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Fake News: A look at what Trump, Brexit and Putin’s Russia have in common.

In the Twenty First Century to what extent is Media Technology and Ownership of The Means of Cultural Production central to Political Agency?

Society has long been characterised by an unjust distribution of capital and a structure that has privileged those ruling it with the ability to manipulate, and burdened the freedom of those ruled by it. This ability and freedom are two sides of the same coin, called political agency and in this essay I intend to ascertain the interrelationship between this agency, media technology and ownership of the means of cultural production. I hope to be able to conclude the degree to which, if any, this relationship has been altered by the introduction of the most influential twenty first century media technology, the internet. First I will use academic works by Adorno, Bourdieu, Baudrillard and Marx, among others, to understand how the introduction of the internet as a platform has changed society. I will then build on this understanding with secondary popular criticism and textual analysis of Twitter and it’s use of hashtags, such as #OccupyWallStreet, to empower people with individual and collective agency. Finally, I will explore the role of Facebook in society, the agency it has, and how its capitalisation of media technology, such as algorithms, caused it to become an unintentional cultural intermediary. Furthermore, the essay will explore how these processes have allowed for the proliferation of so called ‘fake news’ and arguing the extent to which it could have had an influence on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This range in depth of methods and scale of case studies, will enable me to develop my understanding more extensively so that I can more easily establish the causes of agency. However, a limiting factor is that by not conducting my own primary research, the only true perspective I can have on the topic is that of my own, which is subject to bias.

To explore this question, it’s vital to recognise and understand the key concepts. Firstly, I want to establish media technology as a reference not uniquely to the physical device a user can experience, but also the software it runs and the capabilities afforded to it by infrastructure. Secondly, ”Each country has its own ruling class. In capitalist countries, the rulers own the means of production and employ workers”, they are the class with control of what consumers do and do not get to see. Political agency, the key concept, is a recognition of someone’s “capacity to make a difference” (Giddens, 1984, p14) and is determined, in part, by their access to the prior concepts of media t question already establishes that technology and ownership is central to political agency, the tension in this debate is to what extent that relationship is relevant and whether there are other factors. As a media consumer I know the most significant factor in catalysing the internet’s growth is it’s fundamentally accessible nature, consumers have more content and more modes of discourse than ever to choose from, irrespective of class or geographical location; however, as a producer I’m also aware that, thanks to developments of media technologies such as Web 2.0, it is now possible for anyone to become cultural producers and have a voice irrespective of their class and background. By understanding how the internet works, this insight will aid me in recognising what makes an internet platform appealing to different classes of people and what effect it could have on individual empowerment and collective agency. My hypothesis is that post-modernity and technological determinism have made the means of cultural production more accessible; initiating a self-sustained process that would continue, relative to the internet’s increasing availability, to empower the consumer with a new sense of political agency, weakening the control of the traditional elites and political actors.

Having control of the means of cultural production gives the elite absolute agency to produce culture that could manipulate the subordinate classes, and ultimately maintain the hierarchy and consequently their power. Giddens (1984, p 14) can offer some illustration of how structuralism, and the absence of individual agency, determines the hierarchy of society ; however in this essay i’d like to explore Marxism can be used to understand the social structures present in society, it isn’t concerned with the individual but rather their role; he noted that it was sustained by a conflict of interests between the bourgeois, who own the means of production, and the proletariat who owned their labour (Marx and Engels 1848; Boltanski, Chiapello and Elliott 2005). Marx recognised this as a capitalist mode of production, self-sustained by the bourgeois’s privileged position; technology was too expensive for the proletariat and the technical skills and proprietary knowledge required to access the means of production were not available to the masses. Built on the binary opposite if these values however, was the internet, and a virtual society that distinguished itself from and attacked this existing status quo. Where hardware was expensive, software was free, where knowledge was proprietary, the web was open source; if marxist social stratification was defined by access, then all citizens of the internet were bourgeois.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

A Declaration of The Independence of Cyberspace (Barlow 1996)

