Social Change and Media Reform – How I began constructing my ideas for structural change

40 years after Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ it still rings poignantly true. It hit the streets as a commentary on the civil rights movement and an anthem for the Black Power movement, and yet it could have been written yesterday.

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The relationship between the media and social movements has always been strained and complicated, with movements often framed as deviant and unjustified lawlessness as opposed to a legitimate call for social change. Social movements are disruptions to the status quo and understandably are not welcomed by hegemonic powers. Nonetheless, the media is a crucial factor in the success of a movement as it gives visibility to the public, creates resonance with like-minded citizens and establishes legitimacy (Thomas, 2006).

Social movements have arisen throughout the history of humankind in all forms in all parts of the globe displaying a vast multitude of motivations and diverse sources of momentum. The legitimacy and resulting actions of various movements are topics of much debate and animated discussion. However, their point of commonality is that they stem from the desire for a change within society and that desire cannot be objectively analysed (Castells, 1997). This influences the mobilisation of resources around an idea or ideology spurred by a point of solidarity. This point of solidarity is what unites the members of the movement together in the face of a common enemy or desired goal.

It would be easy to attribute the limited results and frustrated efforts with regards to the establishment of a global media reform movement (Thomas, 2006) to shortcomings of organisational skills, clarity and consensus amongst its proponents, lack of available funding, and so on. However, this would be a misjudgement on the actual magnitude of the undertaking. The resistance to such efforts and the seemingly insurmountable odds which this movement faces should only make us realise the importance of this particular movement.

Throughout history, society has headed towards an inevitable convergence of space, place and base. The boundaries of space and time which previously separated our world have been removed through technological advances in travel and communication, the economies have become interconnected, our environment is finally understood as globally connected and environmental issues are no longer contained locally. This global society has become increasingly interconnected and our concerns and actions interrelated. As a result, our social movements have necessarily become increasingly global in nature.

We must not consider the Media Reform Movement as a one which is parallel to, and acting alongside the environmental movements, human rights, women’s movements and poverty alleviation;, this would be a gross underestimation of the implications of such a movement on our society. It is perhaps this misconception which has limited the success and influenced the approach of the movement.

Media reform is on the front line of social change; it is the overarching motion of the tides, while other movements work as the waves. A successful media reform movement is possibly the most vital step towards the establishment of a fair, just and peaceful society. Media, content production and communications methods, control not only the ideas that frame society and influence its behaviour, but it even goes as far as deciding what themes and concepts are even up for debate. It is for this reason that I propose that media and communications reform is the movement that we should garner support for and initiate agency towards.

If we want to change society, we need to alter the media diet of the population; the content that is consumed. This includes the online content, popular entertainment, music, arts, news, and even gaming. All social change movements rely on a change in behaviour, a shift in perception and an evolution of social norm, and these all require a changes content production and media and communications reform. Tackling the issues of environmental neglect, rape culture, racial prejudice and even class and economic disparity, all rely on a change in understanding that will cause a change in behaviour.

The pervasiveness and ever-present nature of media and communications today as opposed to thirty years ago means even education systems cannot keep up with the behavioural influence of the media content that is consumed on a daily basis. Not reading newspapers or watching the evening news does not insulate one from this control. Even the things we are passionately for or against is decided by what the media chooses to cover and how the issue is framed.

Once we dive deeper into the underlying principles of the aforementioned global movements, it becomes clear that a common thread unites these movements and places them all broadly under the umbrella of media reform and communication rights.

Media reform and communication rights in its truest and purest, strike at both the heart and throat of the neo-liberal consumer driven capitalist and patriarchal society that we exist in. This capitalist experiment which has been carried out is the cause of the injustice of our world; there is no question. By the heart, I refer to the idea of the privatisation of the commons and the commodification of the world; the copyright of medical research methods, treatments and cures, music, software and technologies, as opposed to it being common knowledge owned by the public and implemented for the betterment of society.

Media and communications reform also question the privatisation of, and profiteering from telecommunications and the internet (Stein, 2009). This approach to Intellectual Property and communication should be applied to all other commons; the environment, natural resources, companies providing basic needs such as food, water and electricity and in effect, the entire capitalist experiment.

The throat refers to the mouthpiece of its propaganda machines, legitimising war for resources, the demonization of Indigenous groups and their knowledge, re-enforcing prejudice, perpetuating excessive consumption, establishing societal norms and laying the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion whilst also framing and undermining alternative perspectives. The democratisation of the media aims to bring about a society where contribution to media content and in effect global discourse would be diversified and representative of the actual population of our society; and not the whitewash that it currently is.

This would necessarily bring about massive changes to the media ownership policies of governments and end the incestuous, polygamous marriage between media, governance and corporate interests. The concept of mental environmentalism is also aligned with media reform and content democratisation. Media reform movements are therefore taking aim at the core of the system, and this is not something that the media or controlling elites will take lying down.

