Generally, I don’t find news trustworthy. As a matter of fact, reading newspapers has become an entertaining rather than an informative act I perform every morning, let alone watching TV news.Yes, I know my job, which involves media monitoring and analysis, is partly what causes this infinite criticism of mine and yes, I know I’ve blogged about media distortion before but yesterday I came across this webpage and I just couldn’t help it. Click on the link. That’s supposed to be live broadcasting from Syria. Amazing, isn’t it? Government attempts to impose censorship on media have backfired exactly because of such webpages, microblogs and blogs set up by fed up citizens who want to fight authoritarian regimes, protest or simply want to be heard. Remember the Iranian protesters who took to the streets in 2009 because of the apparent rigging of the elections. Then remember why Egypt shut down its internet and the following Middle-East awakening. Western media focused solely on their use of Twitter and social media in general as a main tool for organising the resistance. At first glance, these examples seem to prove the widely held belief that communication technology is a pro-democratic weapon to help dissidents to “leap the wall” of censorship and promote democracy and human rights (free speech in particular). However, the closer you look at it, the more it appears to be a double-edged sword. By believing that the internet-freedom utopia (or media in general) is an absolute, people actually make it easier for any politician to control them.
So, if you think authoritative regimes are clueless about the internet, think again. Governments have always used all sort of propaganda to justify their actions – going into war, fighting terrorism, destroying woodland, even concealing nuclear disasters (remember Chernobyl). However, before it used to be TV, radio or newspaper propaganda; now political bodies are using easier ways of sustaining their regimes: promoting internet/ media freedom and using it to their advantage. Youtube used to be banned in Turkey to prevent “the nation’s moral degradation”; now it is accessible, i.e. entertain yourself with free movies and music but do not mess with politics! China’s censorship went beyond surveillance cameras, dissident arrests and media control since the government has cracked down on social networks, using an army of spy bloggers and an internet police that has recently found a smarter way of blocking the VPNs and Gmail – it makes their use inconvenient. Israel’s media censorship is also notorious – remember why journalists were banned from Gaza in 2006? What about the hypocritical fight for democracy in Egypt: get rid of the government but do not blog about women/free speech/religious rights.
As Baudrillard would say, we live in a “simulated version of reality” indeed where the boundaries between real and unreal have blurred so much thanks to media distortion that they are hardly even spotted. Now back to the live broadcasting from Syria: do you now realise why I’m questioning its “reality”? How do we know whether it is or not? What should we do about it? I don’t really have great suggestions and I don’t argue that all media is distorted and untrustworthy. However, I do believe that we should keep in mind the political context in which technology communications could be used and simply follow Morozov’s call for “cyber-realism” rather than “cyber-utopianism” to draw the line between the right and wrong ways of promoting democracy.