All posts by Adam Jennison

Project Link for Cuba

In the final project for the class, my group looked at Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, recent developments in this infrastructure, and implications for both Cuba and its people due to these and potential future developments. From the research we gathered, we found that Cuba is really on the cusp of a major shift in its connectivity with the rest of the world, and ultimately that could have a massive effect on the social, political, and economic structures of the country.

Raul Castro’s regime has been at the forefront of these changes, but his primary focus is improving Cuba’s internet architecture as a means of improving its economy, without surrendering the sociopolitical framework of the country – one built on socialist ideals. This is a tricky line to tread and Castro has done this by allowing for change, but very slowly and under the watchful eye of the government. Even with faster cable internet and new Wi-Fi hubs, the cost, speed, and ease of access to the internet is incredibly limiting for ordinary Cuban citizens. Cuba’s primary focus is on its internal intranet and is looking towards parallel socialist states, such as China, for not only hardware, but also internet policy, regarding monitoring and usage, as it expands its network externally. So while Cuba deliberates over what the internet will look like for its people, the people are slowly getting a taste of what the internet has to offer outside of Cuba’s historically restrictive lens – through both access via Wi-Fi and through alternative measures like “the packet,” the media and information content distributed throughout the island via hard and flash drives, as “the internet without internet.” This is creating an insatiable demand for the open internet and making it more difficult for the Cuban government to champion its intranet or its potentially heavily censored internet, modeled after the Chinese.

So what alternatives are there? From a development communication perspective, Google has a solution, one that it’s both offering to Cuba for free (or as an upfront loan) and one that Google has successfully implemented in both Ghana and Uganda: Google’s Project Link Initiative.

Project Link has brought fiber optic cables to both the cities of Kampala and Accra, with additional “wholesale last-mile Wi-Fi access” to Uganda. Project Link’s efforts have significantly increased connectivity in these urban hubs and work alongside local providers to allow them “to build networks they can leverage to provide better services to end users.” This initiative employs Waisboard’s notions of modernization, participatory, and empowerment perspectives to effectively strengthen social, educational, and financial networks in these developing cities to allow them to connect more readily and expand more rapidly. While Google provides the structure, it is fully implemented by the local providers and at the demands of the local consumers.

So could this work for Cuba? Theoretically, absolutely. In actuality? It’s more difficult to say. Google has already laid this offer out, but the Cuban government fears it’s a Trojan horse, loaded with political baggage and ready to dismantle the Cuban state. They have every right to be wary, but concern is abating due to last December’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties with the U.S. Cuba’s argument, on the surface, holds less credibility. Still, if the initiative was to move forward, the democratic revolution Cuba fears could more effectively take place. By giving the people access to a larger scope of outside information and ideas, Cuba could dramatically change right before our eyes. The Cuban government knows that, but how much longer can it keep that wall in place?

Unrelated, but I also really want to post this video on my blog as a send-off:

Thanks for keeping the conversation going, M.I.A.

The “Great Power” Narrative

What sorts of domestic “strategic narratives” do you think constrain the current administration in terms of foreign policy options and indeed, what the President can say about US foreign policy moving forward?

To understand how the Obama administration has used and manipulated strategic narratives, we first have to provide a clear definition of what strategic narratives are. For Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle, “the point of strategic narratives is to influence the behavior of others.” They explain that “strategic narratives are a tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations, and change the discursive environment in which they operate.” Strategic narratives develop at the crossroads of a state’s hard and soft power. Both of these spheres of influence define the state. The past implementation of, the present adherence to or separation from, and the future reinterpretation of these dual means set the framework for a state’s strategic narrative. States have set ideas of each others’ strategic narratives, just as citizens have general understanding of their state’s strategic narrative. States then fit into a larger system narrative. All of these elements come together to define international relations, through the lens of communication. While non-state actors also have their own strategic narratives, which are becoming increasingly significant, our global network is still built around state-based discourse. Therefore, it is essential for states to project their strategic narratives, both through words and actions, as a message of its intentions to both its domestic and foreign audience. Articulating this message, depending on the audience, is also essential for rallying support among your citizens and your allies.

