Maverick Life

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Postmodern media blurring: A diminishing sense of national conversation

Image: Camilo Jimenez / Unsplash

To maintain collective free expression, journalists and editors, the backbone of the press and the media, are trained and employed to do investigative work, research, analysis and fact checking on information that regular people might not have the bandwidth to do. Yet, the continually growing population of the world, the genesis of the internet and the rise of social media have made for an increasingly complex postmodern media landscape where fact checking alone has become a mammoth task.

Freedom of the press is a term that is tossed around a lot when it comes to liberal/progressive/democratic political rhetoric. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded us on World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2021) that a free, uncensored and independent press is “a cornerstone of democratic societies”.

In recent years, for a number of reasons the free press in South Africa and many other parts of the world has come under some strain. With the onslaught of the internet and social media, we are now living in a world that is saturated with accessible and often free information. There are millions of voices all saying thousands of different things and it is difficult to choose who to listen to or understand what exactly is going on. Perhaps it is helpful to slow down… to go back to the beginning, the basics.

What is the freedom of the press? Why is it a cornerstone of democracy?

The press – generally defined as any publication or media source that gathers and publishes or broadcasts news to the public – in its free form is, simply put, a press that is not controlled by the government. In a democratic society, media outlets, such as newspapers, magazines and TV news, are able to publish the content that they believe is important (regardless of what it might be) without fear of censorship or suppression from the governing body.

The media, on the other hand, is a broader term that includes “main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing and the internet) regarded collectively”. The internet comprises social media.

“The highest obligation of the press should be to the public it serves.”

The Hutchins Commission, an American commission formed as a response to criticism from the public over media ownership in the US during World War 2, and whose central mission became an inquiry into the proper function of the press in modern society, declared that an ideal democratic press would have five key goals or requirements that it should attempt to meet and provide: a truthful and comprehensive account of the day’s events; a forum for discussion about all of the important interests and viewpoints in society; a representative picture of society and its various groups; educate the public on ideals to which the community should strive, and make important information available to everyone.

While it is true that the Hutchins Commission was dealing with a modern media landscape (drastically different from the postmodern world that we live in today), these core requirements still stand – ultimately, in a democratic society, the press needs to inform the demos, or the citizens, about what is going on around them so that we (as individuals) know exactly how we are being governed and what that means for society, allowing us to make informed decisions about what is best for the collective (and by extension, ourselves.)

As Michael Luo from The New Yorker puts it, “the highest obligation of the press should be to the public it serves”.

Luo goes on to write that freedom of press is the “political liberty from which all others spring – the one that promotes and protects all the rest […] it’s because the press is the primary conduit through which people engage with the ideas they need to function as democratic citizens that it must be both protected and scrutinised.” Knowledge is power, and in a democracy power should be with the people.

Win Tin, a Burmese journalist, perhaps said it best: “Freedom of information is the freedom that allows you to verify the existence of all the other freedoms.”

As well as informing the public about the state of their reality, the free press at its best acts as a watchdog and surrogate for the public’s investigation of government operations. The government is held accountable because the press has the freedom to report on it.

In all democratic societies, but perhaps especially in a country like South Africa, riddled with corruption scandals and nefarious government activity, it is difficult to overstate the need for a free press.

It’s also imperative that the press and the judiciary system (the law/the Constitution) work hand in hand. If a free press is not protected by the law, journalists who may try to tell the truth or expose the powers that be, are not protected by the law. This would make censorship and suppression by the state inevitable – exactly what has happened in places like Zimbabwe.

32 out of 180: Freedom of the press in South Africa

According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, put together by Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO with consultative status at international organisations such as the UN and Unesco, South Africa is ranked 32 out of 180 countries in the world (above France, the UK and the US, among many others.)

While an individual may voice his or her own opinion on a matter, the press must report facts and balance the opinions of many individuals; it is the free expression of the collective.

The index uses a combination of quantitative data gathered on abuses and acts of violence against journalists, and qualitative information gleaned from extensive surveys. The website deems that in South Africa, “press freedom is guaranteed but fragile”. Our Constitution protects the freedom of the press but leftover “apartheid legislation and terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of government institutions when ‘national interest’ is supposedly at stake”.

The website also notes that freedom of the press has become increasingly fragile during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a record amount of government antagonism and violence against journalists since the democratic elections of 1994.

