All posts by Brienne Thomson

How to Flatten the Power Pyramid

I find it rather imperative to give my two cents on clarifying Dr. Waisbord’s mention that theories of development communication have been generally segmented by focusing on informing the population versus ameliorating power inequalities. But it’s not a “versus” thing. You can’t compress a power pyramid without cultivating the foundation through education, and as a pyramid geometrically is, the top and bottom are linked. To be concise, any sort of revolution, adjustment or transformation must begin with a purpose or incentive; why change? And those three little letters that spell out the glory of curiosity, “w-h-y,” is satisfied with information. Step two, yet inextricably linked, is establishing a voice in power that speaks for the masses, not to the masses.

On the topic of corruption, for example. From two-years of living within a blatantly corrupt developing country where the gap between rich and poor was more like a trench, I stewed on coming up with a technique to address this issue. On the one hand, is the power; the post-dictatorial rich taking advantage of the uneducated masses. On the other hand, is the ill-informed population; a people residing in the repercussions of having been repressed by the past dictator, who are thus resigned to float along and deal with the waves, but out of fear, not to make any. At this point in Paraguay, the rich almost don’t care if their devious dealings are “found out” because there is no one to penalize the greed since their comrades float in the same boat. And the poor, which is generally the classification of the average citizen, are resigned. You can only endure so many labyrinths before you give up and decide to while away life on your dusty porch drinking tereré.

So how does an uneducated people progress while being forced into a labyrinth of bureaucracy to achieve any inkling of change? Needless to say, it’s not going so fast.

There are two ways to approach the purging of corruption; from the top down via “bigger” power from an outside government or international organization, or from the bottom up via revolution or social evolution.

However, you can’t change a people who don’t want change. So the first step is to inform and incentivize them as to why and how change could improve their quality of live. And being that the most accessible information source, the media, via radio and television in this case, are “rich” owned and not necessarily observant of the ethical code of neutrality in journalism, a grassroots word-of-mouth (WOM) approach would be the most trusted.

But without detailing all of the developmental stipulations faced by the Paraguayan people, I will simply note that education is the instigation and nothing speeds up the WOM effect like seeing some incentive for action, which is most effective in the form of evidence of top-down change. To best motivate change we need to mutually encourage the top and bottom of the pyramid through means of communication that are most trusted; WOM at the bottom and bigger power at the top.

Incentive through information is imperative to instigate progression. But it’s not an either or situation on where do begin within one culture. One is one. And within one, everything is linked.

Communism: A Manipulative Narrative

2) 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?

In regards to foreign policy and relations there are few messages that have been more dogmatically asserted by the United States government in the past century than their anti-communist stance. The stigma of communism was vehemently injected into the U.S. population because its economic paradigm is so non-conducive to capitalism; self-sustainability vs. trade, public-ownership vs. private property, collectivism vs. individualism. And with this opinion, the strategic narrative imparted by the United States instilled a palpable fear into the minds of U.S. citizens, which was in turn, exacerbated by the “Red Scare,” McCarthyism, and the Cold War.

“Strategic narratives are a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors ... The point of strategic narratives is to influence the behavior of others.” [1]

Thus, this internal sentiment by U.S. citizens against communist countries helped propagate support for embargoes, violent actions and even war on communist countries; from the Soviet Union to North Korea to Vietnam to China to the communist regime currently in the U.S. foreign relations headlines, Cuba.

The strategic narrative the United States has propagated about Cuba since the revolution in 1959 has been both notorious and effective. Because of anti-communist sentiments an embargo has been held over Cuba since 1961, halting trade (including oil), travel (by U.S. citizens) and financial transactions (a major economic thorn that deterred foreign investment and international banking).

However, along with the easing of “time” in regards to the 54-year-old embargo, Obama has recently been pressed to lessen restrictions on Cuba by other Latin American countries who have established stronger ties with Cuba. These disapproving sentiments were made specifically clear at the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, just months after Obama took steps to give his December 17, 2014 speech about reestablishing relations with Cuba.