In the case of the Obama, I think the greatest constraint on his ability to further the administration’s foreign policy objectives has been how rigidly set the U.S.’ strategic narrative is as a “great power,” particularly regarding our involvement in the Middle East. This narrative stems from the global polarity driven by the Cold War, with the U.S. establishing an “Us vs. Them” mentality, where we were the good guys in opposition to the Soviets and the scourge of communism. This was an easy narrative for the U.S. to pursue, as it provided citizens and allies with a clear choice and a clear goal. This “great power” narrative was reaffirmed with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the narrative was not transferred readily. It wasn’t until U.S. involvement in the Middle East – in particular, when Bush declared “War on Terrorism” and led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq – that the narrative reemerged with as much support and vigor. A duality had made itself clear and the Cold War rhetoric was transferred from communism to Islamic extremism.

Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle examine and contrast Bush’s National Security Strategies of 2002 and of 2006 as having stemmed from this narrative, but also refocused as it did not play out as imagined. The major shift they note is from the 2002 strategy’s mention of the U.S. as an unrivaled military power and its largely unilateral approach to targeting enemy powers in the region. Four years later, in the midst of wavering support, both at home and abroad, his strategy highlights the importance of the power of democracies and collectivism under shared values. In just under 3 years, the Obama administration then picked up where the Bush administration left off. Vowing for greater dialogue and less hard power, Obama reset the U.S.’ strategic narrative in the Middle East. Over the course of his 8 years, Obama has worked to adhere to the new narrative he entered office pursuing, from the removal of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Iran Deal, but has also furthered this ongoing “great power” narrative, particularly with U.S. military involvement in Syria.

With just over a year left in his administration, the strategic narrative seems pretty well set for Obama to veer too far from the course of action in which it appears to dictate. Maybe in reexamining this FDR quote, which Obama sought to build his narrative on at the beginning of his appointment, can he better frame his foreign policy approach:

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one Nation… It cannot be a peace of large nations – or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

Miskimmon A., O’Loughlin, B, & Roselle L. (2014). Strategic narratives: Communication power and the new world order. Routledge.

Consumers as Producers

As we have progressed into the new millennium, there has been an apparent shift away from the traditional “two-step flow” theory as developed by Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet towards a dialogical model, in which audience participation and input has a greater effect on media production. Much of these changes are dictated by the increase in available technologies which promote audience feedback and discussion, largely due to social media platforms. While there is a general shift, the rate at which this shift is occurring for historically large media outlets is relatively slow, evidenced by the rise of alternative media sources which are built upon audience participation to fill a void where mass media is lacking. The sites exist on a range, where content is entirely user generated, such as Reddit, to sites that strike a balance between content being dictated by the typical “producer” and the audience or “consumer”, such as BuzzFeed which integrates its Community posts into its regular content. In any case, these sites seek to bridge the gap between producers and consumers and speed up the reaction time of the two parties in influencing and reevaluating the media produced. The fast, cyclical nature of these sites is a reason why they have become so successful, so quickly. Their rise also shifts them into the realm of new forms of dominant media, which are becoming influencers on historically dominant media. Looking back at some of the more mature media outlets, such as CNN, Fox, NBC, and others which fall under the big six media conglomerates, these parties are starting to seek new ways of engaging their audiences. Largely this has been done through social media. All of these major news outlets incorporate Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to incorporate audience participation and quite successfully, but they still have to contend with both their scale and, more importantly, their function. In other words, these very large organizations have relative difficulty taking their audiences into account and generally approach media production as they have, with gradual shifts in national rhetoric being a greater influence on their content.

