by Julius WiedemannJan 25, 2022
The power of real-time does not come without its pitfalls. The profusion of videos and posts following the Taliban takeover of the Afghan capital Kabul has been seen all over the world. Despite the shocking news, there has been a sense of responsibility to avoid any portrayal of bloodshed publicly by the insurgent Taliban soldiers. When the media is always around, and real-time news has become the norm, every politician tries to avoid public embarrassment and scrutiny for taking the wrong decisions. Here of course, the Taliban is taking its chances to look like a relatively moderate political force only trying to care about political struggle. We will have to see how the stories develop. It is important to understand that historically, the complete absence of media has left many countries without any visibility. Therefore, they have to deal with dystopias of violence, corruption and misery without any attention and help from other countries. But how people see these problems of power struggle around the world is also subject to a lot of interpretation; this is fuelled by different languages, and are bound to be manipulated in ways we have not witnessed before. To embrace digital media is not to embrace a rounded concept, it is rather embracing a discussion to try to make things better and clearer every day.
Conventional media has had to transform itself since the explosion of user-generated content and digital distribution, especially videos. The privilege of bringing readers and viewers real-time and shocking news does not belong to media companies anymore. They now have to gather and curate much more than they have to generate materials themselves. They have now realised that their capacity to be everywhere and report is incredibly limited. In the last few years, traditional media has focused on branding, so that they become channels and not producers anymore. Branding is especially important because news outlets have migrated to the Internet. Traditionally printed outlets have now ventured into video content as well for the same reasons. Traditional news agencies such as Reuters and AFP are now channels themselves. They used to be news providers for many outlets, but are now building their own audience, and can produce material guided by the amount of data that they have collected from people directly accessing their content.
The question is, apart from the three powers, executive, legislative, and judiciary, has media positioned itself as the fourth power? Of course, here I am speaking about democratic countries. The concept and the experience of democracy is not an easy one. It tries to get people to participate, to change events that are extremely complex and demand a lot of intelligence and the ability to think about long term ideas. And as we know consensus is very often chaotic. With media scrutiny, compliance would be guaranteed, as long as the freedom of expression continues to exist. As hard news shifted from being a loss leader to a big business with conservative outlets, news started to be made, instead of being reported. Now that everyone is gathering and curating content, it’s been easier than ever to focus on where the demographics of interests are.
But the game has also changed for dictatorships. Now, content does not depend solely on state agencies to be produced. Every mobile phone is a broadcaster. Of course, telecommunication companies, together with governments, can track down where things are coming from, but hackers are always finding new ways to bypass these systems. Guerrilla fighters are always ahead of the curve and will always find ways to leak information and broadcast real news to the world. The case of the flight that was diverted to Belarus so that the activist Roman Protasevich and a couple of colleagues could be arrested shows the desperation of governments regarding information. Trespassing all international laws, the Ryanair flight changed its route after being falsely notified about a bomb plot. The possibility of news creation is now so diverse and encompasses so many variables, that no one can really figure out how to control it anymore. It is all one damage control after the other. Companies and private enterprises alike keep trying to control the information, one side looking at how citizens should behave, whilst the other thinking about how users can become economically viable. This comment, which sounds pretty ruthless, I see as a very natural consequence of human nature, which is to say we are always looking at opportunities to understand and control things.
The chaos at the airport in Kabul, with people trying to leave Afghanistan are now on record forever. It has forced President Joe Biden to go on television to report that despite his certainty about taking the American troops out of the country, they have completely underestimated how fast things would develop. It is all now registered and can be easily accessed on YouTube for eternity. Joe Biden himself is not to be blamed for the occupation, but the scenes in Kabul demanded that as the Commander-in-Chief reports to the whole world after a blatant failure of strategy. Gil Scott-Heron, the famous American jazz poet will be forever famous for his proto-rap song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" from 1970. The title phrase has become a protester cliche, but it is still so meaningful, in this day and age. The phrase is a confirmation that the Internet has transformed television, and visionaries like Carl Sagan knew that from the beginning. The 60s in the 70s were crucial years for the development of the Internet, and for the imagination of how deeply it would change the world. It is up to us to understand how we can further develop democratic institutions using digital media as our biggest partner. It will not be easy. But I truly think this is probably the most important legacy we can leave for our children and grandchildren.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.