A girl raises her hand in class in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
This article discusses the role of media and communications in contributing to social progress, as elaborated in a landmark international project – the International Panel on Social Progress. First, it analyses how media and digital platforms have contributed to global inequality by examining media access and infrastructure across world regions. Second, it looks at media governance and the different mechanisms of corporatized control over media platforms, algorithms and content. Third, the article examines how the democratization of media is a key element in the struggle for social justice. It argues that effective media access – in terms of distribution of media resources, even relations between spaces of connection and the design and operation of spaces that foster dialogue, free speech and respectful cultural exchange – is a core component of social progress.
In January 2015, a group of academics from different disciplines and areas of the world convened in Paris to plan an initiative known as the International Panel for Social Progress: Rethinking Society for the XXI Century (IPSP). Spearheaded by Princeton University philosopher Marc Fleurbaey and Olivier Bouin, director of the College d’Etudes Mondiales in Paris, the IPSP examines pressing issues in contemporary society in an attempt to formulate a diagnosis and clear a path toward more just communities.
Behind the IPSP is the realization that neo-liberal economic models have become the dominant narrative in both the industrialized world and the Global South. As a hegemonic narrative, capitalism and neo-liberal economic and political models have eclipsed alternative modes of thinking and envisioning of how to organize our societies. And yet, since World War II, social scientists have produced a vast body of evidence and knowledge about the negative impacts of neo-liberal economics on all areas of social life, from gender equity to environmental degradation and war.
According to the IPSP: “Inequality has been the hallmark of neoliberal economic policies that have been well entrenched since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the signing of the World Trade Agreement, and the creation of the WTO” (IPSP, 2016: 5). The IPSP sought to harness the competence of 250 social scientists from all areas of the world and a wide variety of disciplinary fields to produce a report by 2017 (IPSP, 2017).
The IPSP approaches the concept of progress as a somewhat flexible compass that can help delineate the process of rethinking society, but insists that progress must be conceived of in a pluralistic way, consistent with the diversity of our shared world. The IPSP’s definition of progress includes “basic values of well-being (itself multi-dimensional), freedom and agency, esteem, and reconciliation & non-alienation. There are also various objective (or ‘merit’) goods. The most important principles in this context are justice (of various types, esp. distributive justice), respect for basic rights, and charity or beneficence” (IPSP, 2016: 13).
The IPSP has established a critical dialogue with the Social Progress Index (SPI), a set of indicators developed recently in an attempt to “move beyond GDP” (Social Progress Index, 2016). Under the heading “Foundations of Wellbeing”, the SPI includes a component on “Access to Information and Communication”, with three indicators: 1) mobile telephone subscriptions; 2) Internet users; and 3) the Press Freedom Index. One of the goals of Chapter 13 of the IPSP report on Media and Communications was to critically assess such narrow approaches to questions of communication and information access and subsequently build a more encompassing narrative, both of what “media” are and media’s potential contributions, negative and positive, to social progress broadly defined.
Chapter 13 was written by a team of twelve primary authors and five contributing authors from China, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, Lebanon, England, Japan and several other countries. The original team was assembled by Nick Couldry with an emphasis on regional diversity and a commitment to working across the boundaries of disciplines that intersect in the media and communications field. Of particular value are the inclusion of the interdisciplinary insights of legal theorist Julie Cohen and the perspectives of media advocacy experts and activists.
In this article, we intend to present the core findings of IPSP’s Chapter 13, with the goal of encouraging an expansion of the public conversation around key issues of inequality, access, and governance of information and communication technologies and platforms, and the practical measures and policy tools that might enable media to contribute to social progress in the way that so many hope. Our effort clearly builds upon important foundations such as the MacBride report, Many Voices, One World (UNESCO, 1980), prepared for UNESCO in 1980, as well as decades of effort to foster media freedom and collective and individual rights of expression, information and ideas captured in the resonant Article 19 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Our joint belief is that it is an important moment for the development of the field of Communication for Social Change. The expertise of media and communications researchers is called upon within a wider global debate about the future of social progress. That belief has motivated our shared efforts and will, we hope, stimulate further debate and discussion.
