Assessing the media

On a recent visit here, Dr. Lance Strate, discusses social media and how they help facilitate social change.

LANCE STRATE 521 (photo credit: IDAN GROSS)
(photo credit: IDAN GROSS)
Over the past century, for better or for worse, governments, social action groups, private individuals and others have used traditional forms of media to effect change. But with the emergence of the Internet and new-media outlets, a vast array of other electronic tools have become available. The last couple of years saw three major attempts at effecting change utilizing this new technology: the 2010-11 Arab Spring throughout the Middle East, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) and last summer’s local social justice tent protests.
Dr. Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies and the associate chair for graduate studies at New York’s Fordham University, was recently in Israel as a guest of the School of Media Studies at Rishon Lezion’s College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS). The communications expert – who did his doctorate under author, media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman at New York University – delivered a series of lectures to COMAS students and faculty on the impact of social media. One of the sessions was titled “Media, Protest, and Social Change,” and some of last summer’s tent protesters attended the lecture. The Jerusalem Post caught up with Strate following his talks.

What was the focus of your lectures here in Israel?
I gave three talks here. One was a talk on media ecology, another on new media, and the third was on media and their role in the recent protests [around the world].
Media ecology?
Media ecology is the study of forms of media as environments. So the idea is that media play a leading role in human affairs. The media shape the way we think, the way we feel, act, and how we perceive the world, and our culture and social organizations.
Can you discuss the role social media played in the Arab Spring?
Social media played a significant role in facilitating the protests and movements that collectively became known as the Arab Spring. The role of media [in any form] was not clearly recognized in previous decades, but now it has become much more apparent [especially social media]. It’s true that a mobile device can’t stop a bullet, but that’s not all there is to it. Part of the impact [of social media] is its ability to organize people, connect people and mobilize people toward a common cause. Also, now there is the idea that people can have a sense of involvement even at a distance. You no longer have a passive audience viewing images on television, but even something as simple as clicking “Like” on Facebook gives people a sense of involvement.
But in regard to social media and the Arab Spring, you have to be cautious. This is not necessarily a movement toward democratization. We associate democracy as an idea born out of print culture. And print culture and other institutions formed through print culture are in decline or are on the way out.
Many of the features of that print culture environment have been undermined and displaced by electronic media. Rational choices are based on access to information, but maybe if there is too much information there are not enough means to evaluate it [for accuracy]. But more importantly our integral character as private individuals no longer exists. We have moved into an era where people network themselves, assume multiple identities and affiliations, and whether that will lead toward democracy as we understand it remains to be seen....
Change doesn’t come easily, but it does come sooner or later. What we don’t know is what new forms of social organizations will appear. When radio was introduced, we were given the totalitarian movements of communism, fascism and Nazism. You could suddenly appeal to mass audiences and mobilize them or even cause mass panic. On the other hand, intimate connections were made between a personality speaking [on the radio, and the audience], thus creating a new cult of personality.
We should not assume that movements like the Arab Spring are going to result in the kind of democracies that have emerged in the West. In all likelihood they will not.

So you are pessimistic?
It’s not a matter of being pessimistic I’m just realistically assessing the situation. We have a different media environment today than the environment which was associated with the Enlightenment that gave rise to nation states and democratic governments of the West. For that reason, we can’t assume we are going to see the same development. Electronic communication bypasses structures that were built around print culture. People used to have access to news in a digestible form through print media and could get together to discuss it locally, which created stability. But now we see a great deal of instability and complexity. People are connecting despite geographical differences. It used to be that a person’s loyalty was to his tribe or his nation, but now their loyalties are to different groups they are connected to, making it a much more complicated world we live in. This leads to separatism. You have a group that breaks apart, then another small group that wants to break out, and there is no end to it.

