One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

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Up in smokes: Free speech fundamentalist shows true colours and logical confusion

November 26, 2011

Ah, the logic of fundamentalism. Whatever form it takes it can brook no subtlety, no fine distinction and no possible suggestion that it is ever, ever wrong.

This applies to all fundamentalisms, not just religious or political doctrine.

And now, nowhere is this more obvious than in the tobacco products ‘plain packaging’ debate.

Brendan O’Neill, the lumbering dumbarse who was once associated with the British left magazine Living Marxism and who is now associated with the libertarian Spiked-Online and a resident grumbling wanker in the columns of The Australian has come out in support of big tobacco.

Why am I not surprised?

Because O’Neill is a  libertarian conservative who The Australian likes to pretend has got some (acceptable) left credentials. Well he bloody well has none and after today’s effort I would suggest he has zero credibility too.

In his column this weekend O’Neill has the gall (or is that stupidity) to argue that banning bright, colourful and attractive tobacco packaging is an infringement of the free speech rights of the tobacco companies.

What fucking planet are you on, mate?

To confuse the right of the citizenry to enjoy free and unrestricted rights to express political opinions – which is what free speech actually is – with the paid for, commercial process of advertising and branding for commodities is a sign of sickness or idiocy.

But, O’Neill is forced into this philosophical dead end by his own politics. You see, the point he’s actually making is that the so-called ‘free speech’ argument here is just another mantra-humming log to bang over the heads of ‘the government’.

This is more than a trademark issue; it’s a free-speech issue. What is happening here is that companies are being denied the right to publish perfectly reasonable and inoffensive material – the names of their products – and at the same time they’re being forced to publish government propaganda about smoking.

O’Neill continues in this vein for several pars, including:

For years, it was considered paramount in a civilised society that people should be free to publish what they like, and that no one should be forced to parrot the government line, much less publish grotesque images handpicked by the authorities.

[Plain packaging is an infringement of free speech]

So, let’s see…the rights of multinational corporations – the ones who are poisoning us and lying about it – need to be defended because governments are trying to censor their right to advertise their deadly products in order to promote sales and attract new customers.

You remember big tobacco don’t you.

These are the same guys who stood up in front of a US congressional hearing in 1994 and, on oath, claimed that nicotine is not addictive.

Further, Australia, in introducing plain packaging is doing no more than following the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on how to reduce the harm of tobacco products.

Seriously Brendan, put down that thumping great tub and STFU while the facts are explained to you in small words and bright pictures.

Tobacco’s Toll in Health and Lives

  • Tobacco use killed 100 million people in the 20th century. If current trends continue, tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century.
  • Tobacco kills more than 5 million people a year and accounts for one in 10 deaths among adults.
  • If current trends persist, tobacco will kill more than 8 million people worldwide annually by the year 2030, with 80 percent of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Almost a billion men in the world – including half of men in low- and middle-income countries – and 250 million women smoke. If no action is taken, 650 million smokers alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases.
  • Tobacco kills prematurely. On average, smokers lose 15 years of life, and up to half of all smokers will die of tobacco-related causes.
  • Every day, 80,000 to 100,000 young people around the world become addicted to tobacco. If current trends continue, 250 million children and young people alive today will die from tobacco-related diseases.
  • Secondhand smoke kills more than 600,000 people worldwide each year, including 165,000 children.

Tobacco’s Economic Toll

  • Tobacco use costs the world an estimated $500 billion each year in health care expenditures, productivity losses, fire damage and other costs.
  • Health care costs associated with tobacco related illnesses are extremely high. In the United States, annual tobacco-related health care costs amount to 96 billion USD ; in Germany, 7 billion USD; in Australia, 1 billion USD.
  • Tobacco-related illnesses and premature mortality impose high productivity costs to the economy because of sick workers and those who die prematurely during their working years. Lost economic opportunities in highly-populated developing countries will be particularly severe as tobacco use is high and growing in those areas.
  • Countries that are net importers of tobacco leaf and tobacco products lose millions of dollars a year in foreign exchanges.
  • Fire damage and the related costs are significant. In 2000, about 300,000 or 10 percent of all fire deaths worldwide were caused by smoking and the estimated total cost of fires caused by smoking was 27 billion USD.
  • Tobacco production and use damage the environment and divert agricultural land that could be used to grow food.

[Tobaccofreekids.org]

Brendan, if you want to smoke (do you smoke Brendan?) go ahead. If you don’t smoke you should start now, because otherwise you’re just another stinking free speech hypocrite libertarian nut graf.

The tobacco giants have a long history of infringing the rights of people to use their free speech make claims and present solid evidence that smoking is actually bad for humans; not just those who smoke but anyone who is exposed to second-hand tobacco fumes for any length of time.