In the South African Constitution, freedom of the press is listed in the Bill of Rights under freedom of expression: “Everyone has the right to the freedom of expression, which includes – (a) freedom of the press and other media; (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

The Constitution specifically states that the right to freedom of expression (in all its forms), “does not extend to – (a) propaganda for war; (b) incitement of imminent violence; or (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” Essentially, opinions that are harmful or violent in any way are unconstitutional.

Freedom of the press is only a single section of the right to freedom of expression; there are other means of expression whose freedom is also protected under the Constitution, but that are not defined as press.

Postmodern blurring: The media and ‘social media’

The separation of the press and media from other means of expression (such as the individual’s right to freely “receive or impart information or ideas”) in the Constitution is important because, unlike the individual, it is the duty of the press to keep citizens informed in as accurate a way as possible. While an individual may voice his or her own opinion on a matter, the press must report facts and balance the opinions of many individuals; it is the free expression of the collective.

To maintain this collective free expression, journalists and editors, the backbone of the press and the media, are trained and employed to do investigative work, research, analysis, and fact checking on information that regular people might not have the bandwidth to do. It is a journalist’s job to look at the complexity of an event/problem/person and represent it as accurately and truthfully as possible to the public.

While this might seem pretty straightforward, the continually growing population of the world, the genesis of the internet and the rise of social media have made for an increasingly complex postmodern media landscape where simply fact checking has become a mammoth task.

Ian Glenn, professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, describes this landscape as fragmented, “almost unlimited in choice”, and with a “diminishing sense of national conversation or shared political destiny”.

The at-once chaotic and powerful reality of millions of free voices, of the democratic internet that allows everybody to speak their mind and give many people quick, free access to shared news, debates and conversations, means we are now exposed to an unprecedented (and impossible) amount of data. The noise that this information creates can be informative at best, and disorienting at worst, blurring the lines between fact and opinion, the individual and the media, the random and the experts.

“So-called voices of authority, for better or for worse, have been broken as the only sources of information.”

Reporters Without Borders state in their values that they strive to defend “journalists (both professional and non-professional) who may hold opposing views as long as they are committed to reporting reality as they see it, in an independent manner”. They also write that “we must accept that the truth can take different forms and yield different and even contradictory results because no one is the keeper of the sole truth”.

Of course, this raises a series of questions: if anyone has the ability to publish their thoughts and findings on social media, then how do we agree on a shared reality? If truth can take myriad different forms, how do we know what is real? Who to trust?

In the words of multi-award-winning journalist Greg Marinovich, “so-called voices of authority, for better or for worse, have been broken as the only sources of information”. There is no longer a solid line between freedom of the press (who ideally serve the collective) and the right of an individual to freely voice their opinions.

A crack in democracy: News and media fragmentation

A major challenge that such decentralisation has brought to the fore is what Glenn refers to as media “fragmentation”. He borrows this term from American-Israeli sociologist Elihu Katz, whose consequential paper Deliver us from Fragmentation, written in the mid-Nineties, argued, according to Glenn, that “the moment you get five different news channels, you’re going to have the tendency for everyone to go into compartments”.

In other words, certain social groups consume certain media outlets, which can look very different from the content that other social groups are consuming.

Like much else in South Africa, media fragmentation is haunted by the legacy of apartheid: it remains largely racialised. Communities living in lower income brackets, largely communities of colour, have access to and consume different media than those targeted at higher income brackets.

“The big question”, says Glenn, “which I don’t think anyone knows much about anymore, is where the majority of black South Africans are getting their news from, and what news they are getting. I think a lot of them are getting a far more radical view of events than middle-class elderly white South Africans realise.”

“What I regard as self-evident,” says Glenn, “and what I think most middle-class, white South Africans would regard as self-evident about the Zuma state and a failed state, maybe a lot of young black people see as an attempt to shake things up. These are tricky questions; a lot depends on where you’re sitting, what interests you are protecting, and what you are worried about.”

Glenn writes, in an academic paper co-authored by Jane Duncan, “the fragmentation of public space fuelled by media segmentation may further reinforce social division, in the process consigning to the dustbin of history the idealistic notion of a ‘public sphere’ constituted by a united South African Nation”.

If we all think and want different things, but have no base or forum on which to discuss them (and hopefully come to some kind of consensus), then how can we coexist with one another peacefully? How can we effectively hold our government accountable for our collective needs?

Social media: Extreme opinions and fake news

Another issue in our contemporary media landscape, tied to media fragmentation and perhaps taking the phenomenon to its logical extreme, is the proliferation of fake news, echo chambers and conspiracy theories. 

Much has already been written about how social media uses AI algorithms in ranking and recommending content. These algorithms work to determine what content users are most likely to click on so as to keep them engaged on the platform as long as possible.