Many examples of national media reform movements have been witnessed in contemporary history with temporary results. The Peruvian experience of the 1968 military coup is a case of attempts at media reform with limited effect and short-sighted approaches. As has been the case with many leadership based revolutions, it only produced a reshuffling of governance and one form of suppression replaced with other (Mattos & Atwood, 1982). The media structure was still a sender-based communication system which did not address the democratisation of the media at all; it merely changed the sender. This cyclic transition of ownership with no democratisation of the media was also the case wth the decade of Thai media reform efforts.

Examples of media influenced revolutions, and the power of the US media juggernaut include the CIA-backed coup d’état overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 as an American backlash to the nationalising of the Anglo-Iranian Oil company. It is evident that even democracy does not hinder the commercial interest of the US. With the media’s power to control and alter the course of our global history in favour of the interests of the controlling elite and commercial corporations, one realises the full implications of a media reform movement and understands the complexity of establishing and giving momentum to such a movement. Mainstream media would in no wise knowingly assist such an endeavour.

The political economy of the media in the US can be understood to be the reasoning behind the tangential approaches to media reform which major funding bodies support. The misconception that the media is a ‘natural’ system with self-regulatory characteristics had by the late 1980’s begun to unravel as it became apparent that it had always required support from crucial policies and subsidies (Pike, 2004). The most powerful media apparatus of the world is, of course, that of the US, and it is a reflection of the political system of that country. Any efforts which aim to bring about fundamental changes to the media would inevitably challenge the entire capitalist structure; therefore the nature of the media is inextricably intertwined with the nature of the political structure.

The policy debate influenced by commercial interests and therefore tending to be undertaken by the controlling elite with public debate stifled due to the inconsequential and trivialised subject matter presented to the public via the media (McChesney, 2004).

The Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign is a prime example of an initiative which is struggling to find financial support for initiatives which it identifies as of global importance (Thomas, 2006). The numerous local chapters of CRIS being established attests to the fact that the issues being dealt with are of global relevance however its successes have been restricted to a presence at conventions, panels and advisory boards with genuine momentum still lacking.

The outcomes of media reform initiatives have been limited to support for local and discrete projects with little scope and no global resonance (Thomas, 2006). Ironically the system which media reform and communication rights philosophies fundamentally critique is the same system within which NGO’s are working within. A competition based, resource driven fight for survival against each other which not only impedes collaboration but more importantly renders such initiatives prone to manipulation and leads to a ‘scramble to re-vision, re-organize, realign’ every time a funding body changes its agenda (Thomas, 2006). Leftist organisations even ‘burrow’ into these narrow, specific reforms as dictated by hegemonic influences and hence ensure their financial viability and future existence and in doing so also ensure their irrelevance to structural change. (Hackett & Carroll, 2004)

This brings us back to the point of solidarity, which is one of the key sources of momentum for any social movement. By setting the agenda and direction of media reform the funding agencies divert the attention and efforts of campaigns aimed at media reform into projects which address symptomatic issues rather than core underlying factors. This global resonance, this point of solidarity amongst the masses is what the media reform and communication rights movements need to deliberate on. The general public is not incapable of comprehending the issues which are being tackled they just need a platform which is relevant to their daily lives. The rise in citizen-initiated culture jamming is a sure sign that the dissent is rising and the general public, though not as eloquently as the academics, can still articulate resentment towards media imperialism and understand the need for communication rights and media reform.

The importance of a locally managed radio station in isolated communities has little resonance to the general public of a country like Australia; they may agree to its worth but unlikely to feel passionate about it. And yet even a conservative retiree would readily join the movement if the implications of Intellectual Property laws on the cost of their medication could be succinctly explained to them. Youth populations youth may not fully understand the implications of open source software for developing nations, but the idea of peer-to-peer music sharing is something that they could identify with. Momentum comes from solidarity and citizen agency, or civil disobedience. Media reform needs to leverage alternative media, social networking and the release the full potential of the internet and connectivity to initiate and empower citizen agency.

One of the fundamental Paradoxes of development has always been and still is, even in participatory and dialogical forms, a continuation of the colonial experiment and when we look at where the resources and financial assistance comes from we can see why. The way forward is to look inward. It is our western so called ‘developed’ societies which are in need of development, and it is within these constituencies which we need to find issues of solidarity and motivation for social change.

Though present-day sociologists mostly reject Collective Behavior theory as individuals acting irrationally, Herbert Bulmers’ understanding of social movements as the fourth form of collective behaviour has something to offer here. He has described social movements as being either ‘active’, wanting to bring about change within society, or ‘expressive’, wanting to bring about change within its membership. Perhaps we have reached a precipice of human progress where we need to combine the two and realise that we require both internal and external change to develop. This could very well stand true on a personal and a global scale. Western society should finally wake up and realise that the problems of the marginalised and underprivileged are not endemic but rather stem from so-called developed nations and their further incorporation into this failing system will not alleviate inequity and injustice.

