Research studies

Democracy, Media Literacy and Building Agency: The Promise for the Future

 

Prepared by the researcher :   Elhachmi Akkaoui- Professor of English Literature and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences, University Mohamed V, Rabat. Culture, language, Education, Migration and Society Laboratory.

Democratic Arab Center

Journal of Strategic and Military Studies : Sixteenth Issue – September 2022

A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin

Nationales ISSN-Zentrum für Deutschland
 ISSN  2626-093X
Journal of Strategic and Military Studies

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Abstract

Democratizing society cannot take place if the poor, the marginalized and the powerless are kept out of the public sphere, if their concerns and aches are not given a voice, if they are not considered an essential block of society. Fortunately, however, many communities and groups of people whose voices have never been heard have largely benefited from the digital empowerment of new media.  Thus, the empowering possibilities and potentials that new media has brought are unprecedentedly immeasurable. In accordance with the role that should be played by media in the process of democratization, it should be noticed that democratization cannot occur if the ‘critical sovereignty’ of media users and consumers is not established. It is believed that this sovereignty can be reached through media literacy. This is said because debates over literacy are, in short, debates about the manner and purposes of public participation and activism in society. Without a democratic and critical approach to media literacy, the public will be positioned merely as selective and passive receivers of media content and consumers of online information and communication. The promise of media literacy, surely, is that it can form part of a strategy or approach to reposition the media user – from passivity to activism and agency, from reception to participation, from consumption to active citizenship.

Introduction:

      Indeed, as democracy requires the active participation of citizens, it is the role of the media to keep citizens engaged in the business of governance through informing, educating and mobilising the general public. The emergence and the pervasiveness of new media on the social, political and cultural scene have contributed to the democratization of many societies through the potential and horizons it has opened up for many people to express themselves, question the established rules and regulations of governments and regimes and demand for more freedom and more democratic practices. The unprecedented advances in media technologies have rapidly ushered in a new communicational era characterized by the widespread of media contents. The proliferation of satellite TV channels and emergence of social media platforms and their promising interactive spaces have made every individual’s access to the services of this media a matter of a click of a button. In particular, the cultural gates that have been open in the face of foreign content along with the new and challenging realities imposed on consumers and users of these media outlets presuppose significant questioning of what future to expect for the different practices on these platforms and their role in shaping how people think, act and react. The new possibilities and open landscapes brought about by these recent developments in information and communication technologies have become the centre of many debates and thorny discussions of these new media effects and their place in the social, political and cultural scene. On the one hand, the central aim of all these debates revolves around safeguarding the traditional cultural values and standing in the face of undesirable effects and on the second hand celebrating the emancipatory potentials that these new media have and the role they can play in pushing forward for a more democratic society where all voices are heard and needs catered for.  The disconcerting questions and issues that arise, as well, when considering the potential of new media is the need to regulate media users’ practices through media literacy in the hope for building their agency.

  • Democratization and the Ramifications of Digital Empowerment

     While democratization has been occurring for hundreds of years and has been omnipresent as a topic of investigation in many researches, it is just recently that technology, and more specifically digital media, have been a significant factor in the process of democratization. Democratization can be defined as the process of transforming or changing a system of government to a government in which the supreme power is put in the hands of the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodical free elections. In his book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel Huntington discusses several causes of democratization including wealth, education, capitalism, social equality, culture and foreign intervention. However, at present, social media/new media/digital media has proven to be a decisive factor and contributor to democratization and has even led to a radical transformation in the structure of government of many ruling regimes especially in the Arab world. According to Huntington, democratization is based on three processes: transformation, transplacement and replacement. Transformation is rather a top-down change coming from within the government. Transplacement occurs when the regime and government negotiate reform. However, replacement takes place when the regime breaks down or collapses[1]. Huntington claims that there have been three modern waves of democratization. The first one occurred during the nineteenth century, the second one after World War II and the third in the 1970s[2]. It can be argued, however, that the fourth wave of democratization is coinciding with the coming and rise of media and technology. The empowering possibilities and potentials that new media has brought are unprecedentedly immeasurable. Many communities and groups of people whose voices have never been heard have largely benefited from the digital empowerment of new media. As Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen put it in The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business:

Digital empowerment will be, for some, the first experience of empowerment in their lives, enabling them to be heard, counted and taken seriously_ all because of an expensive device they can carry in their pocket. As a result, authoritarian governments will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs[3].