In this speech, Obama said that he was “under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” and that he was convinced that “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves.”

This, along with reopening the Cuban Embassy in D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the new U.S. narrative about Cuba has made a huge ‘90-miles of open ocean’ leap in strategy toward improving relations with Cuba, and subsequently, Latin American countries where trade and collaboration have been tense due to a plethora of factors; from the U.S. declaring Venezuela to be a “national threat” to the U.S. and Bolivia kicking out each other’s ambassadors in 2008.

The new U.S. Cuba narrative has indeed spawned controversy, but, on a brighter note, it’s also initiated its aim to influence the behavior of others.

Cuban activist and blogger, Yoani Sanchez wrote, “The official propaganda will run out of epithets. This has already been happening since the December 17 announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana took all of us by surprise. That equation, repeated so many times, of not permitting an internal dissidence or the existence of other parties because Uncle Sam was waiting for a sign of weakness to pounce on the island, is increasingly unsustainable … ‘Are they the enemy, or aren’t they?’ ask all those who, with the simple logic of reality, experienced a childhood and youth marked by constant paranoia toward that country on the other side of the Straits of Florida.” [2]

This is just one example of the effectiveness well strategized narratives can have on the mindset of individuals, domestic and international, and how the repercussions just might get the ball rolling to turn things in the strategists favor.

1. Miskimmon, Alister, Ben Loughlin, and Laura Roselle. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

2. Sanchez, Yoani. “The Meaning of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Atlantic. August 15, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/cuba-us-embassy-yoani-sanchez/401405/.

Connectivity and Internet Literacy Are Not Linear

2) A thought-provoking (and related question): Should there be some form of internet technology and governance literacy? Given how central the internet is as a platform for politics, cultural, and social life – does the Internet require a different kind of citizenship responsibility?

The topic of internet literacy has been on my mind since I observed the repercussions … or more like the unbeknownst effects of internet illiteracy on the rural Paraguayan community I lived in while serving in the Peace Corps. Undoubtedly, however, internet illiteracy exists in the most connected countries as well, since connectivity and internet literacy do not have a linear correlation.

There are millions of people in developed and developing countries that have internet access, but whose “cyber capabilities” are at a novice level. I also want to point out that in contrast to school subjects, like reading, math and geography, internet literacy is such a new field in the context of human development that age does not equal experience. We can’t say, for example, “His cyber capabilities are at an eighth-grade level,” especially when the average eighth-grader in the United State would most likely have more cyber skill than the average 50-year-old.

So, while cyber capabilities aren’t related to age in the traditional sense, they are related to the cultural induction of cyber technologies in other aspects of life; banking, bill paying, registering for classes, shopping, socializing, etc., as a push to learn.

For example, a large portion of the middle-class families in my Paraguayan community had internet capable smart phones. However, their literacy was extremely weak. Why? The community hadn’t yet absorbed the internet as the leap-frogging technology it is capable of being in business, financial institutions, the government, or, most importantly, education. Thus, there were very few requirements put on Paraguayans to incorporate internet skills into their lives – specifically outside of the country’s urban centers.

Cyber capabilities are also related to language (*with the majority of websites being in English), affordability and the speed of an internet connection. And while these factors fall under the internet governance umbrella, if there is no cultural push to incorporate the internet, cyber know-how will definitely be stunted.

And being that the incorporation of the internet into a culture today is the most dire and disruptive technology in steps toward development and progress, it would be silly not to educate the illiterate … and yet online literacy still seems to be an ‘if you build it, it will come’ afterthought.

*According to a few unsubstantiated websites, and with “less than five percent of current world languages” being used online, wrote the Washington Post.

Disclosure via GUI to the Covert Net Collectors

DeNardis describes Internet architecture as “arrangements of power.” What does she mean by this (and by extension, what does she mean by “architecture”)?