In proposing a new analysis and approach to the present high stakes moment in global media and communications, we hope this article will serve to highlight the urgent research and developing policy, practitioner and activist struggles that require our sustained attention.
Media and digital platforms: Key factors of global inequality
Much of humanity now holds in its hands the means to connect across the world: to family, entertainment and the broadcasts of corporations, states and, increasingly, counter-state organizations such as ISIS. This differently connected world has major implications for social progress and global justice, but the media and information infrastructures that make it possible must be part of any discussion of those lofty goals. Developments in digital technologies over the last 30 years have massively expanded humans’ capacity to communicate across time and space. Media infrastructures have simultaneously become increasingly complex.
By “media”, we mean technologies used for the production, dissemination and reception of communication, but also the content distributed through those technologies and their associated institutions.2 The relations between media, communications and social progress are complex. More people can now connect and make meaning through media, providing an important resource for new movements for justice and social progress. Meanwhile, addressing the uneven distribution of opportunities to access and use media is itself a dimension of working towards social justice.
Media infrastructures and access have spread unevenly across the world. Traditional and digital media developed according to distinctive histories across the world, with varying marketization and state control. Inequalities of access are starkly evident both between and within regions and inside countries, with implications for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cultural flows through media vary greatly within and between regions as well.
For example, the media system in Mexico is highly concentrated and deeply marketized. Its core is commercial broadcasting, owned by private corporations controlled by a handful of individuals. The power of those media corporations was built from alliances between powerful economic groups aligned with government interests that have benefited from discretionary grants, television and radio concessions, lucrative contracts for governmental advertising in print media, and ad hoc legislation (or lack of it) in favour of the sector’s economic interests. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the country adopted a capitalist economic model and initiated corporatization of the Mexican state. Lack of regulation and communication policies led to a concentration of media in the hands of a few families.
In the early 20th century, well-established industrial families (railway, mining and banking) invested in radio broadcasting. Today there are 1,600 radio stations, 80% of which are owned by just 13 families. The Azcárraga family owns the Televisa conglomerate, the most influential global producer and distributor of Spanish-language audio-visual content, as well as free-to-air television channels, restricted television systems (satellite and cable), a leading Spanish editorial house, radio stations, entertainment companies, soccer teams and stadiums, music recording companies and cinema distribution companies. Carlos Slim’s Telmex/Telcel conglomerate started with landline telephone services (Telmex has 65% of the national market) and moved on to mobile telephony (Telcel has 65% of subscribers) and Internet services (75% of subscribers). Mexico’s mobile phone and Internet service costs are in the middle of international rankings (ITU, 2014), making these services out of reach for Mexico’s rural poor majority.
In contrast, Sweden’s media is shaped by a welfare state system (typical of Scandinavian Nordic countries) and characterized by a distinctive relation between media and state, market and civil society. Traditionally, Sweden has had high voter turnout and high levels of literacy and newspaper reading, not least due to the national subsidy system for print newspapers, which has resulted in a plurality of local newspapers with high readership. Typically, the subsidy system provided for a plurality of political positions, with at least two local or regional newspapers representing divergent political viewpoints. Like other European countries, Sweden has had a strong public service broadcaster for radio and TV, which, since the late 1980s, has faced strong competition from commercial broadcasters. The communications infrastructure has been well developed, with high penetrations of landline phones, mobile phones and computers.
People’s increasing dependence on an online infrastructure that mediates daily life increases the importance of the corporations that provide that infrastructure. This has transformed the governance of media infrastructures, with a shift from formal to informal governance and the growing importance of transnational governance institutions and practices, whereby corporations, not states, exercise predominant influence, including through the design of algorithms, with ambiguous implications for corporate power, individual rights, the public sphere and social progress. This situation also creates new challenges and opportunities for nation-states and state sovereignty (Flew & Waisbord, 2015). On the one hand, the role of nation-states and state sovereignty in media is diminished. On the other hand, nation-states still play an important – if often quite different and novel – role in crucial areas of policy, infrastructure and design. This is evident in the way that nation-states have asserted their regulatory role over social media platforms, though not always successfully.
