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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

Event report: Communicative Power and Democracy

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Mon, 2007-10-15 13:34.

To celebrate the launch of the Global Civil Society Yearbook 07/08, Communicative Power and Democracy, a panel debate was held at the London School of Economics on 10th October 2007. The theme of the year book is exciting and important, recognising the central role that communication plays in democracy and the increasing levels of power that can be derived from control of information in the networked world.

Mary Kaldor started the discussion with an analysis of the relationship between democracy and globalisation. She argued that the promotion of formal democracy and its institutions around the world is part and parcel of globalisation; a means of integrating countries into the global system of liberal politics and economics. However, in contradiction to this, globalisation actually limits substantive democracy and the growth of democratic culture. Major decisions are now made at the global level in institutions to which most people have very limited access, and Kaldor stressed that this tension needs to be addressed through giving people more influence in global policy processes. However, she did not touch on what the implications are for national political institutions which continue to play a central role in local, national and international policy making.

She moved on to outline findings from a chapter in the yearbook, Global civil society and illiberal regimes, where she suggests that illiberal regimes now operate very differently from those in the past. In the current era of informational, economic and political globalisation, authoritarian governments are unable to shore up power through maintaining total control over information and economics. Instead, they derive their power from support from illiberal groups benefiting under the regime. She argued that the extent of democracy in a country therefore depends demand from the grassroots rather than on the strength of authoritarian institutions wielding power from above. Accordingly, she said, the key to successful democracy promotion is helping people to fulfill their enormous desire to communicate, thereby realising their communicative power to effect change. However, cases such as the increasingly sophisticated and often indirect control of communication systems in China and the Burmese government’s suppression of protest by brute force raise the questions of what communicative power actually is, and whether it is always enough to effect political change. Moreover, the tendency of large numbers of people to use communication spaces to engage in emotional ranting rather than rational debate suggests that communications literacy and formal/informal rules governing communications also need to be included alongside communicative power when considering the role of communication in processes of political change.

Nick Couldry based his contribution to the panel around the role of the media in forging successful democratic politics. Studies show that the mainstream media tend not to present people as active, politically engaged citizens but rather as a reactive public only capable of criticising the state. This has major implications for how people perceive their role in society and politics, emphasising rights and down-playing responsibilities. The media should fulfill their role of responsibly acting as catalysts for citizen action.

Abdul-Rehman Malik explored the inter-section between identity, communication and politics. He outlined research into the communicative habits of young people ‘hotwired into globalisation’, arguing that this group have confused, mashed up global and local identities. Ongoing political debates about how best to forge national citizenship and identities fail to recognise this and are therefore doomed to failure. People are increasingly fighting real and imaginary wars on new online platforms, with facebook emerging as a playing field for a proto-civil society as people set up groups advocating for certain causes. These causes are nearly always global in nature.

These trends raise important questions, and many were raised in the panel debate. For example, what are the implications of ‘glocalisation’ for national democracy? International campaigning can feel liberating, but is it productive? Are people choosing to concern themselves with international rather than national issues because they don’t feel politically empowered at the national level?

James Deane expressed concern about the low levels of interest amongst NGOs in the role that communications and media play in a democratic society; most are concerned simply with getting their message across via the media. He argued that mass campaigns led by international NGOs are concerned with occupying communicative space rather than sparking public debate and increasing the communicative power of excluded groups. There is little research on the effect that global trends such as media liberalisation and ownership concentration are having on people’s actual access to information and ability to exercise communicative power. Civil society actors need to engage with these issues, as do media bodies which he argued won’t become irrelevant with the rise of new media. As levels and sources of information explode, people will need common reference points more than ever before, and traditional media need to consider what their role should be in providing these in the internet era. Deane called for an ‘adult’ conversation about these issues, and decried the lack of a suitable arena for this to take place in. He argued that WSIS was controlled by governments and therefore not appropriate for such a conversation, yet this ignores the significant efforts that are being made by civil society and business groups to forge a multi-stakeholder arena for discussion at the Internet Governance Forum. These efforts need to be supported rather than written off if they are to succeed and expand to encompass a wider range of issues.

To sum up, the Global Civil Society panel debate raised a huge number of vitally important issues and questions, but was unable to offer much in the way of positive solutions or policy recommendations. This was in part due to the limited time available, and many of the issues raised are addressed in greater depth in the yearbook itself. However, a major reason why the debate tended to raise questions rather than propose answers was that nobody is quite sure of what ongoing changes mean, let alone of how to address them. There was an overwhelming sense that the analysts on the panel were struggling to catch up with and understand ongoing changes in communications – a task gargantuan enough without also trying to make sense of how they relate to processes of globalisation, civil society and democracy at local and global levels. Gaining such an understanding is of course an aim that is shared by the Freedom of Expression Project, and the panel debate both confirmed some of the findings of the project so far and provided important new insights. In summary, these included:

  • The significance of the inter-relationships that exist between identity, politics and communication.
  • The need for ‘traditional’ media to redefine its role within democratic politics.
  • The relevance of the notion of ‘communicative power’ for understanding political dynamics in liberal and illiberal regimes.
  • The vital need for civil society and government actors concerned with promoting or strengthening democracy and social justice to consider the central role that communication, and disparate levels of communicative power, plays in political, economic and social processes.