Friday, December 16, 2011

To What Extent Does it Make Sense to Think of Britain’s Political System as Outdated in the Context of Sophisticated New Technology Use and Creative Direct Action by Pressure Groups Such as Occupy London Stock Exchange? (Essay)

To understand whether Britain’s political system represents the rights and interests of the vast majority of people, it is necessary to analyse the technology available, how pressure groups influence debate and how the media frame public opinion. Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares: “Baby it’s Cold Outside” (2004) claims that in the past, politicians offered us dreams of a better world. When this optimistic vision failed, people lost faith in ideologies. Today’s politicians are seen as managers of public life, instead of delivering dreams they promise to protect us from nightmares. Threats like the war on terror, that Curtis claims is an imagined threat, an illusion created and played out through the media. Such a view marks out a decline in trust in democratic politics, which in the last decade have become increasingly trivialised, with political consultants attempting to shape the public attitude. The Big Society aims to provide a platform to communicate, but pressure groups have emerged with similar intentions to engage communities into public discussions. These assemblies allow people to voice their ideas for a better future through collaborative production. Declaring it’s time for citizens to represent themselves. The revolution might not be televised but misrepresentation through the media seems inevitable.

In the book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), Jürgen Habermas argues that in the twentieth century the critical concept of public opinion has been replaced by mass public, manipulated by commercial and party political interest groups (Outhwaite, 1996: 25). This decline of the public sphere thesis underplays the potential for social movements and mediated publics.  Especially when we consider that technological advances are ‘ altering the way we are born, we live, we learn, we work, we produce, we consume, we dream, we fight, or we die’ (Castells, 2000: 31). Providing access to broader opinions, access to non-mainstream and localised political material, and offering greater interactivity than other media. The rise of communications media has overcome barriers and ‘made the boundaries of all social spaces more permeable’ (Meyrowitz, 1994: 67). Rather than being overwhelmed or distracted, ‘emergent publics’ (Angus, 2001: 55) have become more focused on relevance and collaborative production. Wikipedia being the most famous example, the non-profit organisation has thousands of volunteers contributing to articles around the world with collective action and shared responsibility. The ‘people’s encyclopedia’ has become one of the largest and most popular websites on the Internet (Alexa, 2011). Hans Magnus Enzensberger emphasises the capacity of an individual to be an active contributor to his or her own condition, unlike in ‘marches, columns, parades’ in which people are simply ‘pushed to and fro’; the mobilised persons would be ‘as free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerrillas’ (Hands, 2011: 50). Enzensberger details the capacity to create multidirectional communication, disseminating knowledge and information on a scale and time-frame that was impossible before the emergence of the Internet.  In recent years digital activism has come to widespread attention, the power of communications, networks and mobile technology, demonstrates the sheer power of cumulative connections (Hands, 2011: 3).  The Internet has become a key resource for activism, allowing groups to raise awareness in issues that might oppose the mainstream. WikiLeaks are an organisation that takes this further by publishing and commenting on leaked documents.  Designed to protect whistle-blowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public (WikiLeaks, 2011). The organisation has been applauded and condemned for its approach to releasing information to the public, but despite the mixed reaction, there’s no denying that people coming together can make a difference. Since the publications of CableGate, WikiLeaks has faced an unprecedented global financial blockade by major finance companies including Mastercard, Visa and PayPal (Wikipedia).

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people – V for Vendetta (2006).

The first step is admitting there’s a problem, and then collectively, people can work towards finding a solution. Fight Club (1999) could be interpreted as an example of how activist groups mobilise to challenge the mainstream. The narrator attends support groups, becomes increasingly disillusioned with consumer culture and through collaborative participation leads to the collapse of several financial buildings. The Anonymous Group parallel Fight Club, they are a large, decentralized group of individuals who share common interests. Members don’t talk about their involvement and they conceal their identities. The imagery of the "suit without a head" represents leaderless organization and anonymity. When appearing in public the Internet-based group use the Guy Fawkes mask popularised by V for Vendetta (2006) for ‘collective identification and simultaneous anonymity’ (The BBC, 2011). The group became well known in 2008, launching an online campaign against the Church of Scientology. Through a denial of service attack, they caused the website to crash and then manipulated Google search results to ensure that the Church of Scientology are the first hit whenever anyone enters the search string "dangerous cult" (The Telegraph, 2008). They have been responsible for similar attacks and highlight the collective potential for Internet ‘hacktivism’ (Sharp, 2010). Coordinating and organising through communications media for political purposes.