The project of “networking the world”, as Armand Mattelart once put it (Mattelart, 2000) is more than two centuries old. It has always been the project of states, but increasingly it has become the preserve of some of the world’s largest corporations: for example, Facebook, Google and, less well known in the West, China’s Tencent and Baidu. Just as neo-liberal economic models rooted in markets and consumption are expanding into ever more world regions and intruding into ever more domains of everyday life, so are corporate logics colonizing our media and digital platforms. Market forces have appropriated the design, regulation and pricing of the platforms we use to connect, portray the world around us, express our political allegiances, and forge our visions for the future. Yet these platforms have so far been driven by only one goal: profit.
Mohammed Adnan talks with his mother, Fripat Bibi, on Skype from a government-run refugee center in Vamosszabadi, Hungary. Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a member of the ACT Alliance, provides child care and other services to residents in the center, who come from Syria, Iraq and other countries and are bound for western Europe. Adnan’s mother is in Pakistan, which he left to seek employment in Europe. Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
Particularly in the Global North, but also in the Global South, the information networks and communication protocols that underlie media infrastructures are designed and operated by private corporate entities. Direct technical authority over networks and protocols gives those entities an authority that is inherently regulatory. Global platform companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, each of which occupies a dominant market position globally, enjoy correspondingly stronger and more pervasive regulatory power.
For citizens, networked digital media infrastructures may lower the costs of access to knowledge and enable new forms of participation in social, cultural and economic life. At the same time, however, citizens’ access to many important informational and cultural resources is subject to control by neo-authoritarian states and various information intermediaries, including Internet access providers, search engines, mobile application developers and designers of proprietary media ecosystems. Access to these resources may be offered at no financial cost to users on an advertiser-supported basis, but often such access has a price in the form of the automated collection of information about personal reading, viewing and listening habits (Hoofnagle & Whittington, 2014). Such information can be used both to target advertising and suggest content more likely to appeal to each user.
Such predictive targeting of information access has a number of troubling economic and political implications. To mention but one example, algorithms for predictive targeting based on data about personal habits and preferences enable the identification of population segments sorted by race/nationality, cultural background, religious affiliation, socio-economic status and political preferences.
Reclaiming communication for social progress: Voices, issues, struggles and initiatives
For centuries, journalism has been a key institutional forum for disseminating public knowledge and contributing to social progress. While digital technologies have expanded and citizens’ media and citizens’ journalism initiatives proliferate, other aspects of digitization have undermined the economics of journalism, with new threats to journalists from growing political instability.
Struggles for social justice through the democratization of media have acquired new prominence, echoing previous struggles and foregrounding the transparency and accountability of media infrastructures in general, and data flows in particular. This is not the first time, however, that the implications of media flows and infrastructures for social progress have been considered on a global scale. Such questions were central to the MacBride Report (UNESCO, 1980), which proposed a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) and challenged the assumption that a global media infrastructure dominated by ‘the West’ was good for democracy, social order and human rights. But the MacBride Report’s proposals were not implemented, and a recent attempt to revive their broad agenda (the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003) has also achieved only limited success (Vincent & Nordenstreng, 2016).
Meanwhile, media control’s ramifications for social progress continue to expand and digital infrastructures – for example, social media platforms and the vast new architectures for data collection and processing on which they rely – pose increasingly urgent questions about social life and democratic practice. Concerns include Net neutrality, Internet freedom, discriminatory algorithms and the automated surveillance on which most online businesses now rely. There are implications for state and corporate power, which civil society has challenged, such as the case of Facebook’s Free Basics in India. In 2015, Facebook negotiated with the Indian government to introduce Free Basics, a platform that would expand Internet access and at the same time give Facebook unrivalled access to a new market of 125 million users. However, Indian civil society succeeded in blocking Free Basics as an attempt by a commercial vendor to tether users to its product and monopolize the terms of access to the wider Internet, compromising the tenets of network neutrality.