So this is where the question of whether there’s been a structural change in media consumption or whether there’s been a change in how we approach media consumption as the audience mass media is geared towards. The answer is that shifts in both ideas have dictated the new media climate. As I argued above, mass media as it once was is still a dominant force in terms of cultural production and social influence, but that is changing with the rise of alternative media. This leads into the question of how audiences have helped shape media production and how that’s reflected in a range of media. The Liebes and Katz article outlines the changes in how media consumption is studied perfectly. They argue for a convergence on studying not only either the encoded message as delivered by the producer or the decoded message as observed in the consumer, but how the two of those contrast and how the audience’s interpretation is then projected back on the media. Liebes and Katz note that different audiences take away different interpretations of the same media based on their cultural context. This is important because it leads into how audiences of different cultures, even on a domestic basis (with the U.S. being a prime example), can influence popular media. As the Liebes and Katz article also notes, long gone are the days in which we have been viewed as passive receivers of media. These converging ideas create a new media landscape that better reflects the audience and a range of media is at the mercy of the consumer, from TV (the lack of diversity on HBO’s Girls) to music (Grimes scrapping her entire album after she released her single “Go”). More and more, what audiences are “doing” is taking advantage of or undermining the media power structure in place to dictate the media they consume.

 

Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes, Reading Television: Television as Text and Viewers as Decoders.

“Two Step Flow Theory,” University of Twente, https://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20Clusters/Mass%20Media/Two_Step_Flow_Theory-1/.

An Unattainable Ideal

Do you think the globalization of communication flows has, perhaps counter-intuitively, prompted the *increased* relevance of the nation-state as international actor? Or, do you think that efforts to control or defend information sovereignty are ultimately doomed to fail?

The nation-state is not immediately at risk. The roots of the nation-state run deep; originating in its modern form from the establishment of the United States and France, as a result of their nationalist fervor and respective revolutions. Their geopolitical frameworks were then perpetuated through the establishment of post-revolutionary states in Latin American and those states emerging from divisions in Europe, eventually being projected upon the burgeoning states of the global south as the remnants of colonialism (Wimmer & Feinstein, 764-765). In examining the hegemonic nature of the nation-state template, Wimmer & Feinstein note that nation-states are reinforced on regional and local levels through “contagion”, implying that the nation-state prevails in relation to its neighboring nation-states, creating a sense of global structural cohesion (785-786). This theory holds true in looking at how little geopolitical boundaries have shifted in recent years.

In acknowledging the perseverance of the nation-state, we also must understand that nationalism is not at the mercy of nation-states, with strict geopolitical boundaries, as they exist today. Nationalist sentiments are often divided along geopolitical lines, mostly afforded to those states who had autonomy over their creation, but just as often they exist within or across pre-existing boundaries. Nationalist movements are as deeply rooted as the nation-state, but with the advent of globalized communication flows these struggles are better coordinated and more visible than ever. Even on a micro level, ideas surrounding nationalism are shifting to reflect individuals’ affinities. Individuals have statehood, but a significant portion of any given state may not align their national identity with allegiance to the state within which they reside. Not only this, but due to increasing interconnectivity through mediums that allow individuals to reach across boundaries seamlessly, we start to question the need for the nation-state as it exists. Roshwald provides a great critique of the problem nation-states face in his essay The Global Crisis of the Nation-State. He states, “Anchoring institutions of popular sovereignty in a foundation of national identity can form a strong framework for stable governance, but the undertaking can prove a Sisyphean task. Success hinges partly on the recognition that, as the historian Edmund Morgan noted, popular sovereignty is a fiction—an ideal” (7). As a result he goes on to state that “National identity (a stable version of which is a vital counterpart to popular sovereignty) is likewise perpetually in flux amid global shifts in the distribution of economic and political power, and as demographic and cultural currents flow across borders, continually reshaping the contours of societies” (7). From this, Roshwald acknowledges the need for consensus and shared identity amongst the members of a nation-state for it to thrive, but underscores that ideal as impossible. He notes the changing “contours of societies,” which agrees with my idea of nationalist shifts on an individual basis, as the individual is increasingly externally connected and framed, making it more and more difficult to control the individual’s connection to this open flow of information.

