Digital Media: Still Indispensable for Democracy?

A globe overwhelmed by technological explosion, hedonism, consumerism and materialism, it seems like there exists an indispensable relationship between technology, media and democracy. Democracies thrive upon public opinion and hence any factor influencing public opinion exhibits the potential of affecting the health of democracy. The influence of mass media and ever-evolving digital space upon electoral processes and shaping the perception of individuals indicate that “Digital Democracy” is the future form of government. The infamous 2016 American Presidential election is a stark reminder that technology and “New Media” are liquidating state sovereignty and ceding ground to hostile foreign powers. Democracy is at ruthless mercy of propaganda, disinformation blitzkrieg, hate speech, inflammatory rhetoric, deep-fakes and tactical political subversion. The colossal information overload disseminated via mainstream mass media and sophisticated “New Media”, tends to help spread disinformation owing to less probability of fact-checking. It is very easy for any malicious entity to produce disinformation because there is no accountability or sheer cost of producing dubious content in the digital space. While sketching the picture of the modern mass media landscape, Habermas rightly propounded; 

“Modern media falls under the sway of public relations, advertising and big business, and offers shallow consumerism, empty political spectacle and pre-packaged convenience thought”.

The power of media and digital forums can be gauged from one fact that “What does not exist in mass media does not exist in the public mind”. 

Democracy is undergoing a substantial overhaul in a networked world whereby multiple forums are available for rigorously shaping civic discourse. Habermas suggested that to create an ideal world, it`s important to first lay foundations of radical deliberative democracies whereby, every person is open to express his opinion, regardless of any discrimination. The boom of digital media forums concomitant with robust community dialogue first presented the glimpse of Habermasian forums. But then it was revealed that certain cultures, ethnicities and political groups tend to eclipse the opinions and narratives of “the others”. This presented with a novel challenge that how dominant actors can first achieve technological prowess, in a mercurial world of the digital divide, and then ruthlessly propagate their narratives. The mainstream narrative is actually “talk of the town” and unsurprisingly spiral of silence phenomena not only exists in the physical sphere but also in the digital realm. 


The Mass Media in a technologically savvy world is intricately hybrid in nature owing to the overlapping of traditional media and “New Media”. Traditionally established mass media outlets are now also registering their online presence through myriad platforms such as Youtube channels, Twitter, Facebook and Netflix. This prevalence in multiple digital realms risks compromising journalistic standards because gatekeeping of enormous content is an arduous task. Another challenge for “Networked Democracy” is that audience is mostly fragmented and segregated in the digital arena and this “networked individualism” tends to concoct partisan chimaera by facilitating the one-way flow of information. That is, instead of promoting healthy community discussions, that serve as an important tool of gate-keeping de-contextualized information, digital media discourages civic deliberation and hence there is no room to correct false political narrative. 

The unbridled and non-regulated digital space has ceded space to demagogues who persuade the masses via inflammatory speeches. Any demagogue can now leverage social media platforms and disseminate their objectionable opinion through videos and dubious posts. The downfall of western liberal democracies owes its irreversible damage to technological advancement as populist demagoguery in the digital realm has transformed democracy into “tyranny of the majority”. As, xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, populist protectionism etc. are rearing their ugly head again, it is high time to realize people about the vulnerabilities. 


Spreading public awareness about the torrents of disinformation on digital media and its devastating impacts is a desperate need of the hour. However, to embark upon this mission, it is important to understand the complex mechanism of how tech-intensive mass media tends to manipulate and shape public discourse. The sad irony is that multiple digital media platforms make it easy to target the segmented audience via diverse strategies. The strategy to deceive and manipulate, not working for one group of people, might work for another group. The application of hybrid strategies in accordance with the vulnerabilities and grievances of the targeted audience is posing a colossal threat to the health of the spirit of democracy. These subversive tactics are used to induce polarization, exacerbate identity fault lines by whipping up frenzied speculation. Thus, it is unsurprising that treacherous use of mass media platforms has resulted in brutal genocide in already fragmented regions. Rohingya Minority Muslims’ trail of blood illustrates the most subversive impact of technology upon democracy; since Myanmar was on a democratic trajectory but traditional and social media campaign cajoled masses to wage a crusade against the minority group. 