Similarly, other civil society initiatives have attempted to design governance frameworks. After the Snowden scandal of 2013 revealed massive digital surveillance and espionage on a global scale by US intelligence agencies, diverse initiatives to defend the freedom of the Internet emerged. At the time of writing, the most progressive regulatory framework for the Internet, founded on principles of social justice and inclusion, is Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet (Civil Rights Framework for the Internet), an initiative developed by Brazil’s civil society and centred on the protection of freedom and privacy, open governance, universal inclusion, cultural diversity and network neutrality.
Media remain important channels through which many struggles for social progress are pursued. Back in 1994, the Zapatistas in Mexico provided a pioneer example of innovative media use for social justice, but social movements’ use of media technologies has taken many forms across the world, exposing important constraints. Since old media generally do not disappear, instead linking up in new ways through digital platforms, movements that struggle for social justice have learned to operate within complex and always changing media ecologies that offer different resources and constraints in each historical case. Harbingers of this transformation include the fusion between Catholic radio and SMS in the EDSA II movement in the Philippines and the interaction between citizens’ journalism website OhmyNews and the Nosamo activists network during the South Korean presidential election of 2002 (Qiu, 2008). The interplay among traditional and digital media reached new heights as the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 spawned a vibrant scene of dissident media and culture.
The affordances of mobile technologies and social networking platforms enable new kinds of everyday, intimate solidarity and dialogue. Notable cases of appropriation of mobile phones, Internet and social media have emerged among migrants and their dispersed families and cultural and political networks (Fortunati, Pertierra & Vincent, 2012). Among Filipino and other domestic workers (generally women) who spend years away from their families and communities, mobile phones and social media provide a way to maintain bonds and connections with friends and families (Madianou & Miller, 2012). Chinese migrants who leave rural areas to find work in cities (Chu et al., 2012) rely on mobile phones to create a new ‘modern’ identity, spanning urban and rural settings (Wallis, 2013).
It is a myth that rural communities, Indigenous peoples and the Global South are disinterested in media and the digital world, but our current media infrastructures carry little if any input from these large sections of humanity. What if media infrastructures and digital platforms were designed with communities’ diverse languages, needs and resources in mind? The results can be transformative, as when the Talea de Castro Indigenous community in southern Mexico designed Rhizomatica Administration Interface (RAI), a graphic interface for a local mobile phone network, to be responsive to their needs, resources and languages (Magallanes-Blanco & Rodriguez-Medina, 2016). Much more often, however, the algorithmic mechanisms that shape what appears to users of digital platforms are driven exclusively by an advertising logic that undermines diversity and reproduces the social capital of those with power (Couldry, 2014; Ochigame & Holston, 2016).
Work toward more just media infrastructures needs to hold a central place in social progress initiatives. Social progress is contingent on accessible, affordable and inclusive media infrastructures – including traditional media, digital platforms, social media and the Internet. Any intervention that works for social progress must also consider the need for a parallel struggle to democratize media infrastructures and demand better, more transparent media policies and governance. These technologies’ potential to shape more sustainable, just and inclusive societies will be hampered so long as decisions about the design and governance of media infrastructures are made without the wider body of citizens having the opportunity to be consulted on their needs.
A radio presenter in the cabin of the Lutheran radio station in La Paz, Bolivia. Sean Hawkey/ACT Alliance. The penetration of media and telecommunications is relatively low in Bolivia. Only 75.5% of Bolivian households have radio, 66.5% have television, 60% have telephone (mostly cellular). Internet access is one of the lowest in the region – 9.6% of households. The penetration levels are even lower in rural areas. In such a context, community radio has a key role to play. Photo: Contributed
A proposal toward media justice
This survey of media and communications’ potential contributions to social progress does not suggest easy conclusions. Without a doubt, media are an important resource for movements that promote social progress, and effective access to media is a necessary (and too often ignored) component of social justice. By “effective access”, we mean that all individuals and communities should be able to use media infrastructures to produce content, access information and knowledge, and actively participate in the realms of politics, culture and governance. Issues of accessibility, as well as the potential affordances of these platforms, are particularly salient for people with disabilities, for example, captioning on TV and radio for the print handicapped. Despite their long histories, disability media such as Braille formats and sign language communication are still given little recognition in wider society, although there have been concerted international efforts on some aspects of digital technology (accessible computers and software, web accessibility, mobile phone accessibility, ‘apps’ for people with disabilities).