 

It’s a cycle though isn’t it?

 

As the individual continues to build affiliation outside of the nation-state and the nation-state sees that as harmful to its well-being, there is a reaction. The nation-state is using its authority, which we’ve examined as being well-established, to clamp down on the individual’s actions. This is seen across the globe from states notorious for denying its citizens full access to channels of information, like China or Russia, to states that pride themselves on freedom of information, like our own. Though relative, each nation-state seeks to direct the flow of information. So while physical borders and their metaphorical counterparts become increasingly porous, the nation-state reasserts its relevance through its concerted efforts to patch the holes that are causing its slow dissolution.

Feinstein Y. & Wimmer, A. (2010). The rise of the nation state across the world, 1816 to 2001. In American Sociological Review, vol. 75 issue 5. Sage Press.

A Queer Diaspora?

How do diasporic audiences sustain their sense of collective identity and indeed, nationality, through media consumption and production?

There has been a shift in the contemporary notion of diaspora. As Karim notes in his writing on diaspora, the term originally refers to the displacement of the Jewish people outside of Israel and therefore extends to cover all uprooted, usually involuntarily, peoples from their homeland. Then Karim goes on to note that “an ongoing debate about what ‘diaspora’ should denote has accompanied the current attention to this topic. Whereas some scholars have argued in favour of identifying a closed set of characteristics in order to develop social scientific parameters for the study of diasporas (e.g. Cohen 1997), others have acknowledged its use in a broader range of human dispersals (Tölöyan 1996; Cunningham & Sinclair 2000). All diasporas do not have homeland myths at the centre of their consciousness, contrary to William Safran’s suggestion (1991).” (Karim, pg. 8). In Karim’s work he is careful to remind the reader of the common sociological definition for diaspora, as “limited to ‘non-white’ peoples who remain distinct as minorities in their new countries of residence” (Karim, pg. 9), but is also quick to provide the counter-example of Irish-Americans, who retain a distinct and visible cultural identity in the American landscape. While addressing the fact that various diasporic communities have faced very different trials and tribulations, not limiting the scope of what qualifies as diaspora allows for an interesting analysis of identities under the generally accepted tenants that help define diaspora. Karim lays out some of these features: they function as “transnations” and stretch across borders (Karim, pg. 6), they connect through media and other content created by and for the community (Karim, pg. 7), they “exchange symbolic goods and services” to maintain community (Karim, pg. 7), and significantly, they are defined as the “other” and therefore struggle against “structures of dominance” (Karim, pg.15).

So can these features be applied to the queer community? Can we appropriately use the term “Queer Diaspora”? The basis for a queer diaspora is most expertly defined by Wesling, who in her article “why queer diaspora?” looks at Manuel Guzmán’s (1997) concept of “the ‘sexile’, a gay cosmopolitan subject who, once exiled from national space, is therefore outside of the duties, identifications, and demands of nationalism, and is paradoxically liberated into free transnational mobility” Wesling furthers this notion by stating, “queerness and transnational movement are collapsed: queerness constitutes a mobile resistance to the boundaries and limits imposed by gender, and that resistance is the same as the migrant’s movement through national and cultural borders. Put simply, the analogy is this: queerness disrupts gender normativity like globalization disrupts national sovereignty.” This approach nicely aligns theory on diaspora and queer identity, emphasizing the fluid nature of the two. In the same regard, as Morgan mentions in her discussion of queer diaspora, it’s precisely this fluidity that makes both terms difficult to define. Before delving into drawing parallels between the two, it’s important to note that as there is a multitude of diasporic communities with varying histories, there is also a multitude of queer identities that seek to avoid or subvert definition. Acknowledging this as truth, we can start examining notions of a queer diaspora through the features of diaspora that Karim discusses and that are outlined above.