Barlow (1996) was a visionary, speaking “On behalf of the future” with the internet still in it’s infancy he realised the significance it would ultimately have, and campaigned for it’s independence from government, “We did not invite you”. There was a window of time, where the controlled and governed channels of culture and discourse became deregulated; where traditional platforms such as TV had been at mercy of government and regulation, where they had come to embody the idealistic, optimistic and utopian ideals of liberal western democracy; there was a new platform that offered the unprecedented opportunity for real freedom of expression. As web 2.0 principles “such as user-creation and moderation, social networking and ‘crowdsourcing’” (Jenkins 2010) found their place on the internet, there were new means of cultural production made available, Wikipedia (2001), WordPress (2003) and YouTube (2005) are all examples of this; and importantly, the proletariat had just as much access and ownership as the bourgeois. Baudrillard was first in 1970 to recognise what he called the “The commodification of culture” (p16); twenty years later Adorno (1991, p12) recognised the culmination of high and low art and in 2013, during the process of developing a new class system, Savage et al. described the elite classes as having a new appreciation of both “highbrow and popular cultural forms” (p.226). To explain the importance of this new cultural capital we use Bourdieu’s definition capital, an individual’s “accumulated labour” (1986, p 241); he also theorised that a society that allows cultural capital threatened the elite, “the use or exploitation of cultural capital presents particular problems for the holders of economic or political capital” (1986, p.243); the bourgeoisie exploit the concentration of capital, however culture manifests as an embodied state of capital, from an elite’s perspective “How can this capital be concentrated-as some undertakings demand-without concentrating the possessors of the capital” (Bourdieu 1986, p244).

The biggest trend in media technology this decade has been social media, the ability to empower individuals with political agency that has the capability to translate into real social change is something Baudrillard (1994a, p. 30) didn’t foresee, believing instead that “Freedom is manifested as freedom for virtual interaction rather than real social and political action” . When individuals feel disempowered they are more likely to become radicalised; the occupy wall street movement in 2011 embodied the economic inequalities in society; Marx predicted how the exploitation and oppression of society by the Bourgeoisie leads to their alienation and, ultimately, downfall. “We are the 99 percent” (Chris, Grim 2011) is a reference to the concentration of capital, political agency and the means of cultural production in society. The political agency to have an affect on society was afforded to them by their cultural agency and use of technology to help quickly disseminate messages across a large community of people (Orcutt 2017). Marxism lends itself less to the individual who has consciousness of class as self, and more to class for itself and the empowerment to produce social change.

The abundance of information on the internet quickly lead to it’s decommodification; corporation’s had to adapt, finding new ways to commercialise online activity, this caused the appreciation of data that is evident today. Social networks such as Facebook realised that by appropriating the personal data users entrusted with them, they can construct virtual profiles that could be utilised to optimise and filter what content was promoted to an individual; this applied to advertisements, but also to the content produced by other users. This created a need for the development of algorithms that autonomously used positive feedback, such as clicking on a link or liking a post, to grow a user’s virtual profile. However, by using algorithms in this way social networks were taking agency away from users, Facebook began to embody the characteristics of the traditional elite. This exemplars the extent to which a progressive development of media technology, this case in the form of infrastructure, is central to the level of agency an individual has; but it also embodies the progress of capitalism over structuralism, the marxist principle that it’s possible to gain agency.

However, Facebook’s new found agency is not a contemporary example of that which an elite may possesses. I previously established that the relationship between media technology and ownership is relative, possessing one gives access to the other and ultimately together they provide agency. Whereas Facebook do own media technology, they never gain control of what is produced, it only has agency of who seen what. If could be argued that this distinguishment is irrelevant, after all being unaware of the existence of something has the same effect on the consumer as it not existing. The significance in discerning the two types of agency is that the action of producing is still present on Facebook, therefore the producer still acquires the self-empowering belief that they have agency. Bourdieu (1984, p 325) described those with the type of agency that Facebook possess as a “cultural intermediary”. This distinction, that society and the contemporary methods of dissemination of information have progressed since the spread of the internet, supports my hypothesis that technology causes social change.

There is a second side-effect of Facebook’s algorithms, known variously as the social network bubble, filter effect and echo chamber; It is the notion that because these algorithms determine what content we are presented by what we have previously engaged with, social media has ultimately hindered our potential agency (BBC 2016, Friction 2016, HyperNormalisation 2016, Pariser 2011). However, there is an argument that this isn’t a new notion. In 1984 Gerbner (et al., pp.43–68) described how television had the ability, progressively over time and through reinforcement, to socialise consumers into roles; he called this effect the cultivation theory. Gerbner focused his work on television but his concept is just as applicable to the internet, he recognises how despite television’s potential to provide for a range of different views, “Programs that seem to be intended for very different market segments are cut from the same mold” (Gerbner 1986, p 44), essentially, they hold the same messages. Drawing similarities, the internet has the ability to provide consumers with multiple channels of dialogue and discourse, this freedom should in theory provide more political agency; however, because all social networks will have constructed a similar virtual profile of our interests based on our generalised use of the platforms, in practice they all promote the same content, giving us the same messages. “Social Media Leads Us to Become Victims of Our Own Biases” (El-Bermawy 2016). The underlying notion behind cultivation is that a consumer’s “massive, long-term and common exposure” (Gerbner et al., 1994, p 20) to messages reinforces existing values. The importance for my comparison however, is Gerbner’s recognition of the consumers low level of agency and resonance (1998); by using this agency, consumers were able to intentionally filter what values they engaged with and I believe the social network bubble is simply an autonomous manifestation of this process.