In “The Global War for Internet Governance.” I found the connection Laura DeNardis made about the structure of the internet being a behind the scenes foundation built on political preferences and a “preferential” technical infrastructure, to be something that greatly affects our everyday usage, but that we take for granted. Essentially, for the majority of users, the internet is an overcomplicated web of yah-yah and the parts we use what can be compared to a GUI, or Graphic User Interface, which is like a user-friendly mask that we use to access the little bits of information and social chatter we know how to find.

What this means, for example, is that the links we find in a search have already gone through a ratings system or selective security filter that was designed and implemented according to the preferences of someone; whether a politician or software engineer.

So, is what we see and have access to neutral?

And, even prior to our searches and social interactions there was a clash; policy makers vs. technical experts.

You can’t implement policy for a system when you don’t know how it works. However, you can launch a unique or monopolistic technology that upholds or maintains a policy … or at least on the surface. A technology like this, for example, could be something that the masses want to use but, unbeknownst to them, collects all of their searches and stores their preferences and their demographic information … sound familiar?

Industrial Complexi & the Implications on Wheel Spinners

 

Powers and Jablonski are clearly concerned about the Information Industrial Complex and its effects on the governance of the Internet. What do you think is the biggest critical concern, given their coverage of government involvement, economic implications, and their assessment of multistakeholder governance?

The whole concept of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) is a bureaucratic hamster wheel, held up by the government on one side, private corporations on the other, and the labor force powering the cycle. It’s not to say there are no benefits – the hamsters get fed and all – but do the spiffs outweigh the costs?

I think it necessary to outline the MIC a smidge to be able to evaluate its comparison with the governance of the internet.

The origin of this Military Industrial Complex snowball – I’m referring specifically in the United States, since it is not a unique phenomenon – began during the Great War in 1914 as the US-of-A began reaping economic benefits from its European allies’ demand for war-time materials. Subsequently, the U.S. engagement in WWI spawned a massive internal industrial investment, which led to a post-war economic surge. And thus it began … the economic benefits of WWI being a model for WWII, but now it came with the cherry of the New Deal’s lessons of internal investment on top.

During the WWII boom – pun fully intended – the United States reached full employment, doubled its output of products and services, and instigated the GI Bill. So, why stop a golden wheel from spinning? And thus, it continued. And, analogous to the aforementioned snowball, got bigger and bigger until the top couldn’t see the bottom throwin’ money out the window to substantiate budgetary paperwork. Uh, and no analogy intended there, the money throwin’ is a tried-n-true MIC effect.

Here’s the issue: With the government at the helm, “profit” is of no real concern when it can simply be printed, nor is “client retention” – being that “clients” will get audited if they don’t pay taxes, and simply don’t have an alternative choice. Choosing a government is not as easy as selecting a grocery store in a capitalist market.

In, “The Real Cyber War,” Powers and Jablonski have compared this unrelenting MIC phenomenon with what they’ve dubbed the “silicon triangle,” which links policymakers, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) players and the U.S. public. However, in this “information industrial complex,” the U.S. is sharing the steering wheel with ICTs that have developed this disruptive technology for public use. And because regulation and policy can’t be implements at the speed at which the internet has been absorbed into the living rooms, lives and businesses of the majority of countries around the globe, there are profound and valid concerns related to the governance of this transformative tool.

Content Control: Who controls or regulated the flow of information; from upload to consumption? For example, a massive quantity of information that’s packed into the heads of the millennial generation is a direct result of the order in which Google ranks search results.

Economic Platform: Who controls economic flows? From online monopolies and the devastating effect they’ve had on the brink ‘n mortar world, to copyright infringement of digitized arts and information and the similar effect they’ve has on related industries.

Information Security: Who is regulating the collection and storage of private information? In the U.S. it’s up to the Terms of Service of individual online companies, whereas in the E.U., the government has an overarching law protecting the privacy of all E.U. citizens.

International Application: Is the internet accessible internationally? Non-Latin based alphabets are just being “binary-ized” by the Domain Name System controller, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

When such an omnipotent disruptive technology is implemented internationally, there’s just no “biggest” concern when the cultural consequences are so vast and profound. And because of the vastness, no one government should be in control of it. Thus, regarding the speed of the internet’s takeover and the stage of development that it’s currently in, globally, I find the multistakeholder model of ICANN to be a righteous decision. This is not to say development can stop, but we do need to recognize the complexities of international accommodation as a step-by-step process.

