Boler: Digital Media & Democracy

The connection between media and opinion is a familiar theme in most societies. Whether it begets democracy is explored in Boler’s call for scholarship in her type of digital advocacy: Digital Media and Democracy. She begins by introducing the discussion in familiar territory: 2003 Iraqi invasion and the quality of the US media coverage. The discussion of media signs, symbols, and gesture is the domain of semiotics. Her examples concerning Iraq are compelling, yet incomplete. Her unexpected argument with Tim Russert and other media notables is interesting and somewhat cathartic.

The reader is introduced to the concept of digital advocacy with the expectation that there are somewhat well-defined boundaries. In the case of her example of the global warming debate, at least one position is discounted as fundamentally incorrect. The same is true with the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) appeals made in advance of the re-invasion of Iraq in 2003. Underlying these examples, is the notion of a discussion forum that includes the activist and the opposition. The discussions are not always as clearly defined, however.

The underlying point that emerges is that the “truth” is not always obvious, but desirable. The task of getting at the “truth” is the objective of journalism and advocacy organizations. Journalists, according to Boler, play a special role in cyber activism. Indeed, the media, itself is a type of advocacy forum from which “truth” can emerge.

In the case of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, we now know that the original assurances from the press and the collective, allied powers was simply a fabrication. We’re never left to understand the motivation or objective of such a grand deception, however. Indeed, many have criticized the messengers rather than the system that “produced” what we now know to be epic misjudgment. Boiler is helpful to understand this as a process of what McKenzie Wark defines as part of the “media vector”: ambiguous determinism, precise ambiguity.

The pre-war WMD discussion was like Wark’s “grasp for facts” in the face of elusive “electric mobility” of media. We were all quite convinced, absolutely assured that we knew the “truth”. As we all remember, there was the rapid almost frenzied search for the actual WMDs which never materialized.  The component that was equally important was Saddam’s inability to back down and admit that his threats were unsupported and false. In fact, we also trusted his rhetoric. It’s vaguely similar to the discussion about North Korean missiles and Iranian enrichment. Neither is really technically able to carry such a program to successful conclusion. Yet, we believe them! We are all equally mesmerized by the threat of a preemptive air strike by a nation that does not have the equipment or capability to be successful! It reenacts the Boler scenario based on the same semiotic elements that she explains and “discusses” in her edited discussion of this approach.

Fortunately, Boler appears to be somewhat realistic to include the intentional manipulation of the media by the proverbial “Spin Doctor”. Fred Luntz is a good example of the issue lobbyist and spinmeister”. In reality, all recognize the power of media influence. Despite our yearning for the truth, the facts appear to be beside the point where the “media is more powerful than any bomb” according to Amy Goodman. Yet, Boler’s consideration of media as a form of digital democracy, fails to take a broader look at environments in which democracy is difficult.

Recent discussions by Saudi Government officials at Harvard clarify that anyone participating in on-line discussions adapts to the aims of the kingdom and the religious leadership. Such on-line discussions and digital media do not encourage factual independence. Rather, there is a collective illusion in which everyone engaging in on-line exchanges participates. Thus, women’s rights are important, but religious and tribal leadership have an understood limit to such discussions. Indeed, enforcement appears to be self-imposed. Most of the Saudi attendees at the Harvard meeting indicated that their only choice was to leave the country in order to continue an unrestricted discussion. When I suggested that the government does not encourage free and unrestricted forums, the respondent rejected my suggestion as “uninformed”. Fortunately, the six Saudi citizens in attendance did not agree and provided their own examples.

Thus, we must consider Boler’s perspective as uniquely situated in democratic environments. Yet not every democratic setting is the same. Indeed, the very ideas expressed “democratically” may not be authentic or true. However, in most of these sites, the media has taken on an activist role to push the boundaries of discussion and to offer an alternative channel that may not be as restrained.

In fact, Boler addresses the notion of “Viral” discussions that redefine the public discussion and, possibly, empower unrestrained discussion. We have seen this throughout the Middle East in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Yet in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, such viral discussions were moderated or suppressed, actively. In fact, these are “closed” societies which do not encourage outside discussion or debate. In fact, Boler’s discussion is useful to explore how free discussion can be empowered and protected from “media conglomerates”.

However commendable the discussion, not everyone holds the same views. Thus, media conglomerates will always exist and may dominate discussions. Yet Boiler’s edition helps to provide useful examples of these environments and enabling methods to promote free discussions. What we realize, however, is that not every discussion is “free” and that “facts” are not always obvious. Indeed, democracy is always more difficult than it seems.

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About dpales

MIT Graduate Fellow. Research interest in cognitive studies, focused on mapping group and linguistic relationships in a causal environment -- i.e., does lingustic expression (i.e., language processing) permit a causal inference in real time.

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