It is very important to understand the “Attention Economy” of the audience as well. According to a 2019 study published by MIT Sloan School, Media Lab Professors Sinan Aral and Deb Roy found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster. This effect is more pronounced with political news than other categories. Thus, there is more room in digital space to manipulate the political discourse of the audience as politics is the chief human interest realm. If many media outlets, albeit dubious, are sharing and discussing a political happening, then there are more chances that people will believe it to be true. It is also very important for the public to consult multiple sources and diverse perspectives to filter out facts from fiction and shape their opinion by analytical reasoning. The credibility of news media or digital platform is very important as mass media is itself business syndicate which is conscious about its branding image. 

The development of an elaborate fact-checking mechanism is also a solution t this problem. Many non-profit organizations have established a well-elaborated fact-checking mechanism to debunk the dubious de-contextualized content. A non-profit initiative has 16000 fact-checks at its credit. Another great example is the French news outlet, Le Monde which has a national database whereby 600 websites have been categorized as fake. 


However, there exists another dangerous implication which is “the implied truth effect”. A study by Rand Corporation highlighted the potential risk of labelling misinformation online: the danger of the “implied truth effect” is that people assume all information without a label is true. As a result, false headlines that fail to get tagged, or are not tagged quickly, could be taken as truth. Attaching verifications to some true headlines could be a possible fix.


Similarly, another dubious aspect of mass media is that it can concoct partisan bubbles by feeding into certain perspective to a fragmented targeted audience. Such “information gerrymandering” utilizes different digital media platforms to propagate certain narrative, set of ideas, images and videos to bolster particular political discourse. A commendable paper “Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online,” is being published by Nature, which highlights the pro-active approach of mass media consumers who must consult multiple websites, news agencies and perspectives to filter out the noise or dubious information. Thus, the question “who is communicated to” is hitherto neglected, yet it is indispensable to encourage a cadre of critical audience members who will demand quality information and will have the competence to dissect and question what is being presented to them.


There is a collective understanding that regulation of mass media and digital realms can help overcome the turmoil. For this purpose, governments must pay special attention to licensing mechanisms and even licensing of YouTube channels. But, then again, regulation is a double-edged sword and it can pave the path for authoritarian regimes to curb space for investigative journalism and undermine the freedom of speech. Another very balanced remedy is the establishment of media as the fourth pillar of the state because it will promote professional investigative journalism, which in turn is an antidote to disinformation.


To chart our future course of media regulations, it is imperative to analyze the following Senate Foreign Operations bill 1998 which states: “The Committee believes the sustainability of non-state-controlled media is critically important…Capacity building through training in commercial management and basic journalism, as well as the development of an independent media infrastructure, are all necessary elements to further enhancing economic and political reform”. 


Unfortunately, Pakistan has not made any coordinated and serious efforts to indiscriminately regulate the new media landscape. For efficient democratic dispensation, it is imperative to utilize digital spheres for civic discourse and deliberation. There are numerous examples where selective censoring and targeting certain apps or media outlets had backfired. 


Media scholar Monroe Price, addressing the issue of broadcasting regulations propounded that “A system of domestic media law that prohibits competition internally and constrains the capacity of program distributors to meet the interests of consumers, will be a fragile one. It is not only constitutional reasons but pragmatic ones, in this view, that justify a far more open system of competition and freedom for broadcasters.”


Around the globe, the cornerstone of democracy is “of the people, for the people and by the people”. Thus, core spirit of democracy is the active participation of all citizens in shaping civic discourse. But colossal feeding of myths and disinformation hampers the capability of the masses to speak their mind. To quote Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, mass media is the “watchdog of democracy”. To better utilize the technological advancement and resuscitate the role of media as a watchdog, it is important to realize that the onus lies not only upon government but upon the public as well, to become the active audience and not a passive recipient of propaganda because democracies can only sustain themselves upon pillars of transparency, accountability and free speech. In the contemporary tech-savvy world, it is imperative to re-adjust ourselves via objective regulatory measures and the active participation of the audience. 


Sarah Khan

The author is a Research Associate at the Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR)

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