The Spontaneous Journey of a Border Jumping Message

[“Are all Americans implanted with tracking devices,” he asked.]

1) The “global media system” seems more complicated than just the import and export of news and cultural products. What can we learn about this system from the presence of “informal” flows of media?

The concept of the “global media system” is indeed so very “complicated” that needs to be clarified because it’s not just “a” thing. It’s a perpetually expanding network of different mediums, or platforms on which to transfer data, information or a message, with the ultimate intention of communicating to recipients, in the plural and public sense, about something previously unknown, or in order to influence them. That’s the purpose, which is as expansive as the mediums used to bridge the sender-receiver connection; from physical and unconcealed, such as billboards and magazines, to physical and concealed, disks and USB drives, to cable/airwave transported mediums; television, radio, and internet.

To add another dimension to these modes of transference is time; some mediums deliver immediate and current information, some can be edited without leaving an original record, and some are fixed and timeless.

Now, with that multifaceted definition of a “media system,” let’s add the “global” aspect and just how that can affect the intention of the message, the intention of who the receivers are, and the route the message takes to arrive. So, the message now faces more influential factors on this more expansive and less structured “global” bridge including borders, cultural perspectives and values, and whether the message arrived directly or was intercepted.

And with this notion of the various mediums, intentions and methods the “global media system” entails, I want to share an example of how one recipient interpreted a global media message:

I was living with a comparably well-educated family in the Paraguayan interior, while serving in the Peace Corps. One afternoon, I had engaged in a conversation with the son-in-law, a lawyer, and one of the four sons, Arturo, who had made his weekend trip back to mom’s place from his university in the capital, Asunción. We were chatting about capitalism, how it has affected the United States, and how the U.S. is imposing neo-liberal ideals on the rest of the world, when the 20-something undergrad inquired whether it was true that all U.S. citizens were implanted with a tracking device.

This is an epic example of skewed intention. Who sent the original message? What was the medium? Who intercepted it? What cultural filter led to this conclusion?

While we can’t easily trace this back to the source, I do want to mention a major influential factor in similarly unintended messages that is caused due to interception. And despite the origin or type of the message, the question of whether or not it has value within a certain culture is pertinent to its spread and significance. What I am alluding to here is the effects of informal communications economy on available technology, perceptions and certainly the affect it has on its recipients.

In reference to this massive informal industry, in Tristan Mattelart’s article, “Piracy Cultures: Audiovisual Piracy, Informal Economy, and Cultural Globalization,” he acknowledges “the ingenious ways in which local entrepreneurs and consumers manage to evade social, economic and political factors obstructing their access to cultural goods.”

And while it seems like a positive correlation between piracy and the entrepreneurial spirit it inspires and information consumption by people who might otherwise be left in the dark, he also mentions that this informal economy is based on failure; “failures of the public policies on access to cultural goods pursued by the governments of these countries or by international organizations, and failures in the strategies of global communications groups which take insufficient account of the specific conditions in these societies.”

And this inverse correlation can also result in a people appropriating skewed ideas intercepted in the midst of this global media web.

One loophole of info with a little propaganda to go, please.

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 dictatorial censorship of information is undoubtedly doomed to crumble. But there are a lot of mallets that need to strike before the walls collapse. Tech-gadget smuggling is happening in Cuba, the Chinese are finding loopholes through the Great Firewall of China and VPNs in Russia soldier on despite government crackdowns.

The preventative measures behind information and communication suppression are obvious, being that one must have a pretty astute state of intuition and critical thinking skills to be a successful revolutionary. But, what’s interesting is exactly why folks are fighting for the free-flow of information and communication, since it’s not essential to their subsistence.

