Tag Archives: Iran

Manuel Castells at LSE – Mass Self-Communication

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

What do the MP expenses scandal and the protests in Iran have in common? Both of them reflect how communication power can change the world – or rather, change the way we see it – says Manuel Castells.

I had the opportunity to listen to most of Manuel Castells’ public lecture at the LSE tonight. Manuel Castells has recently been the most influential scholar on the subject of communication and technology, announcing the arrival of the “network society” (one of his strengths is finding sticky labels for what he studies, as tonight’s lecture proved again).

Here’s his argument in a nutshell.

For the masses, by the masses

Power is one of the most important topics in any society, as we might all agree. For Castells, one of the most important powers is to “control human minds” and to shape meanings.

The media immediately come to mind as probably the most powerful institution to shape the way we see the world. And we need to understand that the media are mainly big business, says Castells. Globalized, decentralized, but actually highly concentrated business.

And then we got “mass self-communication” nowadays (one of those new sticky labels you should watch out for). Horizontal, many-to-many forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, you name them.

As you can imagine, big media and mass self-communication don’t just peacefully coexist. They interact – somehow, sometimes, somewhere. Castells left it at that during his lecture.

Scandal politics

So far, Castells didn’t really say anything new (although he once again managed to present these points more clearly than you will find them anywhere). The real question was, how does mass self-communication change the distribution of communication power?

To answer this, he first went on to criticize big media for their focus on scandals when reporting politics. In fact, he argues that the media are running a “scandal industry” based on leaked, remixed, half-true information and semi-legal but definitely unethical investigation methods (see phone tapping case in today’s papers). Politicians must play along because they see undermining the opponent’s character as the only reliable political weapon.

Interestingly, there is no conclusive evidence, says Castells, that discrediting your political opponent always pays off. To the contrary, in several cases, it had a negative effect.

More importantly, scandal politics cause massive damage for the entire political system by undermining it’s legitimacy. That is why the vast majority of people around the world believes that democracy is failing and that they are not governed by “the people” (always an exception: Scandinavia). And when mistrust in the political system is met by mistrust in the economic system, we’re in big trouble.

The way out

So too much communication power in the hands of big media is really bad. But can mass self-communication make a difference?

Castells believes it can and it already does. His arguments are pretty well-known though, I must say. The services and technologies facilitating mass self-communication are much harder to control from top down, offer a much wider spectrum of opinion and information, by-pass any corporate or editorial control, and feature close to no entry costs. In other words, mass self-communication is autonomous.

This has already made a huge difference in politics, argues Castells. The success of social movements over the last 15 years would not have been possible without mass self-communication.When these movements go online, they form “instant political communities of practice” (another of those sticky labels).

For example, we don’t know much more about climate change than we did some 30 years ago. However, the Internet has spread the word so that 85% of the world population has now joined the global environmental movement. Another case in point would be the protests in Iran.

Early exit

Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. Until then, Castells had argued that mass self-communication offers an alternative way through which we can see the world and make sense of it – outside any big media with all its scandals.

I had two major problems with his argument up until this point. (Maybe they were mentioned in the Q&A session?)

First, I really question the autonomy of mass self-communication. It has to rely on services which cost billions a year and which are operated by equally big business (News Corp. owns MySpace, etc.). There’s a lot to say about concentration and commercialization on the internet.

Second, I don’t quite see why mass self-communication should be any less susceptible to scandals. In fact, doesn’t it allow them to spread even fast, even more uncontrollably, possibly even more unethical?

I would love to hear your comments and maybe some notes on the last few minutes of Castells’s lecture. Thank you!

Public Service Twitter?

All media eyes have been on Iran during the last few days, where the controversial results of the latest election drew thousands of people to the street and triggered deadly clashes between protestors and police forces. On many news websites, media audiences outside Iran could follow a minute-by-minute coverage of these events – although the incumbent regime attempted to shut down all independent reporting. In a powerful demonstration of the Internet’s liberating potentials, voices, pictures, and videos from inside Iran leaked out into the world. Once again, Twitter (and Youtube) proved to be the most widely used distribution network for this material – decentralized, viral, almost impossible to interfere with.

We should no longer be surprised and astonished by the powers of services such as Twitter. It is time we actively embrace them in our efforts to promote a global political discourse. Given their potentials for freedom of expression and democracy, states should play an active role in supporting and safeguarding them. Twitter still lacks a viable business model. Should we “bail them out” and make it a public service?

There are good reasons why we should. Despite its millions of users, Twitter is still loss-making. As a private business, it will naturally attempt to find ways of generating revenue. Whatever Twitters future business model will be, it will have implications on the accessibility and flow of information on the network. The longstanding debate over corporate influences on media content (see News Corp.) can give an indication of what these implications may look like. Twitter may not be able to dictate what its users are twittering, like a newsroom editor can. However, editorial influence may come disguised as filtering, ranking, and prioritizing algorithms. If Twitter was supported by public funding, it may resist such commercial pressures and embrace norms of professionalism and content neutrality instead. This would not be unprecedented. Public Service Broadcasters, like the BBC, have long been operating based on this argument.

A public stake in Twitter would also provide the service with a strong political backing, which is needed during international conflicts. Any attempt to shut it down would have to be understood as an affront against the international community. Indeed, Twitter can be deployed as a “democratic weapon” that facilitates the transition to democracy in countries like Iran – a transition led by the people of these countries.

Two big questions remain to be answered before we may decide to bail out Twitter. First, who should do the bail out? Twitter is a U.S. company, so President Obama may decide to integrate it into his foreign policy service (but also to promote his domestic political discourse). Alternatively, and more desirably, an inter-governmental organizations may fund the service, for example the United Nations or one of the Internet regulation bodies. This would allow more countries to support the idea and to subscribe to Twitter’s fundamental importance in promoting democracy and freedom of expression.

The second, and possibly more crucial question, is whether Twitter wants to be bailed out. This seems doubtful. Even though they may not generate profits today, they are convinced they eventually will. Even without profits, Twitter is already attracting millions in venture capital. They would hardly see the need, from a business perspective, to be bailed out. Would it have to be a hostile takeover? Not necessarily. Instead of calling it a bail-out, we may go with the more appropriate term “subsidies”, that would relief Twitter of some of its commercial pressures, in exchange for a promise to keep the service as open and democratic as possible. This agreement would also keep the current management structure at Twitter where it is, by no means replacing it by some state or inter-governmental bureaucracy.

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Many news sources still seem astonished by the powers of Twitter and similar services. Without them, there would be far less images and videos from Iran. We should move Twitter closer to the center of our foreign policy and our attempts to facilitate democracy and freedom of expression. Part of this move could be to provide public subsidies and to enforce the protection of Twitter’s openness and democratic nature, before commercial or political pressures take over. This is not a call for a state-controlled take-over of a private business, but a call to use the Internet’s liberating potentials to their fullest extent.

Update: See this NYT article for a more critical appraisal of Twitter’s role in Iran an elsewhere.