“The global village that [the internet once was] has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that ​ are drifting further apart each day.”

(El-Bermawy 2016)

The culmination of this autonomy and self-preserving process, however, is the disempowerment of the individual. In the physical society when presented with a conflicting value, there is agency to enter dialogue and through discussion gain an understanding that could inform future political decisions. On the other hand however, the social network bubble removes agency and removes the possibility of penetrating other’s social network bubbles because the conflicting values that would have initiated it are hidden; instead, by consuming the content that has compatible values, our own opinion is strengthened and others are alienated; but ultimately the repetition of this process in the long-term without interruption is what creates extremist views. It might be assumed that if having a homogeneous concentration of values is so destructive to agency, then its binary, a collection of diverse and conflicting information would be progressive? In HyperNormalisation (2016) Curtis looks to russia where Vladislav Surkov, working to maintain Putin’s power, used his experience from avant-garde theatre to orchestrate “… a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” (Curtis, 2016). His manipulation through ownership and cultural agency allowed him to create conflicting channels of expression of political ideas that disorientated the electorate, Surkov’s simulacrum of politics undermining their perception of reality and fiction so that they were distracted with a state of reality that Baudrillard calls hyperreality (1994). From this we can conclude that Individuals are at their most capable when there is no manipulation, being informed and focus on the truth is when an individual has most agency.

Recently these concepts have been used in relation to the 2016 presidential election. Firstly, the social network bubble helped hide authentic news that otherwise could have empowered an individual, El-Bermawy (2016) wrote an article for Wired describing her surprise that a article with one and a half million shares was never brought to her attention. By inhibiting access to information, Facebook is developing a large following of users ill-informed to enter progressive discourse over politics and therefore ill-equipped with political agency, “Until the election results, a little more than half of us didn’t realize that the other half of the country was frustrated enough to elect Trump” (El-Bermawy 2016). In their journal article on virtual politics, Koch (2005, p 1) recognises that a number of “Information age optimists such as Daniel Bell (1973), Alvin Toffler (1980), and Benjamin Barber (1984), asserted the potential of the internet to expand democratic participation”, however the reality is it has ultimately deepened the political divide (Swartz, J., 2016). Ultimately the reality created through the simulacrum of fake news is example of the political agenda in Russia, by undermining what the American electoral believe to be true, they are disempowered of their agency.

In this essay I have explored the concepts that are interlinked with the notion of political agency empowerment; the rise of the internet initially seemed to have massive potential, but ultimately what has resulted is global corporations dictating mass filtered media to consumers, they have become a conduit for traditional news. Social Media has the potential to empower communities of disengaged consumers, however it also fundamentally disempowers individuals by acting as a cultural intermediary; which ultimately, due to the reach and scale of the networks, can have global implications. My original hypothesis was that ‘post-modernity and technological determinism made the means of cultural production more accessible’, and I demonstrated this effect through Facebook’s need to adapt to the appropriation of data over information. However, I also predicted that this would ‘[initiate] a self-sustained process that would continue, relative to the internet’s increasing availability, to empower the consumer with a new sense of political agency, weakening the control of the traditional elites and political actors.’. I realise, through my analysis of the power facebook possesses, that although there has been a shift in the distribution of capital and agency in society, the reality is there has been no empowerment of the individual but of the corporations; therefore despite establishing that ownership technology are still incredibly central to agency, alongside capital; fundamentally this has been an establishment of the progress of capitalism.

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Jamie De Vivo

(15 Posts)

I'm a digital producer and fourth year student at The Media School at Bournemouth University. Summarising myself is a difficult task, so I'll just leave it to the blog. But my posts will focus on everything from web and app development to behavioural science. Specifically you'll also find my views and advice on cameras, editing, business, culture, mentality, my adventures and my DIY projects. Enjoy.
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