New media: A tool for social change?

The rise of new forms of media is one of the major objects of study of the Frankfurt School. In their opinion, new media can give true power to the people, enabling a change in the social balance of power that can benefit the underprivileged.

But, of course, the Frankfurt School was saying this some 80 years ago. And their “new media” was cinema, radio and photography. As we know, they were soon to be disenchanted, as these media turned out to be means of heavy political propaganda in their home country, Germany, and of “vacuous entertainment for the masses” in their host land, the United States.

But their story clearly resembles common thoughts about our time’s new media. Indeed, it seems inevitable to talk about the revolutionary potential of each new media technology, at least in the sense of favoring some form of social change. But usually the communicative potential of a media is not the social use that it organically adopts.

Knowing this, professors Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini were cautious in their outlook of the potential of new media in this article from 2004:

Optimistically, we believe that the erosion of elite gatekeeping and the emergence of multiple axes of information provide new opportunities for citizens to challenge elite control of political issues. Pessimistically, we are skeptical of the abilities of ordinary citizens to make use of these opportunities and suspicious of the degree to which even multiple axes of power are still shaped by more fundamental structures of economic and political power.
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In view of the experience of the Frankfurt School, should we be cautious on our assessment of our new media, despite of the recent events?

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