By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
IN my recent instalments, I have been saying it is time for media scholars and policymakers to revise their understanding of media and media war.
On January 8 2023, supporters of the most recent President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court and the Brazilian Congress in an attempt to reverse the election victory of current President Lula Da Silva.
Readers will remember that in January 2021, the then President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro and his followers deeply sympathised with Donald J. Trump’s followers who also staged a coup attempt to reverse the electoral victory of current US President Joe Biden.
The most significant common element between the two attempted coups d’etat is that they were first inspired and planned for a long time through the media, especially social media, before they manifested as physical violence on the ground.
In the US, despite countless efforts to disabuse right-wing followers of former President Trump of the lies used to justify the attempted coup, more than 70 million still cling to the lies, believing that the vote was stolen from Trump and that current President Joe Biden is illegitimate.
And there is a relatively new theory of Cognitive Dissonance which warns that the underlying hazard in such a situation is social/political polarisation.
Once you develop or cultivate mass social/political polarisation accurately, even scientific evidence ceases to fulfil its function of persuasion, so that the more it is repeated and drummed into people’s heads the more polarised opinions seem to become extreme and even absurd.
This is because most people struggle to develop and believe consistent and compatible information or evidence.
Therefore, in a relaxed environment where there is psychological safety and trust, most people achieve consistency by agreeing to be persuaded, convinced of the validity of new evidence and, therefore, to give up some beliefs which can no longer co-exist with the new evidence.
But in a polarised and polarising environment, the same people will tend to reject the accurate or scientific information which they perceive as aimed at converting them or forcing them to give up their identity rather than seeing it as aimed only at kuonesana or enlightenment.
In such a situation, certain groups go out of their way to avoid sources of accurate or scientific information.
Instead, they seek to strengthen what we might see as ignorance, prejudice and intolerance of new perspectives.
The paradox of linear over-mediation
So we do have a paradox arising from media saturation which is a sub-category of the paradox of neo-liberal capitalism and its assumption that it has achieved a market economy in which democracy and the capitalist market are Siamese twins, inseparable.
The media, under neo-liberal capitalism, are driven by the market.
In the market each brand wants to cultivate brand loyalty which is another word for exclusion or intolerance of other brands.
You cannot run a Toyota advert on the same screen simultaneously with a Mercedes Benz advert on your channel. They can be run only one at a time. And the Benz one must run as if Toyotas do not exist; while the Toyota one must also preach that Mercedes Benz and Mazda also don’t exist. This is the essence of linear over-mediation.
Al Gore and the image of a digitised ‘heaven on earth’
Former US Vice-Prdsident Al Gore was a cyber ‘evangelist’ who ascribed moral and ethical values of harmony and peace (on a global scale) to what we now call social media. He could not have foreseen the forces that helped organise the two attempted coups d’etat on January 6 2021 in Washington DC and January 8 2023 in Brasilia.
Mark Slouka paraphrased Al Gore as having told a White House audience in January 1994: ‘…that universal access to information would empower the weak and hamstring the tyrants of the world; that, thanks to the wonders of digital communication, the meek would finally inherit the earth.’ Blessed are the poor in data, for they shall have universal service.... The data highway, we were sure to ‘elevate the human spirit and lead to the solution of social problems’…’…it would promote economic growth, foster democracy, and ‘link the people of the world’, bathing us all, willy nilly…in the milk of human kindness. One world, one love!
To the contrary, however, digitised media warfare is now called the ‘Like-Wars’ because of the phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance I have briefly described. True, social media do link people but they also linearise them by making it easy to cut off or shut out those users you do not like, just as the advert for a Suzuki will shut out that of a Honda. But in morality, ethics and real human communities, we cannot afford to run parallel or opposite the way a Suzuki and a Honda can and get away with it.
Neo-liberal myths of democracy, market economy and media policy
Neo-liberal reformers are fond of telling us democracy and the capitalist market work best and belong together.
They also tell us that these twins also naturally lead to multiculturalism, inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, pluralism and the free flow of information, with journalists and NGO activists in media appointing themselves as ‘human rights defenders’.
First of all, the worst global wars humankind has ever witnessed were between competing capitalist societies: Britain and Germany in 1914 to 1918; Britain and its allies against Germany, Italy and Japan in 1939-1945; and now NATO against the Russian Federation in Ukraine.
Second, some of the most entrenched and intransigent views today are exhibited in, and by, over-mediated groups and societies, examples being the right-wing mobs in the US and Brazil using digital media to spread lies and hate speech in pursuit of violence.
Seventy million people clinging to a lie is no laughing matter and they do not seem to be relenting.
Yet the US is among the top champions of democracy and the market economy.
These things may have conjecturally existed together for a certain period but by no means belong together naturally. The neo-liberal reformers conveniently hide or forget that capitalism claimed to be democratic by first denying its shameful birth in the inhuman depths of the Middle Passages of chattel slavery.
But my concern here has been media theory, media policy and the linearised contribution of social media to polarisation, particularly as happened toward and in elections in Kenya (2007-2008); US (2020-2021); and Brazil (2022-2023).
Do we understand current media and
society or are we saying repealing the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) solved all our media policy challenges.