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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Networked politics and the media: a difficult relationship?

The relationship between traditional media and net-fueled movements is often not easy. The corporate nature of news organizations often clashes with its informational side, and as sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton pointed out, in mass media “he who pays the piper generally calls the tune”.

Is this also the case of The New York Times? After its article “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe“, Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy‘s speaker Micah L. Sifry points out how the newspaper is a little bit late on reporting about net-based activism.

This article could have also been written in 2003 or 2007-8. For argument’s sake, the Times’ story on the rise of the “second superpower,” (“A New Power in the Streets,” February 17, 2003) which focused on the massive wave of international protests against the impending invasion of Iraq, which were loosely coordinated by net-based activists, was the story in 2003, except the Times stopped covering democratic protests after that as its editors and top writers fell in lockstep in support of the Iraq War.
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