From Corporate Social Media to Citizen Owned Media
How can we communicate effectively when the media is dominated by corporations and governed by the interests of the plutocrats? Are there any media that we can really trust?
We tend to think of the government as our voice, but the media is supposed to be our voice too. When we think about democracy, we tend to think about politics, but politics is only one part of a larger system with clearly defined processes governed by the relationships between the media and politicians. There can be no government without a system that enables communication between citizens and between citizens and their government. We also tend to think of the media in terms of journalism, but the media is also composed of public relations managers, think tanks and lobbyists. A careful examination of the media system and the power dynamics between the media and politicians reveals that the system is dominated by powerful wealthy people, the plutocrats who control public opinion on one side and the government on the other. These plutocrats, who own all the major transnational corporations, control all the media, enabling them to manipulate public opinion in their favor, regulating what gets seen by the public and what doesn’t get seen. They have also gained control of much of the visible internet, controlling major news website and social media.
Mapping Out the Corporate Media Complex
The media system has a few channels, such as print, TV, magazines and radio, and a few players that work in particular parts of the system performing specific functions within it. Journalists are on the front lines, connecting directly with citizens on the ground. Journalists don’t necessarily decide what to cover, that is largely governed by their managers, who themselves have to answer to the owners of the media company. Journalists can give citizens a voice, and direct their attention towards different issues and events within society. What they cover also depends on the kind of media company they work for, with companies focusing on different niches and geographic scales. But when the press is largely owned by a few powerful individuals, journalists have no say on what they cover and the stories they are told to cover are for the benefit of the owners. Even when an issue blows up and citizens become aware of it directly, without the use of media, media companies have the power to twist public opinion in favor of their owners. They often also create pointless distractions and pit citizens against one another through divisive politics such as political ideologies and identity politics.
Beyond the frontlines, we have people who work in marketing and public relations. Public relations companies manage communication between organizations and the public. Their job is similar to journalists, except they connect organizations with the public, instead of connecting the public with itself and the government. Public relations start at the corporations, which then decide what they want the public to believe about themselves. From there, they have a few options. Advertising is the most direct form of communication, but advertising is generally limited to what the corporations sell. Once corporations communicate with consumers about other matters, other than their products and services, then we reach the realm of public relations. Public relations can be achieved through the same media channels as all advertising, but it can also be achieved through the news media.
A less familiar source of media is organizations such as “think tanks”. Think tanks are non-profit organizations that advocate for various government policies. These organizations tend to be secretly controlled by corporations that use them to manipulate public opinion and, through that manipulation, the government. When they are secretly controlled by corporations, they are identified as “front groups”. They tend to be policy institutes, but they are often research institutes and, as such, connected to another subsystem of government, the educational system. Front groups are powerful, but they are not very visible or known. Corporations and their owners have plenty of motivation to keep them hidden, though sometimes they are mentioned as reputable “institutes” in the news media. They tend to use biased statistics to form and promote policies that benefit the corporations and are detrimental to the public.
At last, we have the lobbyists. Lobbyists connect interest groups and corporations to the government. Their job is specifically to influence politicians to enact policies on behalf of the organizations that hire them. Lobbyists are the most obvious connection corporations have with the government, to the point where there is often a revolving door between them and the government. In some occasions corporate executives act in the capacity of lobbyists, having a direct connection with politicians. For that reason, corporate executives often end up working in government and politicians often end up working as corporate executives. That is the most visibly corrupt part of this system, but only the tip of the iceberg, as we have seen.
It is not accidental that the media systems are the way they are. The media systems are the way are because of the way they are structured. The hierarchical structures of the media and the centralized ownership of all mainstream media ensure that the media can be controlled by a few powerful individuals and used to manipulate public opinion and government policies. There is no free press because the news doesn’t come from citizens, it comes from a handful of powerful wealthy individuals who control the media. All the other parts of the media system are also largely controlled by those powerful individuals, with few exceptions.
The Rise and Fall of Social Media
We need a form of media that we can control, a media that enables communications between us and between us and the government. This was the accidental promise of social media. Social media was never meant to enable the communication of government policies, social media was designed to allow us to share pictures of cats and what we had for dinner last night. It was supposed to connect us with our families and our immediate friends while collecting marketing data for corporations. The main reason why it didn’t work out this way was that social media corporations had to grow quickly to prevent other corporations from diversifying the social media market. It was in their best interest to expand quickly, so they not only allowed but encouraged people to add many “friends”. Once the network was large enough, it already had an established user base who wanted to connect with others through their channel. This is a powerful network effect. Once there was a lot of connections, there were fewer barriers between people, allowing them to communicate more quickly. Social media corporations also developed algorithms that were designed to keep users engaged. As such, links about news were accidentally popular and often ended up spreading quicker, even when the news was written by independent journalists. Suddenly, the mainstream media was not the only one that was able to reach citizens.
Of course, the situation became more complex over the years. Social media companies became larger and more powerful, with greater influence in the media landscape and the government. As such, corporations and the powerful individuals who control them wanted to control social media. Social media companies had to play the game, especially after their IPOs. Different strategies have been used to manipulate the exchange of information in social media to prevent the spread of ideas that were detrimental to the plutocrats, but it was largely unnecessary. The lack of advanced education of much of the public coupled with the promotion of corporate marketing, their news media, and their front groups through social media kept the new ideas largely isolated. More significant, however, is the fact that social media was never designed to promote new ideas, much less enable us to organize ourselves. For those reasons, social media has simply become another branch of the transnational corporate empire.
We Need to Own Our Media
We need a new form of media, one that we can directly control. We need a citizen media, that is owned by us and is used to facilitate communication between citizens and between citizens and the government. This media would be very different than social media because it would be designed to perform the functions of the media system on our behalf. Citizen media also need to be structured in such a way as to prevent the infiltration of corporations and other organizations owned and controlled by the plutocrats. No matter how much we protest and how many petitions we sign, we will never gain any control over the government that is supposed to be ours until we own and control our own media.