In the digital age, more people are given new routes and democratic platforms to fight for their right and voice out their aspirations for democratic social and political change. Any regime’s continuity is guaranteed, as Robert Dahl states, as long as all citizens are able to “formulate their preferences as well as have their preferences be weighed equally regardless of the source[4]. Of course, new media and the internet in general are not to be considered the first technology to be associated with freedom and emancipatory ambitions. Previous inventions such as the printing press, telegraph, radio, telephone and computer all had that emancipatory potential and were also a tool for oppression. Nevertheless, the interactive side and personalized aspects of new media seem to boost people’s freedom and emancipatory ambitions. Again, there is a downside of this unregulated access to media services by any individual. Having media technologies at hand means having a power tool. What is at stake is that whether this power transfer can always yield good results or rather jeopardizes the stability and continuity of the state. As Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen put it, “will this transfer of power to individuals ultimately result in a safer world, or a more dangerous one?”[5] . Indeed, the media has always played a role of a watchdog either for or against the government practices. However, contemporary democratic theory appreciates the media’s role in making sure that governments are held accountable. Thus, it is against any passive role by media in recording events. It is for making everything public to the public as publicity and openness provide the best protection against tyranny and the excesses of arbitrary rule. The media’s role is to inform and warn about the actions of officials and institutions and to protect the public interest. In this vein, the famous Jeffersonian declaration goes: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter”. The media can also help build peace and social and political consensus, without which democracy is threatened. Through providing mechanisms for mediation and negotiation, representation and voice, warring groups or communities may settle their differences and clashes in a peaceful way. It should not fan the flames of discord by taking sides, enriching stereotypes, spreading distortions and half-truths, or reinforcing prejudices. Many activists and NGOs are endeavouring to promote peace journalism or peace media with a view to promote reconciliation by way of careful reportage that considers all the voices. It should be made clear that the media can play a positive role in democracy only if there is an enabling environment that allows it to do so. What is more, there should also be mechanisms to ensure they are held accountable to the public and that ethical and professional standards are upheld. As Sheila S. Coronel noted,

Media independence is guaranteed if media organizations are financially viable, free from intervention of media owners and the state, and operate in a competitive environment. The media should also be accessible to as wide a segment of society as possible. Efforts to help the media should be directed toward: the protection of press rights, enhancing media accountability, building media capacity and democratising media access[6].

Democratizing society cannot take place if its powerless groups and marginalized people are underrepresented in mainstream media and if they are kept out of the public sphere. The idea is that effective and democratic media are the key to building a solid democracy as long as they can provide the information poor people need to take part in public life. Therefore, media are the voice to those marginalized groups as a result of poverty, gender, or ethnic or religious affiliation. By doing this, the injustices inflicted upon these people can be addressed as long as their views are heard and become part of the public debate. As a result, media can contribute to softening and easing social and political conflicts and promote negotiation and reconciliation among divergent social groups. Generally, by providing information and acting as a forum for public debate, as Sheila S. Coronel puts it, “the media [can] play a catalytic role [by] making reforms possible through the democratic process and in the end strengthening democratic institutions and making possible public participation, without which democracy is mere sham”[7].

  • The Moroccan Communicational Scene in the Aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’

In Morocco, the pro-democracy protests of the ‘Moroccan Spring’ provided the national media with a relatively open season that could not last long. Consequently, a number of entrenched ‘untouchable’ topics were debated in the public realm, including those related to the King’s centralised power. However, at present, jour­nalists for example are working in a climate of control over the media fuelled by many slogans of anti-terrorism and territorial integrity along with a tendency to popularise a model of the journalist as the first defender of the status quo, in the name of ‘patriotism’. The coming and emergence of social media has also been a challenge to national state media which pushed this latter to be more open to satisfy the needs of a changing society. As Fatima El Issawi puts it in her report entitled “Moroccan National Media: Between Change and Status quo” , “social media and online news contribute to countering the hegemonic discourse of traditional media, with some Facebook pages being used as vehicles for political change. However, the use of these platforms for the regime’s propaganda, defamation and spreading of rumours also puts in question their role as an engine of democratic change”[8].