This leads to two things: users are fed content that is already in line with their opinions; and clickbait and extreme or shocking content is also pushed by the algorithms.

What this often means is that despite there being a seemingly endless variety of opinions and information at our fingertips, we engage only with content that confirms a specific narrative, or with other users who hold similar viewpoints, thus continually reaffirming our beliefs (aka, an echo chamber), even if those beliefs are extreme and not based in fact. Thus, we are pushed and held in what Glenn calls our media “compartments”.

The role of social media platforms in this trend has become ever clearer with the recent information about Facebook’s policies, unveiled by a series of former employees. The whistle-blowers confirmed that Facebook was more concerned with keeping its users engaged and online than it was with the quality and truth of the content they were allowing (arguably, promoting.)

Recently, one of these former employees, Frances Haugen, testified before the US Congress that “Facebook has realised that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, and [Facebook] will make less money”. According to Haugen, money, to Facebook, is a far higher priority than user wellbeing. They “prioritise growth over safety. And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”

“On one hand, it’s democratic, and we are hearing another point of view. But on the other hand, you are hearing loons. So, the question becomes can you have one without the other? Can you have a wide range of news sources without this trend to favour extreme news?”

The rise of the extreme alt-right and QAnon in the US is a clear example of how these algorithms can work in nefarious ways. And while QAnon is largely a US-based issue, South Africa is certainly not immune to the nefarious effects of misinformation. Just look at the role that social media played in the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, as well as the spread of misinformation when it comes to anti-vax rhetoric.

But the ability to post on the internet, and read posts by others, also means that everyone has the democratic opportunity to speak their mind – that stories previously untold because of censorship can now be aired to the public.

Glenn asks the poignant question: “On one hand, it’s democratic, and we are hearing another point of view. But on the other hand, you are hearing loons. So, the question becomes can you have one without the other? Can you have a wide range of news sources without this trend to favour extreme news?”

Are there any solutions?

Glenn explains Katz’s solution to the challenge of news fragmentation: “He says we should all be watching the same news, then at least we know what we are disagreeing about.”

In essence, Katz is arguing for the news to be “a space for deliberation”, a “middle-of-the-road, authoritative news so then we would know what we were debating about”. For us to have a common knowledge so that we can begin a discussion, maybe agree to disagree, but at the very least understand the base from which the other is coming.

The counterargument to Katz’s work would probably be: If there is a single and authoritative site of news consumption, who gets to run it? Who chooses what’s important? 

“Who decides what is the right news?” asks Glenn. “Katz’s view was that you get an educated elite deciding. But where do those elites come from? What are their values?”

According to Glenn, however, Katz does have a point: we need more spaces in the South African media landscape that welcome a variety of voices/opinions from diverse backgrounds.

Glenn uses talk radio as a reference: “You get people arguing and you get nuance. You have a moderator who tries to be moderate. You tend to have a space of hearing another point of view, or trying to come to a consensus, or being respectful of other arguments. In other words, people are trying to bring a lot more nuance into discussions.”

And this deliberative space is essential. Glenn and Duncan write: “Concerted efforts need to be made to establish a space where all South Africans can meet and deliberate on the issues of the day. There are real dangers in not having such shared public space, and the further fragmentation of this space may exacerbate social instability.”

They call for government-funded public programming, and space for multiplicity in journalist models in order to reach the variety of audience demographics that constitute the South African public.

As Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and ethicist who was part of the Hutchins Commission, said: “If you have an insoluble problem of great complexities, and you illumine the complexities, you may be able to make quite a great contribution.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but if we want to have a more fair, representative and democratic media landscape in South Africa, which is essential for the continuation (and bettering) of our democratic society, then we must embrace our complexities and the many nuances of our citizenry.

Who to believe in complexity?

The idealistic notion of embracing complexity, however important it may be, is also (for now), seemingly impossible. The changes that Glenn and Duncan call for, such as government-funded public programming and more spaces for diverse and honest deliberation, do not yet exist.

Further, if one of the issues of the postmodern media landscape is that there are too many voices, too much noise, and almost unlimited choice, we still haven’t answered the question of who to trust or where to get your information from.

It’s a pressing question, one that people around the world are mulling over. For now, tools such as Know News, a browser extension that shows you which sources and sites it deems credible, or projects like the News Literacy Project (and the various free programmes it offers to help internet users separate fact from fiction in online media), can be a real help in navigating our way through the fragmented media landscape of today. DM/ML

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