Three major factors complicate the media and social change picture considerably. First, the distribution of media resources (including traditional media and digital platforms) is skewed towards the wealthy and powerful world regions and away from the majority of the world’s population, especially poor, marginalized and excluded groups. This basic fact is ignored by the recurrent “social imaginary” (Taylor, 2004) that sees media infrastructures as automatically progressive and socially transformative (for critique, see Herman, Hadlaw & Swiss, 2014; Mansell, 2012; Mosco, 2004). Although people rely on media platforms for connection and communication, they generally have very little influence over the design and pricing of these platforms, or the conditions of access, use, content production and distribution.
Second, multiple simultaneous spaces of connection are enabled by media and the relations between these spaces are highly uneven: questions of language and culture, unequal influence over Internet governance, software localization and technical design all make the Internet an unequal, highly uneven playing field for diverse groups, especially cultural and linguistic minorities. Third, even with access and more even distribution of opportunities for effective use, it may not be solidarity and dialogue that are facilitated when people come together via media (online abuse is also on the rise): the Internet’s capacity, in principle, to enable multiple producers of content is not therefore sufficient. A central issue remains how to design and sustain online spaces that encourage dialogue, free speech, respectful cultural exchange and action for social progress. The governance of Internet infrastructures is crucial in all of this, but this itself is highly contested and uneven.
In response to these challenges, we propose that effective access to media and digital communication should be recognized as a new core component of social progress. While it is important that the SPI’s “Foundations of Wellbeing” include “access to information and communications” (defined in terms of numbers of Internet users, mobile phone subscriptions and a Press Freedom Index), this is insufficient; additional measures are needed to ensure the distribution of opportunities for effective access and use. Such measures would concern not only access to the technological means to receive information and content, but also access to appropriate affordable technologies to produce content. The design of media infrastructures and digital platforms needs to consider diverse language communities and individuals with different ability levels, learning styles and financial resources.
While it is important that the SPI includes “personal rights” and “tolerance and inclusion” under the category of “Opportunity”, communication rights must be added to the basket of personal rights, and the direct relation between lack of participation and diversity in the design and governance of media infrastructures and lack of tolerance and inclusion at a cultural level must be addressed. The right to privacy should also be added, including appropriate regulatory frameworks to protect against surveillance and data extraction. In addition, references to “tolerance” elsewhere in the Social Progress Index need to be interpreted to include tolerance in the media (that is, the absence of hate speech against women and girls, ethnic minorities, and so on).
Media and communications infrastructures should be regarded as a common good, in the same way as other infrastructure (such as roads, railways, power and water). The recent wave of privatization and concentration in the media and information industries should be reviewed by regulators for its effects on the quality of media and media’s diversity and ability to meet people’s needs. Subsidies and spaces to encourage non-profit media should become an essential component of struggles for social progress and social justice. If progress is to be made towards these wider goals, major efforts are needed by civil society, governments and international organizations to promote and sustain media that exist outside of market forces. Internet governance should not be in the hands of organizations who make decisions, implement policy and design online architectures behind closed doors. Popular participation and transparency should be the guiding principles that frame Internet governance, policy and regulatory frameworks.
Equally, processes for the design of digital platforms and other means of accessing the Internet should recognize and effectively include representation from the full range of human communities. Media infrastructures will not realize their potential for contributing to social progress unless they operate effectively to facilitate content creation by diverse communities. Access to media infrastructures as consumers, receivers or audiences of content and information is not enough, individuals and communities need access as content creators; issues of language, affordability, user competencies and technology design are fundamental.
