How Does Technology Transform Media and Public Opinion? A Conference with the Swedish Embassy in Den Haag at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht

HU Poster Digital Platforms conference

Last week I had the great privilege to host an event in collaboration with the Swedish embassy in Den Haag, Netherlands, on the highly urgent and somewhat controversial topic of ‘How Does Technology Transform Media & Public Opinion?” at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht.

Seven prolific speakers discussed current developments and challenges that come with the digitalisation of public communication and the rise of online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The program was based on ‘fireside talks’ between the invited experts from academia, governments, and media; emphasis was placed on three aspects:

 

  1. Technological Foundations and the Revolution of Communication – How Big Tech Changes the Public Sphere

The first section deals with how the rise of Internet technology first provided seemingly endless potentials to new modes of communication and access to the public for individuals and marginalised groups. News Media is no longer the sole source of mass-distributed information.

The mass distribution of Internet access enabled the rise of big tech companiessuch as Google and Facebook, that responded with constantly evolving services to the needs of a highly interconnected digital society. Leading Internet companies have turned into complex multi-purpose platforms that aim for binding users to their brands with a diversity of functions. They create spheres of increasing economic, cultural and political influence.

The implications for freedom of expression become apparent in transformations in media consumption and production. Traditional news media find themselves in a tough spotbetween ethical considerations, political missions, business goals, and an increasingly sceptical audience with access to countless alternative sources for information. Finally, there is the emerging trend to rely more increasingly on artificial intelligence in many web services which comes with an additional baggage of ethical and political questions.

 

  1. Potentials vs. Threats – Assessing the Pro’s and Con’s for Free Speech

On one hand, there are progressive social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter, that make use of the open accessibility of the Web and highlight how marginalised groups apply freedom of expression in the digital public sphere. On the other, the Web is often a highly toxic place where racism, misogynism, trolling, hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying thrive; the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ and current forms of right-wing populism partly originated from or made intensive use of online platforms. Groups apply the technologies in order to organize their members, spread the message, contest mainstream politics and media, and thus framing issues from their world views.

Fake news and filter bubbles are often-cited downsides of the rise of social media and personalised web experiences. But is the situation that black and white? It’s a fact that trust in mainstream politics and media is undermined and questioned and the fact that political factions engage in trench warfare and hate speech in various forms is a widespread problem.

Today, when determining freedom of expression one has to consider that no one really lives a completely private life in the age social media and search engines.

The question is also what the role of businesses, journalists/media and governments is in all of this? There are different levels of ‘public’ communication that are affected by current tech trends and obviously all three play central roles the digital public sphere but the relationships between them are changing.

 

  1. Responsibilities and Remedies

The question of responsibility where different social, economic and political factors need to be considered. Tech is not going away; the Internet is not some separate place we got to but has become an integral part of our daily lives in various ways. What is the role of journalism in a data-driven age? How can companies be creative and innovative without losing sight of mid- to long-term consequences? How can they balance ‘what they can do’ with ‘what they should do’? What is the role of regulators and governments? Finally, what are the responsibilities of the user?

You can watch a recording of the session here!

 

 

 

 

A Network Graph of the EU Web Sphere based on Hyperlinks (UPDATED)

The graph below visualises the hyperlink network of twenty-one political platforms in the EU context for the period between March 2011 and March 2013, which can be seen as one of the most tumultuous phases of the so-called EU crisis.

The  sample includes four major news media websites, three government websites (UK, Germany, Greece), four official EU websites, two think tank websites, four bloggers, and four NGO websites. I extracted all links from a sample of ca. 1320 postings that were published on these websites within the 24 months of intense crisis discourse covered in the analysis. Each node represents a website, while each line or “edge” stands for a unilateral hyperlink connection coming from a source (one of the 21 websites of the sample) to target; the size of a node implies how much content was produced by the respective platform within the focused time span, while  the thickness or “weight” of each line indicates how often a website was linked to from a source.

This graph is only a preliminary, incomplete draft and does not include all news media postings of the total sample yet; still, it gives a few insights in the structure of political online discourses in the EU context (click to enlarge):

EU Media Web
EU online media web sphere based on hyperlinks. The graph created with Gephi.