By enforcing plain packaging laws governments are actually acting in the public interest – promoting public health and legally attempting to reduce the social harm and the economic cost of smoking.

It is estimated that the negative impact of smoking on the Australian economy is in the order of $1 billion a year. That equates to a lot of very expensive free speech.

Brendan O’Neill is wrong, this is not a ‘censorship’ issue, this is not about an infringement of rights, it is a public health issue.

The tobacco companies have billions of dollars at their disposal to fight the government’s legislation and they have already signaled that they intend to use every legal trick at their disposal to prevent the plain packaging rules being enforced.

Why? Because they know that more and more people are waking up  the fact that smoking is a stupid thing to do to yourself and your friends. As this trend continues the tobacco companies will start to lose money.

They are desperate to hang on to the profits they have enjoyed for too long.

O’Neill shows his true colours, like most libertarians, he cloaks his pro-big-business views in a veil of outrage and fuming free speech rhetoric. But at the end of the day the smug prick doesn’t give a shit about anyone except his own smug self.

[Disclaimer: I am a smoker. I have not had a cigarette for about two months. I am hoping that I will never smoke again. I love Benson & Hedges and if I was determined to smoke plain packaging wouldn’t stop me.]


Consumerism by other means: #UKriots, burning Babylon and #neoliberalism

August 14, 2011

Guest post by Dr Wayne Hope

Identifying the “causes” of major civil disturbances is always difficult, there are so many to choose from. Even the mundane vagaries of the weather have to be taken into account. Nearly all urban riots of recent vintage happen in the summer, hot sultry evenings are ideal, and it  seems that rain has, of late, dampened the spirits of enthusiastic rioters in the Midlands and northern cities.

In fact one might plausibly argue that without the typically dreadful English weather, riots would be more serious and happen more often. The underlying and proximate cause of urban rioting have been festering quite nicely in Old Blightly and I for one am not the least bit surprised over recent developments .

If we start with Tottenham, police racism, police brutality and a police culture disconnected from local communities is a perfect Molotov cocktail to set things going. Such was evident in the Afro-American race riots of the 1960s and the Parisian riots of 2005.

There are many other examples; a spark to set off the cocktail is all that is needed.

Now, it also true as the Tory press and politicians have tirelessly pointed out that thugs and “yobbos” have joined in the action. These outgrowths of Cameron`s “broken society” belong to postcode gangs who have formed alliances of convenience to loot, take on the police and cause mayhem.

This has echoes of the “Babylon’s burning” era of the late 70s and early 80s, since then 20 years of neo liberalism have embittered a new generation of  white and non white gangs. No suprises there. Out of this general milieu there were also, without doubt, disturbed individuals who gained immediate pleasure from burning out cars, smashing plate glass windows and torching buildings.

And then we had the pilferers, “illegal shoppers” who just wanted to grab stuff because, well, it was cheap and armfuls of trainers and iPads are are tidy little earner, covertly on Facebook or down  at the markets. This was the spirit of self reliance and entrepeneuralism that politicians from Margeret Thatcher to Tony Blair have been trying to promote. To put it another way this was consumerism by other means.

As far as I could see the illegal shoppers and their accomplices covered quite a wide demographic, some were black dispossessed youth, others were  low to middle income people of both genders who were relieving the frustration of not being able to afford the relentlessly advertised fashion items and electronic goods. Still others ,of more comfortable means enjoyed the thrill of it all. I agree somewhat with the conservatives on this matter, there has indeed been a breakdown in social ethics in British society.

However, I must point out in the strongest possible terms that ethical breakdown is endemic at ALL levels of society from the bonus swilling tax avoider and financial speculator propped up by powerless taxpayers to the political classes of in the Commons and Whitehall lining their pockets with the baubles of office; to the media elites who hire professional privacy invaders to hack the communications of anybody they choose in order peddle defamatory lies and half truths for a tidy profit.

With these shining examples of cynical self interest  why not join in?

It’s bloody obvious innit, everybody’s out for what they can get. And then there is the nihilism ,the purposelessness of bored youth. I saw them during my last visit to London, in Camden Town, hundreds of them just hanging about after 1am, waiting for nothing to happen. So then, what has been the establishment’s response?

I think we saw it in a newsphoto from Clapham of a young blonde woman standing among a group of angry gentrified Clapham residents,they were out to clean up the mess with their brooms, the young woman wore a teeshirt which said “rioters are scum”.

So here we have the preconditions for the next riot, “them and us”, class war, batten up the hatches and let’s continue with our strategy of systematic social exclusion and seclusion of the better off.  More police, more security guards more electronic surveillance and lots of finger pointing. Cameron`s “broken society” thesis is not far off the mark.


