Is democracy possible now?

Last month, SAGE sponsored a one-day symposium at the British Academy on the future of democracy, and media’s contribution to that future. It was jointly organized by SAGE and Goldsmiths’ Centre for the study of Global Media and Democracy. As our MD, Stephen Barr, commented, SAGE is committed to supporting the intellectual content of our publishing and to push these issues into the public sphere through events such as these, as we are with socialsciencespace.

The rumour bomb

Speaking at the event was Jayson Harsin from the American University of Paris who discussed The Rumour Bomb – Vertiginous democracy in convergence culture. Jayson discussed the media as a pseudo representative democracy and an Elitist control project with the result being a politically free but culturally contained state.

Jayson defined a rumour bomb as a statement whose veracity is not quickly or ever confirmed usually about a public figure or policy. Other characteristics were that it takes place in the context of public uncertainty, from a partisan or anonymous source and with rapid electronic diffusion. Jayson suggests that an example of this is the rumour that Barak Obama is a Muslim. According to polls 45% of those polled either think he is or are not sure and 60% of them learnt this information from either an old media or internet source.

According to Jayson, rumour bomb originators are professional conservative opinion leaders that in the pre-digital age would not have got their message out. However, in this new digital era, the media will now broker and source this news and then use these people as pundits. It is these new thought leaders that lead to tipping points in public opinion as they come through from trusted sources such as emails forwarded from family and social media rather than spam. Jayson argued that these people need to be recognised as powerful agents in public discourse and we need to take note of the power, importance and danger of rumour bombs.

Media as a democracy

Aeron Davis also talked on the topic of Media as a democracy. He asserted that there has been politics and media convergence, sharing results of a study to explore this which interviewed journalists and politicians on this topic. He first looked at the mediation/mediatisation of politics in the UK political sphere and discovered that UK politicians mediated in terms of media obsession and consumption, in that they use it as a source for new policy/new channels with the relevant television shows and websites constantly monitored.

He found that most politicians have a great deal of media knowledge and training. 10 of the 20 he interviewed had previously worked in public relations or as a journalist. This included party leaders, who are all now very media savvy and presentable, with David Cameron having a previous role as an advisor/researcher and PR executive. He also found that most politicians he interviewed had at least one interaction with journalists per day.

When discussing what forms the mediation of politicians takes he put forward the following ideas:

• Kite flying – putting ideas through the media before making policy to gauge public perception

• Undermining rivals

• Newsworthiness of policies – staying away from anything that could rock the boat

• Asking journalists advice on policy

With the use of these actions media and politics are intertwined.

The day was, aptly, the same day as the student protests in London outside parliament, with many delegates heading out during an extended lunchbreak to join the march.

Communicative capitalism

How do online networks contribute to inequalities? How do they promote and limit genuine possibilities for debate, contestation and resistance? How does capitalism use these new forms of communication, and what’s the result for democracy? Does more and better communication, as enabled by the internet, give us more and better democracy?

In the final session of the day, Jodi Dean, author of Blog Theory (Polity, 2010) and Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Duke University Press, 2009) tackled these questions, arguing that in today’s ‘communicative capitalism’, networks reinforce inequalities and in the ongoing financial crisis democracy is not an innocent bystander. She powerfully argued that we are increasingly trapped within a fetish of the online, in which appearance matters more than action. This is ‘politics lite’. Everyone has a voice, ‘we are the world’, and the internet lets us all express our opinions to our hearts’ content.

However, the tumultuous environment of the internet means that in competing for attention, political messages become more about ‘appearing’ than ‘doing’. With constant calls to ‘participate’, political action is subsumed in the endless circulation of online petitions. The fact of saying something becomes sufficient, and the substance of it matters less and less.

Where democracy was once a position of opposition, everyone takes it without question as a good. We don’t lack participation; in fact we are overrun with participation. Where is the opposition now? Wikileaks? Back in the streets?

The global crisis of capitalism, which has put the world economy into meltdown since 2007, has changed the terms of debate. Questions of inequality, and how so many have come to control so much at the expense of so many, have returned to social science with urgency. Jodi Dean gave us a provocative view into how digital media, which are so often presented as forces of equality, help contribute to the logic of inequality. With students protesting outside, the question was never so pertinent.

Watch Jodi Dean’s keynote address:

Is Democracy Possible – Now? (A SAGE and Goldsmiths event) from SAGE Publications on Vimeo.

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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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