Nevertheless, the short phases of openness that the Moroccan national media witnessed could not survive the regime’s tactics and its adoption of a hostile and aggressive stance towards media free­dom. Thus, national media remained confined in the realm of the politics of control imposed on it by an authoritarian regime. Despite that new political dynamism especially after ‘the Arab spring’, the great diversification of topics tackled by Moroccan media and the development of investigative reporting on citizens’ daily problems and needs, the continuity of the three constitutional taboos – the monarchy, Islam and territorial integrity of the kingdom – made the impact of these developments limited. In contrast, the Moroccan media witnessed another type of openness which was ‘cultural’ in nature especially by its unregulated broadcasting of different foreign media contents especially considered a major challenge to Moroccan cultural identity. It can be argued then that Moroccan media is rather in an asymmetric relationship between political control and cultural unregulated openness. Censorship is tightened on political issues; however, it is softened when it comes to media freedom in broadcasting media content that is against Moroccan identity.

  • Media Literacy and the Establishment of Consumers’ Critical Sovereignty.

In accordance with the role that should be played by media in the process of democratization, it should be noticed that democratization cannot occur if the critical sovereignty of media users and consumers is not established. It is believed that this sovereignty can be reached through media literacy. This is said because debates over literacy are, in short, debates about the manner and purposes of public participation and activism in society. Without a democratic and critical approach to media literacy, the public will be positioned merely as selective and passive receivers of television content and consumers of online information and communication. The promise of media literacy, surely, is that it can form part of a strategy or approach to reposition the media user – from passivity to activism, from reception to participation, from consumption to citizenship. The notion of media literacy as Christine W Trultzsch- Wijnen indicates in her book entitled Media Literacy and the Effects of Socialization is “one of the most fundamental concepts in media education and is central to the question of a confident and self-determined approach to media, whatever the perspective—be it academic (communication studies, media studies, education studies, psychology, linguistics, cultural studies, etc.), practical (the teaching of abilities and skills), social (participation, the knowledge gap, digital inequality, etc.) or political (digitalization, economic competitiveness, etc.)” [9]

Generally, literacy is the ability to read and write, however, media literacy is a set of skills that anyone can learn which enable him/her to access, analyze, evaluate and create media messages of all kinds. The media omnipresence in the fabric of our everyday life is unquestionable and undeniable with regard to the fact that most of our time now is spent in front of media technologies and most of our information is received through a complex amalgam of texts, images and sound, hence, the need to be able to navigate within this environment and to make sense of the media messages that bombard us every day, and also to be able to express ourselves using a variety of media tools and technologies. Media literacy of course includes the ability to dismantle and decipher the multifarious messages we receive on a daily basis from different media outlets ranging from television, social media platforms, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, video games, video clips, recorded music, and the internet. In this postmodern age where meanings are imploded and hyper realities are cherished, the need is to understand how these media messages/media contents/meanings and realities are constructed, and discover how they are created and in what orientation they are taking us. Being media literate also opens up the horizon to creating one’s own media especially with the proliferation of media technologies at hand and thus become an active participant to media culture and media democracy. Media literacy is part of a process of empowering media consumers towards building their agency and critical sovereignty. In multi-media driven society and within a media-saturated world where cultural interactions and clashes are omnipresent, the challenge is to dissolve and melt in the media content to which adults and young people are exposed. In the past, our perceptions were shaped by our parents, school, teachers, friends, the mosque, family, but now our perceptions about our sense of self and how we relate to others and the environment around us along with our conceptions of reality are being shaped by new culture storytellers which are television, movies, music, video games, and the internet. The promise for the future then is to solidify our patterns of cultural identification and stick to the roots and cultural specificity and challenge the coming cultural invasions. Agency-building is a prerequisite for identity survival in a rapidly changing world. Of course, within this dichotomy of structure and agency that has haunted research in social sciences, it can be argued that in this new communicational era where television, social media and the internet shape and control our everyday social, political and cultural practices, people are more and more constrained and oriented towards adopting and changing their representations, perceptions and understandings of many things around them ranging from their sense of self, their conception of others and the reality around them. The media, then, is a social institution within which people are pushed to live and act. People are agents forced to consume, deliberate and choose within a world of constraints. The question is that should media be decisive and determinative of who we are and who we should be? Do the media as a structure govern social outcomes? Can one say that agents are rather the drivers of social causation and social change?

  • Structural Constraints and Agency Building.

