Friday, December 23, 2011

Understanding the new media (Part2 of 2)

Understanding the new media (Part2 of 2)
Alwi Dahlan, Jakarta | Thu, 12/22/2011 9:51 AM
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A true understanding of the new media’s role in social movements is missing because reports are mostly one-sided and look only from the perspective of the activists.

However, the new media is actually a verbal weapon of action used by both sides to achieve their own respective goals. It does not have to conform to any ethical standard and may use questionable practices, for example the manipulation of facts and data, deception or hacking, to achieve a victory over the adversary.

 This is only natural in any conflicting situation between a protest movement and the authorities, in which the mind and loyalty of the total population is being contested.

As with any other product of technology, the new media is basically neutral. It is not developed specifically just for protest movements in order they can overthrow governments in power, or vice versa. Both sides may, and do, use it for their own specific needs at a given time.

Any government, authoritarian or democratic, would intuitively apply any available means to safeguard national security, including the regime in power. It may start with information gathering by monitoring the dissidents’ media, followed by stronger actions.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian Internet Agency assigned 2,000 online police officers to enforce censorship by massively blocking media websites, in addition to curbing the distribution of videos and photos. With the change of regime following the victory of the revolution, censorship was lifted.

Obviously, a clear explanation or analysis for the failure or success of the new media in relation to such a political movement should take the government factor into account. The revolution movement is directed at the government in power. For insurgents, media technology is only an instrument they use to achieve a goal. The position of technology or media is neutral in the fight between the parties in conflict. Although the way the media is used by insurgents is important, actually it is the reaction of the government in power that plays a determining role.

The challenges faced by an authoritarian government to make the best use of the new media, including controlling its content, are overwhelming. The growth of the new media is fast, more complex in organization, form and production. Control can no longer be had by just erasing banned keywords, like the old-time censorship of pornographic or provocative matters.

The case of China best illustrates the complex problems faced by such a country in managing the new media environment. On one hand, the government needs to facilitate the fast growth of its Internet industry (including the new media) to meet the rising market, the demand for better living, education and the necessity to stimulate the overall economy.

To safeguard political stability, however, there is a contradictory need to manage and prevent the potentially negative impacts of the flood of information brought in by the Internet, which may include potential discontent among younger generations, conflict between the national ideology and wider global awareness, dissatisfaction with the lagging progress in the rural area when compared to the material living exposed by the media and the wide diversity of its population (which in China also comprises the Uighur Muslim ethnic group that was involved in the 2009 Urumqi riots). In addition, the size and reach of the new media is such that the government has to be very careful in handling it.

Faced with that kind of challenge, China has several options to control the content and influence the impact of new media. Based on its ideology and revolutionary experience, however, the instinctive temptation was in favor of a harsh or forceful action. Hence, when an ethnic conflict involving a Muslim ethnic group erupted in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in July 2009, China immediately imposed a total communication blackout lasting for six months.

Some information did seep out of Xinjiang due to a computer-savvy young generation of Internet users, but not for long. The censors removed all of the comments on Xinjiang in various websites within a few hours.

This method of censorship is still enforced across the country today, and even expands to include the filtering of cell phone text messages. In addition, the authorities apply some of the insurgents’ strategies: constructing original Internet sites (such as microblogs) to develop community-based social networks that are not against the government, run by paid “net commentators”.

The control of the new media is becoming more difficult with the increasing sophistication of activists in their application of media technology, frequently with the involvement of foreign experts, sympathizers, even foreign powers. New media communications have become even more complex, with more anti-censorship and anonymity services springing up to circumvent censors, not necessarily due to political or ideological purposes but for business and industrial security needs.

On the other hand, such actions may not necessarily stop the censors, who feel challenged to escalate a more complicated cyber war.

The political uses of new media as a form of public communication are not limited to freedom of speech. It’s been shown that new media have been used successfully in certain “revolutions”, real revolutions that come from clashes between the population and their authoritarian regimes, but in other cases the new media have been used more for public relations or political communication purposes, to paint the revolution as more authentic or genuine, even when it was not. In other words, some of the credits that are supposedly for “revolution” that have been won by the new media, may only be a form of the uses of the old mass media.

The new media offer certain advantages for political communication, compared to the old mass media. By virtue of its interactive characteristics, for example, one type of new media could follow and get involved with the dynamics of real time politics, 24/7, and offer a virtual public space where politicians and public could interact.

There are also other types of new media, to fulfill different types of interactions useful for various players in the arena of political communication. Yet, it is not the only forum for political maneuvers: public political communication also uses the new media in combination with old mass media.

Note, however, that the new media has a built-in disadvantage in political communication — the problem of identification of participants or the political source of media content, particularly if the media is used for discussion groups, interactive debates and the like. The stated source, for instance, may be misleading.

This explains why the issue of media content and censorship has become serious and complicated, involving new technologies, counter actions and cyber warfare. Without an awareness of such developments, countries may be influenced by foreign interests in their media policies.

The writer, who obtained his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Illinois in 1967, is professor emeritus in communications at the University of Indonesia and was the information minister in 1998. This article is condensed from a paper presented at the World Muslim League conference on the New Media, recently held in Jakarta.

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