorial and programming independence and is accountable to the public. Wholescale re-regulation in the public interest is likely to create open public spheres that can nourish societal renewal.

Civil society participation and public activism is critical

Such media reforms will not happen without organised public pressure. The current media system benefits some political actors and commercial interests and underpins their ability to maintain power. Current media policy making creates privileges for those with specialist knowledge and those with vested interests. It is opaque as many policy making processes have become over complicated in our atrophied democratic systems.

Realising the vision of a vibrant new media system that operates as open public space, nourishing democratic forms of life at all levels of society, will require that a plurality and diversity of civil society formations and principled individuals who believe in freedom of expression and freedom of the media pro-actively initiate and join campaigns for media reform. Their activism and capacity to contribute to the policy process should be facilitated by public decision-making processes that make it mandatory for substantive public consultation to take place.

A re-imagined society enabled by a new digitally-enabled media which is a public sphere open to all, pluralistic, diverse, creative and innovative is possible. It requires a critical reflection on the disrupted media landscape that leads to conscious, deliberate and intentional public action at all levels and in all institutions to turn the potential of digital technology to advance human freedoms and sustain human life and our planet for sustainable futures a reality.

– This is an edited extract of an inaugural speech that Vice-Chancellor Tawana Kupe delivered on Thursday night during an introduction of academic staff to the academic and non-academic community.

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