Collective Behavior theory of social movements had framed movements as the acts of irrational individuals who had not yet been integrated into the system. Though this idea has been rejected and alternatives have been successively proposed they still have a sense of hegemony to them. Relative Deprivation as well as Rational Choice theory both places the impetus on the deprived and excluded.

Resource Mobilization theory though able to more accurately frame social movements as social institutions with rational actors focused on bringing about social, economic or political change still frames it as individual desire and economic or political motivation of the alienated. This form of reductionism completely disregards the concept of those actors which are involved not out of deprivation or their personal economic situation. Anti-whaling protest efforts is one example of innumerable cases where mobilisation of resources is not connected to economic factors, but purely a result of individual agency forming a collective motion for a cause or belief. The emphasis on organisation and efficiency within an organisation clearly reveals the North American roots of this theory.

The New Social Movements theory with its European influence takes into consideration production of meaning and the constitution of new collective identities (Offe, 1985: 831). As Habermas explains, the disruption of norm and meaning production processes by steering mechanisms (colonisation of the life world) is the cause of our current crisis (Habermas, 1981: 35). New Social Movement theory may have various authors and diverse perspectives. However, convergence towards the concept of the discontinuity of traditional to contemporary social movements is apparent, and this is referred to as the rupture. Though there may be some relative truth to the concept of contemporary social movements as ‘middle class’ movements with meaning and identity acting as a fulcrum, this too has shortsightedness.

We have discussed the relationship of the media and social movements with the realisation that visibility, resonance and legitimacy are all dependent on the media, and this raises the issue of framing and the power which the media holds over the success or failure of a movement. We can easily understand that an event which receives no coverage is a non-event (Thomas, 2006).

With this background, we should critically examine what we consider as a social movement in our contemporary society and why? Is this so called ‘rupture’ which New Social Movement theory refers to, from traditional economic and class-based struggle to identity and meaning production efforts a legitimate statement or a skilful manipulation? Is it just the media, the state and the economic players who wish to frame the movements as purely identity and meaning based movements? If this were the case, then in doing so they would effectively divert attention from the underlying factors and resist the legitimacy crisis currently facing them.

At a quick glance over these so-called ‘identity and meaning based’ struggles, we can immediately identify underlying economic factors. The system within which we move creates in us economic considerations that we do not naturally possess; we are not born with these concerns. As a result, almost all social issues and concerns can be related or connected to underlying economic factors.

Beyond the moral and social justice issues, of all movements, we will be able to find an underlying economic issue. And as such, in order to dismantle the failing structures of society, we must bring social movements together with a common point of solidarity and then approach the task at hand with a coordinated and cohesive effort that attacks the heart of the system.

The still, ongoing black rights movement, though identity-based, stems from economic factors of injustice and exploitation.The women’s rights movement beyond the moral and social justice concerns can also be linked to economic factors of equal rights within the workplace; wages, positions of power, roles within society, etc. The environmental issues we face are very closely linked to the economy, and in fact intertwined. This is a perfect example of a case where the diverse symptoms are being presented by the media, i.e. global warming, decreasing biodiversity, animal rights, logging of forests, and yet the common economic core of it is not expressed; it is all connected to our economic behaviours. These social issues though sources of solidarity amongst some, are framed in such a way as though they bear no direct influence on our daily life or to other movements.

Global warming though it is happening, has not been conclusively articulated to be a result of greenhouse gases; the media allows the confusion to continue. Animal rights are important to many yet bear no impact on how people will pay my mortgage, and the biodiversity of our ecosystem is crucial to maintaining life on earth, but it’s not going to pay people’s electricity bills. These issues are all framed in such a way that the suppressed masses will find no common ground for solidarity and unison and instead fragment into isolated movements bereft of global momentum and collective action yet they are all inextricably linked to our economies, economic situations and behaviours.

Resource Mobilization Theory has linked social movements solely to economic and political factors stemming from disenfranchised and suppressed populations leaving the concepts of volunteerism and the collective actions of actors which by and large have no economic or political motivation. Neither Resource Mobilisation nor New Social Movements Theory addresses the concept of educated, economically content and ideologically unsuppressed individuals forming, joining or supporting social movements.

The New Social Movement theory is a step forward from previous social movement theory, and incorporates the complexity of culture, identity and meaning; however, it has framed social movements as isolated and with disparate points of solidarity which are fixed on differing fulcrums from each other.

The answer for those engaged in media reform, communication rights and in fact all social movements lie in these two theories being reconciled with the realisation that all social movements contemporary or traditional share a common fulcrum.

With this further development of social movement theory and taking into consideration concepts of volunteerism, individual recognition of injustice, and the development of social consciousness we will gain a better understanding of the current situation and have a more complete Social Movements Theory.

 

 

 

– Erfan Daliri –