A Chance to Bridge Social Gaps:
The Arrival of Independent Online Media
The last decade has witnessed a fundamental transformation in the way Americans access news. Large corporations have consolidated their grip on the media industry and groundbreaking information technology has encouraged the emergence of alternative media. E-mail now rivals the telephone; e-zines threaten newspapers; and increased bandwidth may soon spell the beginning of the end for television. But societal divisions continue to hinder the potential of new media to catalyze real progress.
There's no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized communication and ushered in a new range of possibilities for media and democracy. By "pushing" and "pulling" viewers, online media can create and shape new perspectives on the news. First online sources "pull" viewers by making independent information available -- for instance, anyone curious about an upcoming election can quickly find online as much information as he or she wants. Moreover, because cyberspace is decentralized, the sources of that information reflect a multitude of identities, ideologies, and interests; grassroots groups like The League of Women Voters and the League of Conservation Voters use their websites to offer detailed information about candidates and their positions, even down to the local level. Readers seek out new perspectives, find them quickly, and are "pulled" in.
Some independent media also "push" information, by actively channeling it to interested viewers. Organizations use e-mail distribution lists not only to offer new perspectives, but also to actively promote them, and the lists maintained by some national groups, such as the ACLU, reach audiences so broad and engaged that they can shift policy even as it's formulated. For instance, a nationwide electronic organizing campaign last summer killed the TIPS (Terrorist Information Prevention System) program proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft before it ever got off the ground.
The current generation is the first to enjoy such quick, convenient access to information; this generation has the opportunity to know more about the issues affecting society than any citizens of any country have had before. And if more information enables more sophisticated choices - as the Framers of the 1st Amendment believed - then advancing information technology may enhance democracy.
The first, smaller, division is what has been called the digital divide.
Or it may achieve nothing. Even though the digital revolution against big media seems to promise a new era in American democracy, the Internet has not yet shaped up as a panacea for our political ills. While it does bring people closer together and make more and more information available to more and more viewers, the potential of online independent media remains limited by two societal divisions - one large, one small.
The first, smaller, division is what has been called the digital divide. Today the opportunities of the digital age are open only to the relatively rich classes, while working-class citizens are excluded. This disadvantage may become an information-based apartheid if children in poor households miss out entirely on technology-driven learning opportunities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 63% of children in households earning over $75,000 enjoy Internet access, compared with only 14% of those in households earning under $15,000. Even worse, access is only part of the problem: training remains an additional obstacle facing kids on the wrong side of the digital divide, who sociologists claim use computers for different purposes than do children in high-income groups.
The digital divide is intrinsically linked to a less publicized but larger and more important societal divide. While the digital divide separates the Internet-ready upper classes from the poor, a societal divide separates cosmopolitan from traditional, young from old, and to a large extent, progressive from conservative. Cass Sunstein at the University of Chicago has observed the danger of "cyber-balkanization;" his writings assert that while the Internet is valuable as a user-driven news source that allows people to choose their own digital influences, online media may in fact reinforce rather than discourage viewers' existing biases. Imagine everyone reading his or her own personal little e-newspaper and never confronting a new idea. Further, the same tools that enable grassroots political groups to mobilize their supporters also allow white supremacists to mobilize theirs. If independent media merely "pulls," without "pushing," it channels new perspectives only to people who look for them. So wiring everyone into a broadband backbone isn't enough. We can lead a horse to water, but we can't make her an open-minded websurfer.
Group A vs. Group B
This societal divide is a demographic division, a cultural distinction, with the growing legions of independent media hounds on one side, which we'll call Group A, and the passive recipients of corporate media on the other side, in Group B. Group A citizens seek out critical perspectives on current events, while Group B citizens (a far greater number) passively receive soundbites, since the money at stake in television relegates news and commentary to brief headline summaries. The rise of digital news has dealt an enormous blow to the newspaper industry, but TV news never suffered similar declines in market share - largely because only people who care enough to read newspapers recognize digital news as more timely, varied, and accessible. TV caters to a different crowd - Group B - a segment of the population that may be older or just busier, less educated or just less interested, and ultimately less proactive and less informed.
No issue demonstrates this A-B divide better than international trade. The anti-globalization protests that shut down the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle came as a shock to most people in the business community, many of whom had never realized there was even an anti-globalization movement afoot. Information about the economy is easy to come by: the business press recounts each day's stock market performance and any changes in indicators of macroeconomic health; older and less educated viewers are already aware of the performance of the Dow Jones. But Group B America remains uninformed about our political economy -- how unevenly wealth and income are actually distributed in this country, and how our "free trade" policies, and even humanitarian aid, systematically undermine the economies of developing countries around the globe. Because issues like fair trade, sustainable development, and multilateralism are usually ignored by big media, they are ignored by Group B America.
In contrast, Group A activists are dialed into a culture of independent news and media with a critical perspective and a sophisticated audience that addresses systemic issues from a variety of perspectives. Until Seattle captured headlines in 1999, no one on TV had even questioned the WTO's legitimacy, yet young people had been critical of corporate America's abuse of the developing world for years.
Online and independent media emboldens its audience to question faulty underlying assumptions, to decry human rights and ethical abuses by public figures, and sadly, to expect them. Meanwhile, to B-Groupers, Enron was a surprise; the war on terror seems necessary and necessarily military; and sending vast numbers of black people to prison seems fine since they commit a lot of crime.
No issue demonstrates the A-B divide better than international trade.
When news anchors faithfully relay the President's announcement that North Korea and Iraq are part of an "axis of evil," they don't present arguments exposing the arbitrariness of that designation. Group B viewers listen while Group A hounds run off and find independent perspectives. The war on terror itself is presented as an essentially military campaign, with reporters dutifully conveying the substance of press conferences by Army Generals who reinforce the legitimacy of military action just by appearing. Over a year after 9-11, many Americans remain unaware that al-Qaeda's founding members were mujaheddin, trained and supplied by the American military to defend our Cold War interests against the Soviets.
The huge societal divide suggests that while the proliferating progressive culture continues to seeks out independent sources for its information, older and less educated audiences remain tuned into the tube and spoon-fed political perspectives. This creates huge differences in peoples' viewpoints. If Cass Sunstein is right, even making grandpa comfortable with Netscape won't help.
But if it can overcome these obstacles, the information revolution carries the potential to release America from the cultural unilateralism of big media. Independent alternatives offer hope for revitalizing American democracy, but they'll first have to bridge the digital and demographic divides. It's a daunting task that requires complex solutions, like poverty reduction and education reform. In the meantime we need to channel resources, such as computers and capable trainers, to schools and community centers in under-served neighborhoods. It's the only way we can transform the information revolution from an object of concentrated privilege to a means for political empowerment. The future character of our political culture depends on the success of our effort.
Shahid Buttar is a 3rd-year student at Stanford Law School. Jessica Philie is a Program Associate in the Washington, DC office of John Snow, Inc.
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