Mass Media & Freedom of Expression

Today, we are quite used to changing our lives on the spur of the moment when we are informed via news organization SMS ‘alerts’ of a sudden pandemic lockdown in our village or city. In our living memory, however, we recall a time when we had to wait for the 6 o’clock News bulletin on our sole, state-run, radio channel to hear about the latest war situation or flood situation.

There was a time when the processing of verified information for the purpose of news publication and broadcast was a highly structured mass communications industry that fed the world’s population with reliable information. Professionally trained journalists gathered the information. Editorial systems then meticulously processed that information as ‘news’, sorting and publishing or broadcasting that ‘news’ product targetting relevant news consuming audiences.

Being capital-intensive, the news industry was centralized into a few large ‘mass communication’ enterprises at national and world level. At the same time, however, audiences could easily verify the veracity of ‘news’ by comparing different parallel newspapers or news broadcasts. Such market competition between parallel news outlets ensured a relatively authentic news output because rival newspapers or news channels could not risk losing their audiences due to unprofessionally produced, unreliable information.

With news consumers grouped into vast, captive audiences for both socially influencing information as well as commercial advertising, serious concerns have arisen about the media industry’s limitations, especially among audiences with less social punch or with less access to detailed information useful for their individual and group sustenance. The powerful elites rich enough to own and control the mass media system became partners in the management of societies and nations along with the political elites.

The arrival of digitized ‘cyber communications’ has totally transformed humanity’s communications landscape in both positive and negative ways.

In the first place, and most crucially, the communications power ‘pyramid’, in which the mass media companies had so far ‘ruled the roost’, has been upturned by the smart phone and tablet now in the hands of many ordinary citizens. Today, any member of the public has, in her or his hands, an instrument which can not only write or create a message of any content but also disseminate it across the whole world depending only on transmission bandwidth and the server company’s system connectivity. Anyone can, more or less, express anything and transmit it on a virtually global scale.  However, such broadcast content is certainly not ‘news’ because ‘news’ is information – be it facts or feelings – professionally identified as potential ‘news’ for consuming audiences and, processed as such, prior to systematic publication or broadcast.

The professional mass media industry is now paralleled by this far bigger cyber mass communications system in which the communicated content is merely bits of information or expression of feelings that are spontaneously posted on the Internet by individuals or groups of individuals without any verification or processing that ensures constructive responses by the consuming audiences.   

The ‘social media’ platforms are like the blank pages of a newspaper sans an editorial office – that is, unmanaged by any law-abiding professional editorial system involving dedicated journalists of various specialisations. Literally anyone can now upload almost any content that can get past any country’s national security, obscenity or religious conformity laws notwithstanding the veracity of that content or its social-psychological impact. 

Far more dangerously, though, the bulk of the population now tends to simply rely for information on the verbal chatter about events – or, supposed events – they receive from friends and friends of friends via their mobile telephones. Thus, we live in the ‘post-truth’ age where carefully verified and authoritatively disseminated facts, which are then largely common to all the people, have been crowded out by huge volumes of not just unsubstantiated chatter via the Internet and telephones but even false chatter. Worse, digitization enables the creation of totally false identities that are then used to tilt ongoing public discourses in socially or personally damaging ways.

At the same time, the very engineering of this vast system enables the continuous harvesting of information about individuals even as they freely use cyber media. The more we indulge in communications, the more we provide our addresses and our identity information to the communication platforms. Personal information is no longer ‘private’. Meanwhile, just as much as commercially devised cyber tools harvest personal data, the State as well as criminal elements can also surveille and gather such data. 

What is now urgently needed is the protection of this harvested data so that it is not misused either by the State or by commercial interests or by criminals or personal enemies.

Today, we live in a world where large groups of people tend to combine a reliance on some form of verified ‘news’ for practical daily living, with unverified chatter and gossip that resonates with their own subjective biases and individual desires and thereby sustains personal comfort zones. The danger of such comforting ambience is that it also motivates people into actions and biases that focuses on their own likes and dislikes to the detriment of others, their social neighbours. Individuals says things on social media that they would not dare say in their own social circles. It is such socio-culturally unmodulated public discourse that creates emotions resulting in hostile actions against others.

The social media engendered social violence that we have seen in our own country has also exploded in many other parts of the world, the latest, most prominent case being the mob attack on the United States’ legislature building – the Capitol. That mass mobilization would not have been possible if not for the use of cyber media to disseminate false information, some of it even masquerading as formal ‘news’, that has created a popular impression that the recent presidential election was ‘rigged’.

Denial of use of social media platforms by key disinformation perpetrators enforced by the platform owners has come too late to reverse that false popular impression and resulting social discontent. This is why mere ‘self-regulation’ by cyber media platforms is wholly inadequate. The huge volumes of messaging, all-encompassing outreach of the cyber media and, the sheer speed of dissemination, all combine to make this a whole new human behavioral phenomenon that will take its own time to mature with the necessary evolution of systems of control and codes of self-control.

Society’s legislators must, therefore, tread a narrow path between control that does not stifle the new media and, enabling that new media become platforms for creativity and freer expression and orderly consultation at the grassroots level. The new digital tools also offer architecture that enables a combination of regulation and self-regulation that could involve the participation of many stakeholders with interests in ensuring the best use of this wonderful new technology – from State and national security agencies to social interest groups, professional stakeholders, server industries, and rights groups.

The setting up of such accountable managing systems can also be done in a consultative manner, thanks to cyber media platforms.

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