New Media as Power-laden Space

I am particularly intrigued by Manuel Castells’s analysis on the media as the space where powers are contested. As stated in his article, shaping the minds of the people is critical to the state as well as other power institutions, and “the battle of the human mind in largely played out in the process of communication.” With the rise of new ICTs the battle field has shifted to the “mass self-communication network”, which has created new opportunities for social movement actors to challenge the existing institutions of power. Although I agree with his general claim that directs our attention to the new space enabled by digital media, we should also be conscious that battle in the new field does not naturally favors rebellious individuals. Extant power holders in traditional media system still have its own voices in the new space, and empowered social movements still have to fight for their interests and values to be addressed.

I find his argument that frames the media as the power laden context is illuminating when I think of my own thesis. The topic I intend to pursue is to examine the media strategy of Chinese activists in this “self-communication network” society. Admittedly, the rising of the network society has included voices of activists that were rarely to be found in party controlled newspapers and televisions, but this process has also invited a diversity of voices with distinctive agendas into the field. In Chinese media ecosystem, state controlled media represent the extended power from the government, and also at the same time the media has its own commercial identities which tend to seek eye-catching news. Since the administrative system of China is built on a design of restrained power between the central government and local governments, the media accountable to these different levels of government are distinctive when their interests are in conflict with each other. Also the popularity of blogging and micro-blogging services has brought many opinion leaders into the public space, and in fact their opinions are quite fragmented by their own ideologies. Another source of media in Chinese context is the international news agencies, whose editorial strategies are not completely objective either. In this complicated media ecosystem, a battle of powers to shape the minds of people is on.

For Chinese social movements actors, identifying the powers in the media environment is decisively important. One of the features of the contentious politics in rural China is coined as “rightful resistance” by Kevin O’Brien, which refers to the strategies adopted by activists that align themselves with the official rhetoric to avoid serious crackdown from the authority. This tactic channels the power from the higher government to restrain the local government whom they have direct conflict with. In the space of media, the powers are contested in a similar model that activists position themselves as pro communist party in their own media platforms as well as through the interactions with other media. For example, they would call for foreign journalists not to use words like revolt to describe their movement to justify their legitimacy. This form of contention effectively places them into a safe zone, while maintaining its nature of resistance.

What makes the media space complicated is perhaps the noises directly brought by netizens who participate in the discussion of these movements. Once the movements are brought into posts in online forums, micro-blogs, and social networking sites, we can often find opinion leaders impose much of their own ideologies to interpret the movements, no matter it is pro-democracy or not. But not much study has been done to analyze the political bias in newer media such as Weibo and see how it differentiates from newspapers. It will be very helpful for us to find the evidence to support the theory of the powers in battle to shape minds of people.


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