And even though the desire for abstract thought is not innate, it has become an imperative extension of culture for any human whose mortal needs are fulfilled with a trip to the market and some form of non-anarchistic security council. So, as some cultures, like ours, usurp information access in every which way we can get our fix, while incorporating it into all aspects of our lives – maybe it could become a survival need? I digress.

Back to the prompt, which really isn’t an “or” question since the answer is both.

In regards to globalization effecting the nation-state, it is without a doubt the case. The world is under watch by the media and individual citizens. Although, the type of information publicized is not always free and clean, nation-states have been pushed out onto the stage because people now have “mass communication” tool at their fingertips. And because of this, the more repressive a nation-state is, the brighter their international interrogation-light will shine.

For example, the Freedom House report on, “The Freedom of the Net, 2014,” has highlighted Thailand, Vietnam, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iran, Bahrain, et al., as Not Free.

Going back to information sovereignty, an interesting takeaway I had from Elizabeth Hanson’s “The Globalization of Communication” chapter in her book, “The Information Revolution and World Politics,” was that if you stop the flow of communications and information, you also fail to benefit from the technology and infrastructure that can behoove other segments of one’s population, like medicine and the economy, to add another notch to the “doomed to fail” scenario.

Media: the Middlemen of Messages to the Masses

If we accept the basic premise that nationalism is sustained by media in some way, does this suggest implications for foreign policy and national security?

The media is a catalyst for providing a sense of unity and identity among cultural subgroups within a multinational-state – a state being political boundaries, and the sense of a shared overarching identity among various cultures within the state, being nationalism.

The concept of media affecting the sense of nationalism within a state, whether the media is free, corporate or politically driven, is undeniable. Media are the middlemen of messages to the masses; no matter whether the implication is positive or negative, or the message is balanced or bias.

Studies and stories about the media’s effect on public opinion and thus policy are numerous. However, it is important to distinguish the effects of these broadcast messages on a country-to-country basis, since those that hold the media’s puppet strings vary, along with their intentions.

Although, as technological advances began to allow international media to penetrate state-sanctioned news and information bubbles, and the messages became internationally influential, some states began working to counteract potential effects through international broadcasts and transnational diasporic communities. To clarify, countries are both “marketing” themselves through specific international state-run media and making efforts to “brand” themselves within foreign countries by maintaining relationships with their ex-pats who live abroad.

In an article published by Karim H. Karim, a professor of journalism, in 2004 that is still insightful today, he expands on the efforts of states “working to nurture the cohesiveness of transnational diasporas for economic and foreign policy reasons,” with specific examples. And points out the importance of “the growing strength of diasporic information flows and their impact.” This impact is on both people in the foreign country in which they live, and through communications with citizens in their home country.

To give a personal example of how the United States is, and has been, working this influence its “brand” internationally is through the federally funded “Voice of America” broadcast that has been running since 1942. It is currently broadcast on radio, TV and through the internet in 47 languages. I used to listen to the Spanish broadcast on my little shortwave radio while serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay.

Overall, despite the multitude of mediums and the gauge of impartiality, the media remains an influential voice on the masses. And in a “democracy” like that which has developed in the United States, it’s this influence that buys public patronage.

Karim, Karim H. “Re-viewing the National in International Communication: Through the Lens of Diaspora.” The Journal of International Communication 10, no. 2 (2012): 90-109. Accessed September 25, 2015. doi:10.1080/13216597.2004.9751976.

No Big Brother to Forecast the Net’s Future

Do current debates over internet technology governance reflect any past or present communication theories?

To discuss the governance of the “World Wide Web” we need a quick ‘n crucial review of the timeline of this Berners-Lee breakthrough. And when I say “quick” I want to emphasize how surprisingly recent the idea to organize and standardize the technical aspects of the internet were – beginning in the late 80s and funded by the U.S. government – let alone any governance action regarding the world-wide dissemination of information.

The 90s were mainly technical development, so let’s jump right on up to 1998 when the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was formed to coordinate the Domain Name System (DNS). The DNS connects unique identifiers (IP addresses) with domain names (URLs and email domains) that people and devices use to connect on the internet.