For starters, one can easily see that each of the sampled platforms had its very own sub-network of connections and references; they appear as centres of separate yet not completely isolated clusters. Could this be tendencies towards “silo formation” and fragmentation in the EU web discourse? At least the hyperlink pattern in the sample implies such a development, though the same must not necessarily apply to the actual content level and the network of non-hyperlink in-text references that might have emerged there. Still, looking at the structure of hyperlink networks provides access to the fabric of the transnational debate on the EU crisis and forms an adequate starting point for a more detailed discussion.

Apart from the smaller clusters around each node there seem to be ties between politically-ideologically similar websites; for example, in the upper half official EU web presence form a interconnected sub-network; on the right Eurosceptic websites appear to “amass”; the pro-European/federalist NGO Europa Union Deutschland mainly linked to a selection of like-minded sources, too. However, there are a few outliers that need closer examination, such as the “detached” sub-cluster around the extremely anti-European website Team Europe.

It is also interesting to observe that most websites link to themselves, as indicated by the coloured circles attached to the central nodes. Again, the bigger or “thicker” it is, the more often a particulate website tended to place a hyperlink to its own content within its postings.

These are just a few preliminary reflections and the initial observations need a more detailed discussion against the background of web-/public sphere theory and transnational communication. Nevertheless, this network graph highlights some interesting implications and provides further proof that at least a rudimentary transnational web sphere emerged in the EU crisis context.

Presentation at the PhD Conference in London (LSE), 15th June 2012

After months of reading and drafting for my actual PhD thesis, I finally found some time to post an update on this still very lively blog.

As some of you might already know, I will present a paper at a PhD conference/symposium in London – at the London School of Economics (LSE), to be more precise. I am going to present the findings of my research on the ‘European Blogosphere’ which I conducted in the context of my German MA thesis last year. However, I am currently revising my theoretical framework and take a fresh look at the empirical data I gathered in long weeks of coding. Read here the original proposal that was accepted by the committee. Comments are more than welcome!

The ‘European’ Blogosphere in Times of Global Crisis

Chances and Limits of Transnational Public Spheres on the Internet

Contemporary online media facilitate the exchange of information beyond geo- graphical, social, cultural, as well as political borders – and possibly stimulate com- municative interactions between members of different national backgrounds in a trans- or supranational context. This aspect is of considerable relevance for the aca- demic (and political) discussion on the chances and limits of transnational public spheres as well as ‘postnational’ identities in the context of Europe or the European Union, respectively. Little empirical research on these very issues exists so far. This is quite surprising, especially if one considers the broad dissemination of the Internet on the continent and its obvious potential for the emergence of transnational online discourses.

The present project attempts to narrow this gap by analysing a representative sample of political blogs covering EU-/European issues, published in English and German. Blogs have been repeatedly characterised as particularly suitable online media for open, multilateral debates and are one of the predominant modes of communicative interaction online. The central research questions are: Which topics are considered to be ‘European’? In which discursive networks are the blogs embedded? When do individuals leave their ‘national’ backgrounds behind and engage in discussions on transnational issues? Do participants express a certain identity? If yes, is it rather the national or a post-/transnational one (or a mixture of both)? To gather sufficient data, the complementary content analysis integrated quantitative and qualitative aspects.

This paper will finally show how we can observe transnational online public spheres as context-depending, dynamic communicative phenomena and that both the na- tional as well as transnational dimension do not exclude each other but do exist in parallel and often overlap. The ‘European’ blogosphere, however, appears to remain an elite project of limited social scope.

Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com

Publication Project II: Censorship, Online Media, and Digital Culture

As stated in an earlier post, I am currently working on a number of research projects alongside my PhD. In the first of these ventures I collaborate with Tomi Oladepo from Warwick University for an analysis of transnational online public spheres in Africa and Europe. A second one will deal with forms of and conditions for censorship in digital culture.  This second project will be conducted in cooperation with my colleague Jennifer Eickelmann from the Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). She is also a PhD student (as well as lecturer) and currently works on (postmodern) modes and techniques of content production on the Internet. Before that, she finished her MA in 2010 with a high quality thesis on performance, resistance, and Youtube. You can read one of her articles here (in German).