  From a sociological perspective, any individual is, to varying degrees, a product of social relations. Thus, as David Croteau and William Hoynes put it in their book entitled Media and Society: Industries, Images and Audiences,

The language we use, the education we receive, and the norms and values we are taught are all part of a socialisation process through which we develop and embrace a sense of self. We become who we are largely through our social relations with others. At its most basic level, this means that our sense of identity and individuality emerges from our social interaction with others….our daily activities usually take place within the context of larger groups and institutions…family, friendship circles, school_ these are the collective contexts in which we develop our roles and identities as daughters or sons, friends, students, athletes, employees, citizens and so forth. Each role brings with it a set of expectations about our actions; being a ‘good’ student, employee or friend usually involves conforming to those expectations[10].

      Thus, to understand the big picture, it is essential to understand the social relations that govern people’s actions and reactions. In this regard David Croteau and William Hoynes distinguish between three types of social relations when referring to the media.[11] The importance of seeing the operation in terms of the social relations on different levels consists in recognizing some of the different roles the media play in our society.

     The dichotomy of structure and agency can exist in many different fields of society. For example, the family is a structure with a pattern of behaviours associated with the culturally defined idea of “family”. Within this structure, there are expected roles for every individual constituting this structure meaning the husband, wife, the children, etc. However, form another angle, it can be said that the structure of the family has put many constraints on the agency of individuals within it. It has constrained their behaviour by either encouraging or coercing them to conform to the accepted standards of family related behaviour. Here reference is made to the traditional conception of family. Thus, in many ways, women for example were denied the chance and opportunity to use their skills outside the house whereas men were denied the pleasure to raise their children at home. Another example that can explain the dichotomy of structure and agency is the field of education wherein students, teachers, and administrators are expected to conform to the societal and educational expectations that govern the relationship within this structure. The educational system can be encouraging to some students and can help them get their diplomas and build their own futures. However, it can be constraining for some others and push them to drop out of school as long as they cannot establish conformity with the rules and regulations of the educational system. Attending courses regularly, doing assignments and respecting their deadlines and doing tests are part of a constraining and agency-depriving structure. Accepting the rules and conforming to the regulations guarantee the continuity of the structure. Within traditional families, as long as women accept the social roles of housewives and men accept the role of breadwinners, the structure continued, but this structure started changing when some women, for instance, started demanding their right to choose among a number of possibilities to stay at home or to work outside.

    The dichotomy of structure and agency in the media can be spoken about with reference to three levels referred to earlier: relationships between institutions, relationships within an institution and relationships between an institution and the public.

     The issue of agency building concerns all of these levels. For example, broadly speaking, media industry cannot be understood without considering the social, economic and political context wherein it exists. Within an authoritarian regime, media seem to have no or less agency as extreme censorship and oppression on that media are exerted. Mainstream media does not have its autonomy from the ruling system as it is faced with restrictions and red lines. For this reason, new media and social platforms have challenged and changed the status quo as it has an ‘established agency’. The media agency in Morocco, for example, is influenced by the structure of the government, the economy and the ruling system. As a result, definitions of democratic societies entail the existence of media agency although it may be difficult somehow to talk about democracies in the African context. What is striking in this debate, as Ufuoma Akpojivi puts it in his Media Reforms and Democratization in Emerging Democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa, is the idea that “democracy is never African and if Africa has its own form of democracy, as most Africanists claim, then how is it that there has never been a success story about an African democracy?”[12] This is said because there are still structural constraints to a well-established agency in relation to ‘Africa’s total environment, its history, politics, economics and culture.

     Another type of agency that should be built within Moroccan media concerns the relationships within the media industry. This dichotomy between structure and agency within media industry is primarily related to how much autonomy media personnel have in doing their work. Individuals’ agency varies in accordance with the position or profession each individual has. So to understand agency in this context one should ask questions about the decisions made by journalists, producers, filmmakers, media executives, and so forth and the extent to which they have their own autonomy and independence.

     The other third level of agency that should be stressed in the type of agency in relationships between the media and the public. The audience’s agency is premised on the fact that media viewers are not passive sponges that soak up media content they get exposed to. Communication in this kind of relationship should not be determined by media. Thus, as media readers or receivers are not immune to the impact of media content, the agency should be established in order to be able to decide about the utility of any media content.

