How does one democratize communication in the post-truth era?
What does it mean to demand the democratization
of communication and information in the “post-truth” era,
in which public opinion is less influenced by objectivity
than by emotions, stereotypes and personal beliefs?
Today, the media and political leaders use post-truth
as a weapon of mass disorientation of public opinion,
with Donald Trump the main practitioner of
What are we talking about when we demand the democratization of communication and information? Do we only mean redistributing radio frequencies to guarantee our human right to information and communication? How can the equitable redistribution of frequencies among commercial, state or public and grassroots (communitarian, alternative, etc.) sectors guarantee the democratization of communication and prevent media concentration?
I sometimes think they push us to fight on wrong or already obsolete battlefields while strategies, tactics and offensives are being developed in new ones. The world moves on; technology advances… and it seems as if we, from what we call the grassroots camp, are still clinging to the same demands and vindications of a world that virtually no longer exists.
The problem isn’t just the media’s oligopolistic concentration
The world is indeed changing, but the social media issue remains as fundamental to the future of our democracies as it was in 1980, at the time of the MacBride Report [“Many Voices One World,” written by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems chaired by Irish Nobel laureate Sean MacBride and published by UNESCO; its critique of the concentration and commercialization of the media and unequal access to information and communication, and its call for a “New World Information and Communication Order” led the US and UK to withdraw from UNESCO in protest at what they called its attack on freedom of the press, forcing UNESCO to disavow its ideas]. Today’s problem is indeed oligopolistic concentration: only six transnational corporations today control 1,500 newspapers, 1,100 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,500 television stations and 2,400 publishing houses.
But that’s not the only problem. The issues on today’s media agenda relate to the vertical integration of communication service providers with content-producing companies, with content being delivered directly to mobile devices; and to communication’s transnationalization and its short circuits to the local hegemonic media. They also relate to the Internet’s security, manipulation, transparency and governance and to the “buzz” a video makes on the networks, a format destined to reign for the next few years.
These issues, along with the long-announced decline of the written press and the existence of fourth generation warfare [characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians] and media terrorism, are the fundamental ones to be considered concerning communication democracy today, looking not to the past but towards the encroaching future.
Hypothetically, if 33% of the frequencies in Latin America were actually granted to grassroots media, who would supply the content to all those radio and TV channels? What, then, are we talking about when we demand the democratization of communication and information?
A media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before
It’s been 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell used his experimental telephone for the first time to say to his laboratory assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” His invention would transform human communication and the world. The company created by Bell grew into an immense monopoly: AT&T.
In 1982 the US government mandated the breaking up of this telecommunications giant, considering it overly powerful. AT&T is now back, and has announced its acquisition of one of the world’s main media and content-production companies, Time Warner. Together they will form one of the largest entertainment and communications conglomerates on the planet. If it goes through, it will be AT&T’s largest acquisition to date, and comes only a year after buying DIRECTV. The proposed merger, which still has to be studied by the authorities, not only represents a significant threat to privacy and the basic right to communication, but also a paradigm shift in what we have understood up until now as communication.
AT&T is today the 10th largest of the top 500 US companies. If it acquires Time Warner, ranked 99th on Forbes’ Fortune 500 List, it would create an enormous, vertically integrated corporation that would control not only a large amount of audiovisual content but also how people access it.
According to Candace Clement from the Free Press, “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more. That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine Net Neutrality.”
They are looking to turn democracy into an information dictatorship
Today’s world isn’t the same as it once was. It’s no longer even the world of 1980 when the MacBride Report was published, although both the Right and the Left believe we’re still in 1990. It’s hard for those of us who come from the age of typography and linotype, telex and teletype machines—or of dogmatism and the repetition of slogans—to assimilate technological changes and the reality of today’s world, ruled by big data, artificial intelligence… and the plutocracy.
According to the latest estimates, there are about 10 zettabytes of information (a zettabyte is a 1 followed by 21 zeros) in the world, which could be converted into nine thousand batteries that would reach the sun. Human beings have created as much information between 2014 and today as they did between pre-historic times and 2014, and the only way to interpret this information is with machines.
Deep Learning is the way artificial intelligence has functioned for the last five years: these are neural networks that work very like the brain with many hierarchies. It is used by Apple, Google and the Siri [built-in “intelligent assistants” that enable users of the newer mobile communication devices to speak natural language voice commands to operate the device and its apps].
Big Data allows information to interpret itself and anticipate our intentions. It anticipates how much the big companies know about us and also what most concerns them: the ease with which democracy is being converted into an information dictatorship, enclosing each citizen in a separate bubble.
If your cell phone has Gmail with Wifi, you can see a world map on Google Maps that shows where you were each hour of each day for the last two or three years. You don’t have to believe me: see www.google.com/maps/timeline. It’s information that can be gathered once you install the app on your phone and accept the license terms.
Telephone companies, which you assume just charge you for the plan, also do good business with your data. For example, Smart Steps is a company of Telefónica, S.A. [a Spanish multinational broadband and telecommunications provider with operations in Europe, Asia and North, Central and South America], that sells data from Movistar cell phones.
So, from one day to the next, people got their own 24/7 sensor. Today we can know not only where people are, but also their political ideas, what they buy and eat, when they sleep, who their friends are, how they live their social life...
How Donald Trump used those data in his political campaign
The German scientist Martin Hilbert, technological adviser to the US Library of Congress, points out that some studies have already been able to predict a lot of things based on our Facebook behavior.