We will discuss in our article contemporary forms of censorship in cyberspace –  i.e. the multidimensional practice of information control that often combines social, cultural, and political modes of sanctioning content production as well as -distribution. It will focus on the disciplining of the expression of utterances as a mode of power, so to say. Forms of ‘censorship’ need thereby to be assessed against their specific cultural and historical (i.e. discursive) background since they emerge in various different contexts and are subject to constant change; the same goes of course for the definition of concepts like ‘classified information’ or ‘political correctness’. As Wikileaks and the follow-up discussion it caused have shown, the issue of controlling what can be made publicly available and what not is an urgent matter today – not only as regards criticism on totalitarian regimes but especially when it comes to assess the extents of freedom in liberal democracies. However, one has not necessarily to discuss extraordinary political events to address and discuss the issue. In fact, censorship is an inherent part of our everyday live and determines our communicative behaviour both off- and online in multiple ways. Each culture displays it own laws and rules to control what an individual can say and which utterances have to be sanctioned. The historical background and actual context of a statement (as an umbrella term for any sort of text) is in this respect often the determining factor for the implementation/non-implementation of censorship. Regarding contemporary practices of postmodern content production, censorship -as an instrument of monopolising ideas- can also thwart and impede the creation of the “new” by artists, users etc. To create something new, the practice of quoting and reassembling the already available is indispensable (Mathy/Dietrich 1998). Yet many professional content producers try to protect their ‘intellectual property’, sometimes with relatively harsh measures. Hence,  censorship is also a powerful tool for established hegemonies to diminish the creative (subversive) potential of the “networked information economy” (Benkler 2006).

We will provide a taxonomy of modes of censorship and discuss to what extent the Web actually provides the means for genuine social, cultural, and political resistance. Some of the main questions we have to address are: Who does exert control on the Web? What technological and what cultural sanctions exist? What legitimations and justifications do governments (or corporations) refer to when they attempt to apply forms of censorship (i.e. under what circumstances does it emerge)? What factors determine the current notion of ‘political correctness’ in societal discourses? The project is still in a very early stage and the theoretical framework, methodology, as well as actual subject-matter-of-consideration still need to be defined.

Literature:

Benkler, Yochai (2006): The Wealth of Networks. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Mathy, Dietrich (1998): “Vorab ergänzend”, in: Hilmes, Carola/Mathy, Dientrich (eds.): Dasselbe noch einmal: Die Ästehtik der Wiederholung. Westdeutscher Verlag.

Jürgen Habermas – A Few Reliable Web Links

Jürgen Habermas’s work on the public sphere, public opinion and its impact on liberal-democratic societies is of considerable relevance for disciplines as diverse as political science, sociology, communication sciences, media studies, and (state) philosophy. As usual, the Internet provides numerous resources, of which are some more and others less useful. In this post I have assembled a list  websites I used for my own work on transnational political public debate in the European Union  (English publications only).

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A brief yet comprehensive introduction into Habermas’s life and work. Summarizes his major theories and provides a useful bibliography.

2. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Google books provides Habermas’ most important work as regard the sociological as well as political analysis of the phenomenon he designated the ‘public sphere’. In recent years it experienced a kind of renaissance, especially in branches of anglophone communication and media studies focusing online discourses.

3. The Theory of Communicative Action Vol.1: An English translation of another major work written by Habermas from 1984. Available as a pdf file.

4. Habermas – A Critical Introduction: A comprehensive introduction into Habermas’s theories available at Google books.

5. Habermas – The Key Concepts: Same as above.

6. Vancouver Island University: A very brief summarization of the Habermasian conception of the public sphere.

7. Carnegie Mellon University: This website provides a summarization of Habermas’ discourse ethics. The brief definitions of his quite complex key terms are especially useful.

8. Bent Flyvberg: An interesting article in which the author contrasts both Foucault’s and Habermas’s perspectives and relevance for the civil society.

9. FT.com: An interesting article and interview with Habermas from 2010. The article portrays Habermas’s philosophical background (quite cursory of course) and the Interview provides  his perspective on the political future of Europe.

10. Marxist.org: A very brief account of his life and translations of Knowledge & Human Interest (1968) and Communicative Ethics (1998).

11. The Nation: An article written by Habermas on Germany and the Euro-Crisis.

12. New Left Review: In this article Habermas elaborately explains why Europe needs a transnational constitution in order to ensure its political survival in the 21st century.

13. Reset Doc: An article written by Habermas on the ‘post-secular’ society.

Additionally, here an interview with Habermas from 2007 on youtube (in English):

As I said, this is just a snippet of the tons of material available online. I will therefore regularly update this post.