Conclusion:

All in all, in a media environment that is changing rapidly, it may be very easy to predict the future of national mainstream media with regard to the challenging potentials that new social media platforms have proven to possess.  New and alternative media have managed to provide different chances for marginalised groups to discuss, organise, self-represent and pursue some sort of political action. since the inception of social media platforms, there have always been many instances of citizen journalism that tried to document and (re)present many local initiatives, issues, realities that often started due to the public’s dissatisfaction with mainstream state media’s (mis)representation and coverage. As such, these spaces help marginalised people to articulate both their physical and their discursive struggles to break down societal barriers and so they facilitate participatory forms of communication aimed at transformative social change. However, the unquestionable omnipresence of media technologies in our lives presupposes the need for media literacy as a prerequisite to the everyday engagement with these information communication technologies. The best approach as well is to seek more liberating, emancipatory, democratizing and promising communicational tools and spaces that set out to enhance democracy and build public agency.

References

  • Atton, Chris. Alternative Media. London: Sage Publications, 2002.
  • ——————-. An Alternative Internet: Radical Media, Politics and Creativity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004
  • Barbero, Martin. “Communicational and Technological Changes in the Public Sphere”, in Gumucio-Dagron, Alfonso and Tufte, Thomas (eds.). Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings, Communication for Social Change Consortium. South Orange, NJ, 2006.
  • Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2008.
  • Christine W Trultzsch- Wijnen, Media Literacy and the Effects of Socialization Austria: Springer, 2020
  • Couldry, Nick and Curran, James. Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2003.
  • David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media and Society: Industries, Images and Audiences London: Pine Forge Press, 2003.
  • Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business Great Britain: John Murray Publishers, 2013.
  • Fatima El Issawi, Moroccan National Media: Between Change and Status quo (A report for The Middle East Centre, April 2016)
  •             http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/66228/1/MoroccoReport.pdf
  • Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
  • Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
  • Sheila S. Coronel, The Role of Media in Deepening Democracy
  •             http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan010194.pdf
  • Thorsen, E. & Jackson, Daniel & Savigny, Heather & Alexander, J, Media, Margins and Civic Agency. (England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

[2] Ibid, 3 According to Huntington “ the third wave of democratization in the modern world began, implausibly and unwittingly, at twenty-five minutes after midnight, Thursday, April 25,1974, in Lisbon, Portugal, when radio station played the song “Grandola Vila Morena.” That broadcast was the go-ahead signal for the military units in and around Lisbon to carry out the plans for coup d’etat that had been carefully drawn up by the young officers leading the Movimento das Forcas Armadas (MFA). The coup was carried out efficiently and successfully, with only minor resistance from the security police. Military units occupied key ministries, broadcasting stations, the post office, air ports, and telephone exchanges. By late morning, crowds were flooding the streets, cheering the soldiers, and placing carnations in the barrels of their rifles. By late afternoon the deposed dictator, Marcello Caetano, had surrendered to the new military leaders of Portugal. The next day he flew into exile. So died the dictatorship that had been born in a similar military coup in 1926 and led for over thirty-five years by an austere civilian, Antonio Salazar, working in close collaboration with Portugal’s soldiers”.

[3] Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (Great Britain: John Murray Publishers, 2013)7

[4] Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

[5]Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen,7

[6] Sheila S. Coronel, The Role of Media in Deepening Democracy

النقر للوصول إلى unpan010194.pdf

[7] Ibid, 6

[8] Fatima El Issawi, Moroccan National Media: Between Change and Status quo (A report for The Middle East Centre, April 2016)3

http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/66228/1/MoroccoReport.pdf

[9] Christine W Trultzsch- Wijnen, Media Literacy and the Effects of Socialization (Austria: Springer, 2020)1

[10] David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media and Society: Industries, Images and Audiences (London: Pine Forge Press, 2003)19

[11] Ibid,20 The three relationships that the authors outline include :

  • Relationships between institutions_ for example, the interactions between the media industry and the government.
  • Relationships within an institution, which involve the interaction of individuals occupying their institutional roles and positions_ for example, the relationship between a screenwriter and the head of the motion picture studio
  • Relationships between institutions and individuals, who are always part of larger social groups_ for example, the use of media produacts by audiences or readers

[12] Ufuoma Akpojivi, Media Reforms and Democratization in Emerging Democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)150

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