Hilbert says that using only between 100 and 250 of your likes on Facebook, it’s possible to predict your sexual orientation, ethnic origins, religious and political opinions, intelligence and happiness level, whether you use drugs, and if your parents are separated or not. It can also be abused, as Barack Obama and Donald Trump did in their successful campaigns and as Hillary Clinton didn’t… These are the data Trump used.
With 150 likes, algorithms can predict the outcome of your personality test better than your partner, and with 250 likes better than you can yourself. Stanford psychology professor Michal Kosinski did this study [with David Stillwell when both were students at the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre, then introduced an app on Facebook in 2008 allowing users to take a quiz to understand and share their own psychographic profiles]. Afterwards, a businessman factored it in and created Cambridge Analytica, which Donald Trump reportedly contracted for his electoral campaign.
Hilbert says this database and methodology were used to create profiles of each US citizen eligible to vote, obtaining almost 250 million profiles. Obama, who also manipulated the citizenry a lot, had 16 million profiles in 2012, but in 2016 they had them all. On average, you can get about 5,000 facts about each US citizen and once the individual is classified according to them, the attack begins.
Hilbert gave this example: If Trump says “I defend the right to bear arms,” that phrase gives some people, those known to be rather fearful, the image of a criminal entering a house. The same phrase would give other, more patriotic people the image of a guy going hunting with his son. It’s the same phrase from Trump, but with two versions. They created 175,000 versions for thousands of Trump’s statements. Of course it’s brainwashing, Hilbert concludes. It has nothing to do with democracy. It’s pure populism, in which they tell you exactly what you want to hear.
The subtlest part is that they can not only send the message as each person best likes to hear it, but can also show him only the one he’ll agree with.
We have to understand the world we live in
The technology game has always been to see which jobs can be automated and which can’t. If a robot can recognize cancer cells, you save a visit to the doctor.
Hilbert says more than half of today’s jobs can be digitized, and we’re no longer talking about replacing laborers, as in the Industrial Revolution. The jobs of the most educated class can now be replaced: doctors, accountants and the like. In the Unites States, 99% of the decisions on the electricity grid are now being made by a digital company that locates who needs electricity in real time.
In no way is it the end of humanity. It’s just evolution going about its business. The most important thing is to understand the world we live in. That’s why it’s striking that self-defined leftwing radical media operators are still insisting on the need to fight in settings that no longer exist, still regressively clinging to the past with lexicons that don’t correspond to either real or virtual realities.
What are we talking about?
Today, more than ever, the media dictatorship, in the hands of increasingly less “general” corporations, is looking for new ways to hegemonically implant personalized collective stereotypes, narratives, speeches, truths and images. It’s the global launching of fourth-generation warfare directly aimed at digitalized users all over the world.
If the political struggle of five decades back, the battle to impose stereotypes, was elucidated in the streets, factories, political parties, social movements, parliaments or guerrilla groups, today the large transmission corporations are preparing an offensive with their own virtual reality content that bypasses the traditional media to go directly into citizens’ new mobile devices.
What are we talking about when we demand the democratization of communication and information? Are we still talking about redistributing radio frequencies when control now comes from the conjunction of media and content?
Those who control the broadcast systems, increasingly wireless and via satellite, choose, produce and orchestrate what the content will be in a planned bid to monopolize markets and dominate citizen information-formation.
Will we be “prosumers”? or only consumers?
Radio has changed. In January 2017, under the watchful eye of other nations, Norway became the first country in the world to turn off its Frequency Modulation (FM) signal, given that it has 22 national digital radio stations and there’s still space on its digital platform for another 20.
Television has changed. The trend in the world, including in Latin America, is that young TV viewers are moving from the linear use of television to pre-recorded and a la carte consumption, opting for either the fixed device (television) or a second screen (computer, tablet, Smart phones).
Optimistic communicologists see citizens moving from being passive receptors to being producer-consumers—or “prosumers”—through their massive use of social networks. Although this is a theoretical possibility, practice demonstrates to the less optimistic that production and broadcasting won’t stay in the hands of the citizenry but will end up in those of the huge, especially US, corporations. And with this onslaught of one thought, one message and one image, citizens will again occupy the consumer pigeonhole.
Post-truth: A weapon of mass disorientation
Perhaps those of us who have been in this struggle for years think the discussion about democratizing communications is socialized or at least widely taking place in our societies. It isn’t, not even in countries such as Argentina and Ecuador, where efforts have been made to elucidate it. Some even argue that it’s still an elitist discussion among the media’s political activists and their buddies.
What are we talking about when we demand the democratizing of communication and information in what is now being called “the post-truth era,” where public opinion is less influenced by objective facts than by emotions, stereotypes and personal beliefs?
Today, post-truth is the weapon the major media and all political leaders use for the mass disorientation of public opinion. As the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, said, society today is a monumental simulacrum, a quasi-infinite plexus of meanings without references or realities to support them, a kind of monumental science-fiction that dominates us.
The art of the lie
In 2016 The Economist began writing about “the art of the lie,” noting that Trump is the main exponent of post-truth politics, based on phrases that feel true but have no real base. It’s one thing to exaggerate or hide and quite another to blatantly and constantly lie about facts. And the worst part is that these lies are imposing themselves on the collective imagination. Unemployment and cost of living figures are being manipulated, omitted, misrepresented or falsified while media-hyped opinion-shapers preach different variants of Margaret Thatcher’s slogan: There is no alternative.
What, therefore, are we saying when we demand the democratizing of communication and information?
Aram Aharonian is a Uruguayan journalist, founder of TELESUR and co-director of the Communication and Democracy Observatory at the Latin American Center of Strategic Analysis (CLAE). This piece, edited by envió, is an advance from his forthcoming book, The Assassination of Truth.