What are possible negative ramifications of that phenomenon?
It’s dangerous. We are not prepared for these developments and don’t know how to deal with them. When the United States went into Iraq, they asked themselves, “Should we allow the country to disintegrate into small homogeneous units, or preserve the nation as a whole?” And the US, being a nation state, took the position to try and preserve a nation state. On other side of the coin you have Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic and even Scotland, [which] now wants to leave the United Kingdom, so this is the direction that electronic media can lead us toward. In the end, we have to expect new structures to begin and to form in a way that does not fit into what we have previously seen, and can conflict with what’s existed before.
But before we had social media, we had the Holocaust. How much worse can it get than when social media didn’t exist?
Well, you have to realize that on the other side of the coin, something like the Holocaust could not be kept a secret today. One of the features of new media is the proliferation of images. And images evoke emotional responses. Something like this [the Holocaust] would be publicized and cause great outrage. We see [this outrage] over and over, with what’s going on in places like Syria and Iran. In all these places, it’s too easy to get information out for any kind of authority to control and operate in secrecy.
On the other hand, it opens a new door – for example, what we are seeing in Gaza. The images we see don’t promote rational thinking, they elicit emotional responses. Those images require framing, since we don’t know when and where images are really taken and there are ways people can be manipulative to fit their “image culture.” In that sense, social media are not positive – but still, it would be hard to pull off another Holocaust or another genocidal campaign without world awareness. You just can’t hide it.
Changing topics, what were some of the tangible results of the OWS movement as a result of social media?
The strength of social media in this instance was to facilitate the organization of events and the mobilization of people. That was effective. There were also some quite wonderful things going on that involved people using social media, such as protest supporters ordering pizzas for the protesters online.
[That said,] I was a guest on a talk radio show and they had an OWS organizer call in, and she said she was disappointed that the [mainstream] news media didn’t cover the protests adequately. I tried to explain to her why they didn’t get the same coverage as the Tea Party movement did. The problem is... TV favors close-up cameras focusing on personalities, on faces. The Tea Party was personified by certain people, such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. They provided a face and a voice for the movement. And that’s what TV wants. In the United States, television stations can’t do a good job of covering Congress because what you see is a large group of people sitting around. That’s bad television. Instead you get an exaggerated view of the president because you can get nice closeups of him. This distorts the images of what government is and probably has to do with the dysfunctionality of Congress in recent years.
The OWS movement didn’t produce distinct personalities or spokespeople. So while there were visual images of tents in a public park, that only provided a backdrop for various news reporters to provide their own views and explanations. When I explained this to one of the OWS leaders, she said, “We don’t want to fall into the trap of left-wing individualism.” But TV is not about private individuals, it’s about audio and visual personalities, and that’s why the movement didn’t get the same coverage cache as the Tea Party.
But again, social media were effective in organizing people and the grassroots work on the ground. This is also how President [Barack] Obama was successful in using social media effectively on the campaign trail, not to persuade voters, but to organize campaign workers. The problem is trying to use social media to reach the mass media, and that’s not possible. The mass media and TV have a different bias, and that’s the point the OWS movement missed. Was the goal to use new media to target old media structures, including the government, or do you use new media to bypass old media? They were not clear as to their intentions; hence the movement was a failure – they didn’t get much of anything out if it except expressing a generalized sense of dissatisfaction. By contrast, look at the effective social movements of the 1960s. They had genuine personalities and musicians on board, which gave a face to the movement. [The point is,] if you want to deal with a certain medium, you have to deal with it on its own terms.

How did the Israeli tent protesters demanding cost-of-living reform fare last summer utilizing social media?

[Unlike in the OWS movement,] some personalities did emerge, but again, the bottom line is that they were trying to use the new media to organize and also reach the old media structures, including the government and professional news media. In the long run, perhaps that might turn out to form the basis of a successful campaign, but the alternative is to use the new media to create new structures. It’s difficult but could be more effective to bypass [traditional] news media and communicate directly to the audience, while also bypassing the government and creating other forms of organization.
But were they not somewhat successful, since the government took notice and formed a committee to propose economic solutions?

The organizers didn’t feel like it was a success. While they did get some kind of response, I didn’t get the sense (from the organizers I spoke with who attended my lecture) that they were satisfied with the overall outcome – including dissatisfaction with news coverage and a dissatisfaction with the government response. The real problem with the movement, though, I feel, is that they never really articulated their goals.
Will we one day see the death of traditional media, specifically newspapers?

Right now newspapers are not entirely disappearing, but being turned into something less common. When we think of a newspaper, we think of wrapping fish in it, stacking newspapers and those stacks being thrown out. Newspapers are disposable, so it makes perfect sense for that disposability to be shifted to an entirely electronic form [one day]. Eventually newspapers and even their online versions cannot survive. If you want to check your horoscope, read a cartoon, get a financial report, why go to a newspaper or its website when you can go to a specialty site?
I do believe that a market for professional news-gathering will always remain; however, it will evolve into a form that’s fully given over to the online environment. But as I said, there will be too much competition from specialized sources to have newspapers online long term. [Still,] the tradition of professional newspaper-oriented journalism and journalists will remain a commodity.