So, ICANN, this Californian-based multistakeholder model of an international information governor has been in control of this transnational medium for the past 17-years, and was in contract with the U.S. government up until March of last year.

Now, post-contract cessation, the current controversy has to do with a fear of who might take over the U.S. government’s oversight role of ICANN and have influence over the internet, like an intergovernmental organization or foreign government, or whether dropping “big brother” will indeed strengthen the multistakeholder governance model. And on top of that, can or should ICANN and its multitude of private-sector entities play a role in the policy and governance of where the DNS and copyright law, the freedom and/or censorship of information, or cybersecurity intersect?

And while I’ve noted that ICANN controls the delicate and central structure of the internet, it’s not to say that governments don’t have control over the availability, access and use of the internet within their countries. They do. And even while the great expansion of internet access is contributing to “cosmopolitics” and a more globalized society (Thussu p. 60), not every country has access to this train.

For example, along with massive internet censorship among populous countries; Iran, China, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, to name a few, it wasn’t until 2009 that ICANN “internationalized” domain names. In other words, up until recently the internet was very exclusive to mainly English speakers and languages that use Latin characters.

Overall, the rapid international growth of the internet and the various affects it’s had on communication within different cultures; religious, traditions, and freedoms, is so diverse that, as Thussu noted, “there appears to be a fragmentation of [communication] theories, with an emphasis on the personal and the local, while macro-level issues affecting international communication are often ignored.” (p. 64)

And I tend to agree. Since internet protocols and policies can’t function universally, nor will one model of communication. From the start of any sort of mass international access and the incorporation of e-business on the internet, we’re only just beginning. The global reach of the internet is still a seedling and has no historical predecessor to shed light on the “best practice” theory of communication, principles, norms or governance. Either way, the medium has and will, undoubtedly, continue to strengthen and change the discourse and perspectives among people and cultures around the globe.

Thussu, Daya Kishan. (2006) Approaches to Theorizing International Communication. In International Communication: Continuity And Change. London: Hodder Education.

Think about what you don’t know … if you can.

For Powers and Jablonksi, what are the key tensions underscoring U.S. information policy?

It is imperative to take a moment and fathom the immense impact information has on your life… (No, stop reading. Take a reflect sec.)

And, despite your smirk and, “uh, no shit” reaction, did you also think about all the information being withheld from you that is reciprocally affecting every single decision you make? The last conversation you had; affected. The last purchase you made; affected. The last meal you ate, as well, affected. Reflecting on this, are you still comfortable with your “cultural” or “internal” perspective?

I’m a bit disgruntled.

But the information filter lies at the top of our hierarchical pyramid and wavers on the policy pendulum between the good of the people and the good of business. Here, however, we do need to note that the good of business does impact the good of the people; although, in a more roundabout fashion.

This “duality” of U.S. information policy, promoting “democracy and global peace” on the open hand and “copyright and patent restrictions” on the closed one, is the persistent tension detailed by Powers and Jablonksi (p. 7).

However, on top of this restricted/unrestricted conundrum, is the more dangerous risk of the dissemination of unregulated information. With such a malleable and precious thing, information can be twisted, tweaked and used as propaganda to manipulate to minds of millions. And we, you and me, have been consciously or unconsciously, yet undeniably, affected > which swayed a decision > influenced an economic transaction > and put money in the pockets of the media outlet’s investors, for example.

As Powers and Jablonksi mention, information has been both utilized and exploited as a commodity throughout the industrial revolution and the development of international trade regulations (p. 3). But we saw this, and still, decades and decades later, Clinton deregulates media ownership in the 1996 Telecommunications Act and hands it over to conglomerates, and U.S. information policy does nothing but allow “Idiocracy” to come to life.

Can’t we just reregulate and spare society ratings-driven dribble?

Powers, S., & Jablonski, M. (2015). Information Freedom and U.S. Foreign Policy: A History. In The real cyber war: The political economy of internet freedom. University of Illinois Press.