Queer identity first and foremost is not constrained by location. Queer communities have emerged across the globe and are visible or non-visible as dictated by their environment. Despite a greater struggle for queer individuals in some parts of the world as opposed to others, there is no corner of the globe in which queer individuals do not exist. Increasingly, as for members of other diasporas, interconnectivity amongst the queer community has flourished due to the advent of the internet and other forms of global communications. This leads into how queer individuals maintain a broader sense of a queer identity through forms of queer media, particularly media produced by queer individuals, whether that be LGBTQ content on major sites such as The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed, to queer news sites such as Autostraddle or Queerty, to the wide number of queer blogs and forums. These forms of media tend to show a diverse range of voices and opinions within the queer community, and when gaps in representation appear in the larger discussion on queer issues, they are often acknowledged and filled by those underrepresented in the community. While addressing intersections within the queer community may appear divisive, it also seeks to inform the community at large that as there are commonalities, there are also differences. These differences do not break down the community rather they solely provide different lenses from which to examine queer identity. Though identity may be tighter among other diasporic communities, it does not preclude them from divisions over their lived experiences, i.e. an Iranian-American and an Iranian in Japan must also reconcile their differences as they live in very different contexts, despite both being ethnically Iranian. Most significantly is that, despite these differences, the common denominator for all queer individuals is that they face grappling with “otherness.” This is the key link between queer identity and diaspora. The idea of “other” reinforces a queer culture, one which pushes against the dominant culture. While recent successes of the gay rights movement have sought to fold queer individuals (re: wealthy, white, gay men) into the folds of the dominant culture and claim victory, there is still a large number of queer individuals (re: women, transgender individuals, people of color, the poor, mentally and physically handicapped) who continue to exist on the periphery. The queer diaspora may shift in response to changes in the nation, but it still remains. Queer-focused media reflects this shift and seeks to further it by addressing the most pressing issues amongst the queer community, just as any other diasporic media seeks to update its content to reflect how the community reenvisions itself in the contemporary age.

Karim, K. (2004). Re-viewing the ‘national’ in ‘international communication’: Through the lens of diaspora. In The Journal of International Communication, vol. 10 issue 2. University of Southern California.

Moving past “high tech ping-pong” in countering ISIS propaganda

How might a theory from the IC readings be applied to help understand the context and set the stage for a practical application to efforts at countering ISIS/ISIL propaganda?

ISIS is not a state entrenched in a particular homeland, rather it arose from the gaps left by the geopolitical divisions and misdirected states within the current landscape of the Middle East. As Gause, a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, notes, ISIS now plays a key role in what he calls the “New Middle East Cold War”, a conflict primarily between Iran and Saudi Arabia over sectarian divides. ISIS serves as a renegade party in the region.  With no allies, ISIS is generally self-sufficient and operates to serve its own motives, which, as far as we can understand, is to spread its sphere of influence and establish itself as a global caliphate under its interpretation of Islam.

So this is where the question of “How do we combat ISIS’s propaganda machine?” arises. The answer from the U.S. government is that there is still no easy solution. Current efforts to counter propaganda from ISIS have been centered on social media campaigns, as ISIS has been relatively effective in targeting, particularly, young and impressionable recruits. The effectiveness of the U.S.’s approach was outlined by Richard LeBaron, former head of the U.S. government’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, as “some sort of high tech ping-pong game, with the two sides firing messages back and forth, with maximum spin and force. This cartoonish perception singles out the online battle for hearts and minds, and especially for ISIS recruits, as an independent phenomenon with no relation to other forces that go into the radicalization of the tiny minority of people who actually ever get radicalized.” Refreshingly honest, LeBaron’s critique plays into James Carey’s theory of communication as ritual.