Another people-powered movement that utilises the Internet are Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations around the world ( Organized through a non-binding consensus based collective decision making tool known as a "people's assembly". They are fighting back against major banks and multinational corporations, who they believe are responsible for the ‘economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations’. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to fight back against ‘the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future’. The concept behind the ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ slogan began on Tumblr (Weinstein, 2011), a microblogging platform that allows users to share various media. Its creator had no clue that it would go viral and become a touchstone for a protest movement soon to spread across the world ( Facebook was used to launch the Occupy London campaign on 15th October, the objective to reclaim space close to the London Stock Exchange. The movement use communications media to raise awareness, thus bypassing authorities, with Twitter being used effectively to group conversation and promote ideas.  The mainstream media have been inconsistent with their coverage and increasingly people have turned to photography and video-sharing services to obtain information. YouTube and Flickr have been particularly popular, providing images of heavy handed police tactics and the solidarity between protesters. This method of documentary is a media output where the technology, the aesthetic, the social and the political intersect. The visual text has played an important role in shaping the story and asserting factuality.  Walter Benjamin believes ‘that ideas are structured as images, and that what is at stake is therefore a praxis that can operate with images – a politics of images, not a figurative or metaphorical politics’ (Weigel, 1996, p. 10).

The media are actively involved in constituting the social world. By making images and information available to individuals located in distant locales, the media shape and influence the course of events and, indeed, create events that would not have existed in their absence (Thompson, 1995: 117).

The Internet offers many ways of connecting cultural-political content in a variety of forms and styles to audiences (Collins, 2006: 353). The problem is misrepresentation and the role the media play in shaping the public opinion. In Stuart Hall’s (1980) theory, the assumption is that any society’s dominant ideas will be encoded into its media messages. Let’s consider youth audiences, as unemployment continues to rise, university fees have trebled and there’s the perception that young people lack interest in politics. Such influence becomes particularly problematic for young people when certain media accounts, especially newspapers contain a bias towards negative content. The findings from this paper claim that it’s a long known criminological fact that a small number of young people tend to commit a disproportionately high number of offences, and that positive contributions to society by young people tend to be both overlooked and overshadowed. In Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (2002) emergent groups are referred to as a ‘threat to societal values and interests’, which are ‘presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media’. In response to the UK riots in 2011, The Guardian report that David Cameron blamed absent fathers and poor school discipline, whilst on the other hand Ed Miliband blamed MPs & bankers for culture of irresponsibility. Irresponsibility acknowledged by pressure groups and the opposition leader but ignored by the Prime Minister. Youth is a problematic category but the media defining them as the ‘broken society’ is also problematic. The Conservative Party’s white knight, the Big Society needs to replicate the grass roots revolution that was influential for Barack Obama. Without the Internet, Barack Obama wouldn’t have won the Democratic Primary, and would not have been elected President (Hands, 2011). Obama opened up a dialogue with people through new technology. This needs to happen in Britain otherwise the Big Society will be seen as just an imagined community. The government needs to do more to engage with wider communities, create opportunities and educate disillusioned groups. The media have an important role because they have the potential to influence the public but issues of trust, party allegiance and alternative sources have led to the fragmentation of collective values.

The Internet has become an important political platform, national borders have become much less important and there’s growing organisational complexity in contemporary life. Global economic problems dictate the news and pressure groups have raised even more questions about trust and accountability. People are engaging with different, rather than shared, forms of media output (Washbourne, 2010) and the concern is that they ‘will engage with such different ideas that they will no longer desire to say anything to each other’. People spend an increased amount of time consuming mass media, but with so much information available it’s difficult to find accurate representation. This fragmentation has led to declining television audiences, and forced programme makers to redesign political broadcasts into entertainment packages. Rather than sustained and serious analysis, news and current affairs programmes are shorter, there’s an enhanced role for the reporter who often becomes part of the story, stories are provided with a good-versus-evil orientation and celebrities are used as key ingredients of the programmes. This model has been criticised, and rightly so, because although there’s potential for the content to reach a greater audience the content seems to be in the best interests of the media in much the same way as globalisation. To increase profit through commercialisation, benefiting from larger markets and generating the highest possible return in a ‘competitive climate’. The decline of the public sphere is evident, primarily because the media have too much control and powerful organisation control the information broadcast.

It appears that the political system is outdated; globalisation and commercialisation have made it more difficult to be represented properly through the current model. The mainstream media manipulate the news and are able to shape the public opinion to ensure profit maximisation and market control. The Internet provides a gateway to access and distribute information, and through collaborative production each person can participate, make a proposal, raise questions, express their opinion and have a consensus regarding the outcome. This empowers individuals and collectively groups can challenge dominant views. Pressure groups have emerged and shown that it’s possible to use various forms of media to show the world that people can make a difference. Unfortunately we have also seen that the Internet can be used to censor material and makes it harder not easier for people to be interested. To resolve the problem, the government need to engage audiences and fulfil promises, the blame culture needs to change before we’re able to move forward. This won’t happen overnight but rather through evolution than revolution.

Word count: 2025

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