What is 20/20 up to – are Kiwis that prudish?

July 23, 2010

A colleague forwarded me an email from a Sydney nightclub about an upcoming event.

Very interesting.

Hi there,
20/20 – a New Zealand news and current affairs show – are coming to the Hellfire Club this Friday night (23 July) to film part of a story on kink culture in Sydney.

The idea behind the story is that ordinary people like to dress up and be kinky and that it gives them an opportunity to experience themselves differently and feel sexy. New Zealanders, who are rather a conservative bunch when it comes to sex, are interested in kink and fetish but don’t know quite what it is or how to go about connecting with it.

20/20 are looking for people with all kinds of kinks and fetishes and will be around till about 11.30pm hoping to film you or hear your story. You can of course decline to be filmed, but after seeing how much fun you all had with the EWTV crew, how can we deny you another chance at your ten seconds of fame? We trust you will enjoy showing our bros across the ditch how it’s done!

Who’s that girl? This gorgeous Ranga Queen may not be our new Prime Minister… but she’s just as powerful! (now if we could just get our Julia to grow her hair and eat a mud cake or three…)

The Mystery Woman is in fact a fragment of the design of our next Hellfire Club T-shirt. It was created by the exceptionally talented Leo Nguyen – who’s work you can see in the current Rolling Stone and on the covers of both the Sydney Morning Herald Metro and The Brag magazine over the coming weeks.

We’ll unveil the whole design in the next email, and you’ll be able to get your own wearable version at the August party at The Hellfire Club. Stay tuned for hot new fetish fashion!

… look forward to seeing y’all Friday night dressed to impress those budding Kiwi kinksters!

Cheers
Master Tom
The Hellfire Club

[EM:Of course, it’s purely coincidence that 20/20 is fronted by Aotearoa’s very own ‘Ranga Queen’?]

20/20 presenter Miriamo Kamo

PS: Master Tom, have you checked out how 20/20 is likely to cover the Hellfire Club story?  After all, the programme’s slogan is ‘Provocative, Unflinching’.

Be careful what you wish for you fun-loving Sydney kinksters.

I’d be keen to hear how the shoot goes too.

[BTW: ‘Ranga’ is slang for redhead in this part of the world]


Challenging journalism in a Postmodern World

July 5, 2007

This piece began with me just reposting something I saw on another blogspot recently. But it’s developed into something of a manifesto – a call to arms, if you like – for journalists who, in John Pilger’s words, “Give a damn”.

TV News in a Postmodern World, Part LXVIII:

“To lead with Paris or not, that is the question.

I’m not what you’d call a Paris Hilton ‘fan,’ but I have been deeply intrigued by her life in the month of June 2007. My interest is in her as a person, not a celebrity, for I’m a student of human nature, and here was a fascinating human nature story: someone from the other side of the tracks having everything taken away, albeit for a short season, and I was most curious about how it impacted her, all judgments about her behavior aside.

It’s not every day that a person of such ‘position’ is stripped of that position and placed in a situation of extreme conflict. I found the whole mess to be a great study in class bias from every conceivable angle, but most of my curiosity was directed at Paris, the woman herself. All that I knew of her was a media creation, but that boyhood curiosity was still there, so I followed the story.”

Terry Heaton, the author of the quote above runs a blog called “the pomoblog” and he’s fascinated by Paris Hilton ‘the person’. Unfortunately, Terry, there are many people every day who are placed in situations of extreme conflict. At the last count I checked, more than 70,000 dead in Iraq since March 2003 and the body count is rising every day. Save your curiosity for them, Paris can look after herself; at least she might, with the help of maids, drivers, stylists, managers, publicists, a rich family, a cellphone, a cock’r’two, Larry King, a good tote bag, a pooch, a gold Amex card, cocaine, marijuana, cigarettes, Percodan and plenty of pricey booze.

I’ve always had my doubts about postmodernism and postmodernists. I’ve long considered most of them a bunch of eclectic pseudo-intellectuals who don’t know their ar*ehole from a dishwasher. But you know, there’s a grain of truth in Heaton’s piece. The world of journalism is changing.

Celebrity is now a news value in its own right and many millions of people, most in less fortunate circumstances than the object of their curiosity, take news about Paris Hilton seriously. Here’s another take from Heaton that I actually think is worth discussing:

A whole new world of media is springing up around us, people informing themselves and their tribes as a part of the personal media revolution. Traditional professional journalism is really at odds with this, because the ability of groups to do it increasingly shines a light on the shallowness of the all-things-to-all-people paradigm. If I’m interested in the iPhone, I will trust the group that’s covering it for themselves. If I’m interested in Paris Hilton, I will trust the group that’s covering entertainment in the same way.