Since we can expect that core aspects of society such as health care, social services and financial services will be increasingly provided over the Internet, access to digital systems needs to be equally distributed among populations, and such access should come free of commercial tracking and surveillance. The risk that the data infrastructures supporting today’s media and communications will be used for increased state and corporate surveillance, censorship and data gathering need to become the focus of extensive civic debate and regulatory attention.
Although social media and digital platforms have accelerated access to information, solid independent journalism, especially investigative journalism, is essential to democratic life. Citizens need curated, credible, verified and contextualized information to be able to make reasonable decisions in political, cultural and social arenas. Alternative forms of funding investigative journalism need to compensate for the threat to the commercial newspaper business model.
The environmental impact of the waste generated by today’s communication devices and the vast data-processing infrastructure that supports their use requires serious attention as well. These environmental consequences are an unintended long-term side-effect of intensified connection through media (Maxwell & Miller, 2012).
The indispensable first step for social progress is to perceive media and communications flows and infrastructures not as mere background to social struggles, but as a site of struggle. This, in turn, requires acknowledging the overall lack of progress in media reform over the past 40 years. Since 1980, when the NWICO’s MacBride Report was presented by UNESCO, numerous initiatives have attempted to reform media infrastructures, including the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), the Free Press movement in the US, and the Net neutrality and free software international movements.
However, international organizations have not generally pursued such concerns. The international organizations assuming responsibility for proposing new aspects of media policy, such as ITU and ICANN, have limited their scope to technical matters discussed with little input from civil society or social movements. At the level of nation-states, key issues of media justice and social progress are often raised, but then are not necessarily developed or represented by governments in their negotiations, policy and governance work with either other states and parties at the international level, or with the large, influential media corporations in either the national or transnational sphere in which they operate. All in all, a renewed, comprehensive and more inclusive debate on media reform must be launched.
A plan of action
Chapter 13 of the IPSP, on which this summary is based, provides a resonant, bold and detailed analysis and normative argument about the pivotal role of media and communications claims and struggles in any vision of social justice, equality and rights. Developing a strategy to turn this agenda into a powerful, concrete and achievable programme with pragmatic force is the next challenge. Based on the above diagnosis, we propose the following action plan:
Such principles, however, also need to be converted into a map of practical actions to be taken by a range of actors involved in the regulation of media and digital platforms. To lay out the key initiatives required, we have created a toolkit3 which can be found here.
Author(s): See Note 1 below. Originally published in Global Media and Communication Vol. 14(2) 173-191. © The Author 2018(s). Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.
1. Authors: Nick Couldry (Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK); Clemencia Rodriguez (Department of Media Studies and Production, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA); Göran Bolin (Department of Media & Communication Studies, Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden); Julie Cohen (Law Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA); Gerard Goggin (Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia); Marwan Kraidy (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA); Koichi Iwabuchi (Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia); Kwang-Suk Lee (Department of Digital and Cultural Policy, Seoul National University of Science and Technology, Seoul, South Korea);Jack Linchuan Qiu (School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT, Hong Kong, China); Ingrid Volkmer (Media and Communications Program, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia); Herman Wasserman (Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa); Yuezhi Zhao (School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada); Olessia Koltsova (Laboratory for Internet Studies, National Research University Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg, Russia); Inaya Rakhmani (Department of Communication, University of Indonesia, Depok, Indonesia); Omar Rincón (Centro de Estudios de Periodismo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia); Claudia Magallanes-Blanco (Department of Humanities, Universidad Iberoamericana de Puebla, Puebla, México); Pradip Ninan Thomas (School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia). Global Media and Communication Vol. 14(2) 173-191. © The Authors 2018. Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.
2. There are longstanding debates about the terms “media” and “communication”, of which we are conscious, but in this paper, we wish to harness both categories in the most productive and expansive way.
3. We have allocated the tasks in the toolkit matrix to the actor who should have the main responsibility for each task, however various tasks should be developed by multi-stakeholder bodies.
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