As Carey notes, “the transmission view is commonest in our culture” (Carey, 15), implying that the U.S. focuses on transmission of information and how widely it’s disseminated, rather than the context in which that information is spread. Carey suggests that this is an ongoing phenomenon of U.S. communication practices, and therefore affects our public diplomacy efforts. In the context of ISIS, our desire to get our message out to those on the fence of staying put or joining their ranks as directly and quickly as possible is often not appropriately reaching that audience. Through Carey’s theory of communication as ritual, we do not solely rely on the message as a mode, but rather how it functions as part of a larger world view. ISIS has used its social media prowess to, as Gause also notes, expertly and honestly present its values and goals without influence. Therefore, despite the dramatic flair, its messages reflect a very objective sense of ISIS’s mission from its perspective, whereas the U.S. response is predominantly reactionary. In refocusing its approach, the U.S. has to undermine rather than condemn the ISIS propaganda machine and focus on alternative methods of influence from cultural and educational exchange to supporting and giving platforms to credible (i.e. culturally informed) voices. While slow to take hold, these methods better address communication as a ritual in their aims to provide better context for the message the U.S. is trying to send to those ready to cross the Turkish border.

Carey, J. W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as Culture: Essays on media and society. New York, NY: Routledge.

New World Information and Communication Order – for then and now

What was the driving argument for the NWICO? Who were the major stakeholders to the NWICO debate?

The demand for global connectivity through various forms of communication was a direct product of imperialism. As empires expanded outward from the seat of power, control through channels of communication was essential for retaining dominance and structure. Empires shifted as modes of communication developed, but there remained a strong correlation between the dominant states and the producers of new communications technology. Throughout the end of the 19th century and into the dawn of the 20th, the British Empire and its European counterparts, but also the New World power, the United States, had predominant control over emerging communications, from the telegraph, to the telephone, to the advent of radio and film. These powers expanded these communication systems rapidly as they developed across their spheres of influence. This created a dynamic where modes of communication were present across the globe, but a small minority was creating and sharing content for the majority. After WWII and with the rise of the Cold War, this minority was divided between the East and West, with both the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies projecting their values and ideology onto the Third World.

This is where the need for a NWICO, or New World Information and Communication Order, came into play. At the height of the Cold War, the Third World did not see itself as part of the East or West in the context of communications, but rather as the South relative to the dominant North. The American and Soviet spheres, as the North, controlled the influx of media into the Third World South. These countries, many newly emancipated, sought economic independence and thus the United Nations established a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in 1974 to aid their cause (Thussu, pgs. 26-27). The NWICO was adopted in 1978 by the United Nations as a related initiative to further the South’s progress (Thussu, pg. 32). It helped ensure that the countries of the South would no longer be dependent on the North for both how media is transmitted in their countries (control of information technologies) and what kind of media is dominant (from a Northern perspective). This lack of agency bore negative economic and social effects upon the people of the South.

The MacBride Commission’s 1980 report furthered the advancement of the goals set into motion by the NWICO. The Commission, which involved parties from both the North and South, examined “four main aspects of global communication: the current state of world communication; the problems surrounding a free and balanced flow of information and how the needs of the developing countries link with the flow; how, in light of the NIEO, an NWICO could be created; and how the media could become the vehicle for educating public opinion about world problems.” (Thussu, pg. 33). The collective research included in the MacBride Report highlighted the communications disadvantage the South faced and put their needs at the forefront of the NWICO debate. Conservatives in the North opposed the advancement of the NWICO, decrying it as supporting “a ‘Soviet-inspired’ Third World design to control the mass media through state regulation.” (Thussu, pg. 35). Despite this, there was still strong support for the order under President Jimmy Carter (Thussu, pg 36) who saw it as a means of dialogue between the North and South. The South rebutted conservative claims that the order was a way to encourage state control and censorship of media, but rather a way to ensure the free flow of communications across sectors.

While the NWICO’s momentum was halted by Reagan, it did set a precedent for how communications and media across borders should be dictated by all involved states. As global communication systems become increasingly privatized, the NWICO’s fundamentals are still a strong basis for how we approach and discuss communications and media today.

Thussu, D. (2006). The Historical Context of International Communication. In International Communication: Continuity and Change. Bloomsbury Academic.