Facebook, Wikileaks, and the Paradox of Digital Media

July 05, 2012

Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age.
Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age by Assistant Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies Ted Gournelos. 

Digital media morphs at hyper speed. Blink, and a new app, social media tool, or website replaces the ones we figured out how to use yesterday. And while some may find the demands of keeping up with an ever-changing digital world exhausting, others like Assistant Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies Ted Gournelos find the experience fascinating.
Gournelos has built his career around critical thinking about media. In his most recent co-edited book, Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age, Gournelos brings together scholars and case studies to weigh in on the use of new technologies and their ability to transform cultural practices and institutions.
“Digital media has created all sorts of paradoxes and counter-arguments. In the book, we encouraged them all,” Gournelos said. “You simply can’t study technology today without acknowledging all the ways the lines now blur. I hope this book encourages people to think very critically about how they use modern media and how modern media uses them.”
How is digital media a paradox?
The paradox of digital media is part of the "2.0" change. Original, "1.0" digital media was all about an author (a company, a person, whatever) putting his or her content out there. But when we add in web 2.0, we have strings of constantly updated content that is shared and edited by lots of people. That could be hash tagging something on Twitter or submitting a "video response" to YouTube, but it's conversation as content rather than more one-directional authorship.
That creates a paradox because on the one hand, that seems like a turn to the ideals of democracy and the public sphere, which is great. On the other hand, however, the increasing corporate and state control of digital media, whether that is in managing the sites themselves, putting up content that is masked as personal when it is really from a PR firm or intelligence agency, tracking our every click and interest and search, following our physical locations through our cell phones, or simply guiding people to websites owned and operated by the same few companies that own all the newspapers, radio stations, and television stations, means that democracy is more perilous than ever.
If you add to that the fact that "democracy" is not necessarily progressive (for instance, there's a huge rise in neo-Nazi groups using the Internet), then we have a real tension between the claims that the Internet is this fantastic resource that can help us with our lives, and the claims that the Internet is just a more sophisticated tool to control and manipulate us.
In your introduction, you and your co-author write that digital media cannot be fully understood without grappling with its limits, boundaries and transgressions. What do you see as one of the most invisible transgressions of digital media?
Many of the transgressions of digital media are completely invisible. On the dystopian side, we have the ability for our smartphone apps to know where we are at all times, who we're talking to, and what we're doing (or, you know, the police, since our cell phone companies voluntarily allow police access to our geolocation history).
On the utopian side, we've got the incredible resources of community that come with sites like TripAdvisor, Wikipedia, or even the ratings of businesses on Yelp or Google. These have become completely invisible to us; we take them for granted. However, they've also changed the way we think about our connections to our community. Who would have even imagined ten years ago that Craigslist or Couchsurfer would even work, let alone that they would transform the way many people live their lives?
How, if at all, has digital media given consumers the opportunity to level the playing field and force some degree of corporate accountability?
Digital media has certainly given us more tools and opportunities to have control of what we buy and who we buy from. However, in many ways that's an illusion. Those tools are often guided and controlled by very smart people and very sophisticated methods of manipulating information. Besides, all the statistics show that people trust their magazine and television ads more than they do reviews online. That trend will probably change, though. I'm hopeful that the more sophisticated we get as users, the harder it will be to manipulate us. That's an old argument about media literacy, so I'm not going to be totally optimistic.
Has a true democracy emerged within digital media or does it just seem as though consumers have more power than they actually do?
Democracy is a funny thing; it's never really existed. Certainly there are democratic trends in digital media. Obama's first campaign for president relied mainly on small donors, after all, drawn largely from online marketing. But now, his "war chest" is packed with far more corporate and special interests dollars, just like Romney's. So again, I think there are trends and tools that make democracy more possible using digital media.
I think Facebook is one of those, for as long as it lasts. What's cool about what's happening now is that if something becomes perceived as anti-democratic, and if its identity (like Facebook's or Google's) is centrally about being democratic and transparent, then it can be replaced amazingly quickly. So you have backlashes against Facebook's advertising pushes, or their tracking of our identities, or their privacy policies, which are precisely those things that could make it actually worth anything on Wall Street. It's no accident that the biggest IPO in the past decade was met with not just incompetence, but massive skepticism. Even Google, as amazingly diverse and powerful as it is, can be replaced.
In your article “Power and Secrecy in the Age of the Internet,” you argue that journalism has failed us as a society. How do sites like WikiLeaks help address what journalism can’t, and what do they mean for the future of journalism and mainstream media?
Journalism fails us as soon as we want it to make us money. When it is tied to a bottom line, integrity is compromised, and it's always easier to get pre-packaged stories from the Pentagon or Apple than it is to do any actual research and ask hard questions that could get you kicked out of the White House Press Corps (as if you can actually learn anything useful there, anyway).
But there are other ways to think about journalism, and many of those rely on the same structures that have failed us as a society. The Yes Men's pranks bring important issues to light despite millions of dollars spent on hiding them. The Daily Show's reliance on parody gives a much-needed sense of history (and awareness of the self-contradiction and hypocrisy in politics and the news) to its audience (and the audience of the shows and websites that discuss or re-post clips from The Daily Show).
Anonymous reminds the powers-that-be that a few bored kids can black out the web presence of multi-billion dollar companies or the Department of Defense. And Wikileaks serves as a constant threat that no matter how closely you guard your secrets, it's always possible for them to get out, and once they do, there's no way to control them.
This has fundamentally changed not only how we think and act, but more importantly, how governments and corporations think and act. Hopefully it will move us toward more transparency and accountability; but I'm not holding my breath. Like I say in the book: it's not digital media that will change the world, only boots on the ground can do that. But maybe digital media will help us know to put our boots on at all, and tell us when and where to come together in the streets and make some noise.  


By Kristen Manieri

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