The morning news may be able to send a crew to cover the line outside the Apple store, and show producers can stack Paris Hilton “coverage” where they think it ought to be in their shows. But in both cases, the surface is all that can be scratched, and people intuitively know there is so much more. Consider similar treatments for just about everything “in the news,” and you begin to understand the source power of the personal media revolution. It isn’t at all about amateurs stealing thunder (or jobs) from professionals; it’s about the soul of journalism itself — the story.

I disagree slightly. In my eyes the “soul” of journalism has to be about “truth”, not just about the story. There’s an intellectual core to journalism that is more than just recounting a tale. It is all about selection, priorities and points of view. One of the areas of news that this is most important is in the coverage of “business” and “economics” stories. It is in this area that the unchallenged and mostly unconscious assumptions made by journalists are most in need of exposure, discussion, challenge and change.

To some degree the Hilton story, and all the pages it has consumed, is symptomatic. It’s the coverage of a lifestyle steeped in ostentatious wealth and gross displays of conspicuous consumption. It’s what my old friend Karl Marx calls “commodity fetishism”.

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was….
There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

Not only do we fetishise news as a commodity — we fail to see the inherent contradiction between the service of profits and serving the public interest — we also fetishise symbolic fairytale heroines such as Ms Hilton. She embodies the life that most of us mere wage slaves have no chance of reaching. But capitalism teaches us to be “aspirational”. Why not, therefore, aspire to imitate the spiritually empty, but commmodity-filled life of Paris and her drug-addled friends who inhabit the wonderland of the US west coast and all points asunder.

What a wonderful piece of bourgeois ideology the phrase “aspirational” is. A respected Australian political scientist, Hayden Manning, has this to say about it:

‘Aspirational voter’ is another way of saying ‘middle class voter’ with one important difference: many voters’ current middle class status rests on the fragile foundation of high levels of personal and household debt. Economic recessions in the mid-1970s, the early 1980s and early 1990s caused widespread employment insecurity and periods of declining real wages. By the late 1990s the mood shifted markedly as many voters experienced steady improvements in their disposable incomes, home values appreciated and, importantly, banks invited their customers to borrow heavily at a time when interest rates reached a 30 year low (Harding 2005). In this environment Australian middle class affluence was, in a fashion, reborn after being shaken during periodic recessions…
A host of demographic, social and economic factors are bandied around to define the ‘aspirational voter’. Objectively, they are middle income earners, upwardly mobile, and may be employed in either blue or white collar occupations. More speculative is the view that they are vulnerable to interest rate rises due to high levels of personal debt (Hewitt 2004). Pundits describe the aspirational outlook as entrepreneurial and individualistic. Aspirationals have been variously described as the new ‘conservative right’—anti-egalitarian and anti-union, favouring tax cuts, driving new cars, and sending their kids to private schools (Carney 2001; Green 2001; Stephens 2001; Henderson 2001; MacKay 2001; Davidson 2001; Hamilton 2003; Burchell 2003; Glover 2004; Manne 2004).

You can see clearly from this how the term has taken on a whole load of baggage. It is used to describe workers who have been sucked in by the churning propaganda and bad journalism that allows such terms to be abused without question. This is MoR and mainstream political science and it’s the fodder of balanced journalism.

Journalists should wake up from their bad dreams, stop worrying about that Hilton girl and start to question some of their own “aspirational” values. If you’re a journalist and you’re reading this, you could do a lot worse than spend the next 45 minutes here with John Pilger. This is “inspirational” and that’s what should be driving journalism today.

If you haven’t got 45 minutes to watch this video, perhaps you’ve got 10 to read Pilger’s speech at Columbia University on 14 April 2006.

That’s too much for your busy life to take? Then cop this; the short, sharp and sweet conclusion to that speech:

What should journalists do? I mean, journalists who give a damn? They need to act now. Governments fear good journalists. The reason the Pentagon spends millions of dollars on PR, or “perception management” companies that try to bend the news is because it fears truth tellers, just as Stalinist governments feared them. There is no difference. Look back at the great American journalists: Upton Sinclair, Edward R Murrow, Martha Gellhorn, I. F.Stone, Seymour Hersh. All were mavericks. None embraced the corporate world of journalism and its modern supplier: the media college.

It is said the internet is an alternative; and what is wonderful about the rebellious spirits on the World Wide Web is that they often report as journalists should. They are mavericks in the tradition of the great muckrakers: those like the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, who said: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.” But the internet is still a kind of samidzat, an underground, and most of humanity does not log on; just as most of humanity does not own a cell phone. And the right to know ought to be universal. That other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that if the majority of the people were denied the truth and ideas of truth, it was time to storm what he called the “Bastille of words”. That time is now.”