Talk on the politics of the Fifth Estate at University Institute of Lisbon, March 2017

I had a quick but engaging trip to Portugal to speak with students and faculty at CIES at the University Institute of Lisbon. I have given a number of talks on my concept of the Fifth Estate, but there are always new issues emerging that enable me to help students see the transformations around the Internet in light of current developments. In this case, they were most interested in the election of Donald Trump and the implications for Europe of his Presidency. I will post a link to the slides for my talk.

It was so rewarding to speak with the students, who were most appreciative. I don’t think students realize how much people like myself value hearing from students who have read their work. So, many thanks to my colleagues and the students of the University Institute of Lisbon for their feedback. You made my long trip even more worthwhile.

I also had the opportunity to meet with my wonderful colleague, Gustavo Cardosoa, a Professor of Media, Technology and Society at ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute. I met Gustavo when he was the adviser of information society policies for the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic from 1996-2006, and continued to work with him through the World Internet Project and more, such as his contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (OUP 2014).

Professor Gustavo Cardoso and Bill
Gustavo Cardoso, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Estate Comes to the Floor of Congress

In the aftermath of 49 people being killed in the June 12th 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, Congressional Democrats struggled to vote on legislation that would control gun sales. The Republican majority refused to bring a vote to the floor of the House, and Congressional Democrats began a sit-in to force a vote. It was led by Atlanta’s John Lewis, who has been a long-time Congressman and a hero of the civil rights era. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and participated in the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, during the Johnson Administration. This march  helped bring restrictions on voting rights in the South to the attention of Americans after violence against the demonstrators generated coverage by the press – network news.

When the Republican Speaker of the House adjourned Congress, even while the sit-in by Democrats continued, all cameras in the House were shut off. This blocked access to events in the House by the news media and cable news channels. It might have taken away all the oxygen of the media from this event. However, in response, a few social media savvy Democrats with mobile Internet phones used social media, such as on Periscope and Facebook live, to live-stream video from the House to their followers.  News outlets quickly picked up these streams and began covering the sit-in via the social media. Rather than stop the sit-in, the use of video from the House floor made it a major news event.

Members of Congress sit-in via social media
Members of Congress sit-in via social media

The House sit-in ended 23 June after 25 hours, but this may have been the first time that social media was used in ways parallel with other Fifth Estate strategies widely used in other arenas. The Internet enabled members of Congress to directly source and distribute content independently of major institutional actors – the leadership of the US House of Representatives, in this case.

Responses to this Fifth Estate activity were immediate. Some members of Congress saw this as a brilliant strategy, others saw it as a ‘stunt’, others as the rise of anarchy in the House. But the House of Representative came face-to-face with the Fifth Estate on the floor of Congress.

 

Where was the Fifth Estate when Flint Michigan needed it?

Americans and the world know now about the ‘poisoned water’ coming out of the taps in Flint, Michigan, covered well today in an exposé written by the NYT. In switching the city’s water from Detroit’s supply to the Flint River in April of 2014, to save money, a cascading series of problems resulted in lead leaching from the water pipes supplying homes across the city. But, according to the article, it was not until September that the evidence of lead poisoning became public knowledge. The City has switched to Detroit water, and is doing all it can with the State, National Guard, and requests to FEMA to address this problem as soon as possible.

However, how and why did it take so long for the problem to be taken seriously in this era of networked individuals being able to post information and, in many other cases, hold institutions more accountable. Where was the Fifth Estate when Flint needed it? Was the problem not as visible, or capable of being documented? Were concerned citizens not networked, and able to use the Internet and social media more effectively? And perhaps it is fair to ask if the Fourth Estate was timely in addressing this problem.

Demonstration on Flint water contamination
Demonstration on Flint water contamination

The War on Information and the Fifth Estate

Peter Pomerantsev, speaking about the role of the mass media in Russia, coined a valuable phrase, arguing that President Putin was not involved in an information war, as much as a ‘war on information’.* This is certainly seems to me to be an apt characterization of the Russian President’s strategy in debates over Ukraine. His book, entitled Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, was published in 2014 (NY: Public Affairs). It now seems to be rightfully receiving a good deal of media coverage.

You can see the impact of this strategy on many within the Western media, who seem to be unable to say anything definitive about the conflict in the Ukraine – completely at a loss over basic issues, such as whether Russian troops and arms have crossed the border, when continually denied by President Putin and other spokesmen for the regime.

In such wars on information, the sourcing of information by netizens becomes ever more valuable. Rather than confusing the realities on the ground, netizens – the Fifth Estate – become ever more valuable and trusted sources of what is actually happening. Somehow, the elite press have put themselves in a position where claims and counter-claims disable them as they are kept from the actual fields of the conflict. Their responsible journalistic practices seem to have become easy prey in the war on information. For months, the NYT seemed unable to speak definitely about Russian incursions into Ukraine, although recent articles in the NYT increasingly make this observation.

We need networked individuals sourcing their own material, and we need networks of individuals working to synthesize and communicate this collective intelligence to a global community of those interested in making their own sense of conflicts sources of information.

Of course, I would certainly welcome thoughts on how to best cope and respond to this ‘war on information’ and whether it is indeed a useful perspective on the current illustration of being lost in information about Russia and Ukraine.

*Castle, S. ‘A Russian TV Insider Describes a Modern Propaganda Machine’, NYT, 14 Feb 2015: A6. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/14/world/europe/russian-tv-insider-says-putin-is-running-the-show-in-ukraine.html?_r=0

 

Also, see: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/putin-russia-tv-113960.html#.VN-PlSn2wQQ

How Can Politicians Endorse Press and Internet Regulation that Compromises Freedom of the Press?

A classic study of public opinion found that while Americans generally supported abstract principles of freedom of expression, many would not support the application of these principles in concrete cases, such as permitting an extreme group to speak at a local school (McCloskey and Brill 1983). That the public can support concrete actions that undermine professed principles was one factor that led to elitist theories of democracy, which argued that democracies rely on elites, such as judges, and parliamentarians, to protect democratic rights and civil liberties. They can’t be left to public opinion. This does not always work.

The public and many politicians seemed to ignore a disjunction between abstract principles and concrete applications of these principles when all the parties in Britain as well as the public at large supported a statutory imposition of a press regulator, agreed early this week, while still voicing support for freedom of the press.

It is most important to focus on those expected to uphold civil liberties in the face of prevailing public opinion, our elected officials. Are they hypocrites, not seeing the inconsistency in how their stated principles are contradicted by their support for actions that will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press? Or do they see themselves balancing conflicting principles, such as accepting limits on freedom of the press in order to uphold law and policy on bribery, privacy and data protection, and libel or defamation?

I should preface my response by stating my own view that the new press regulation will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press and freedom of expression online. The obvious threat of imposing exemplary fines on papers or Web sites that don’t join the club, and are judged to have defamed a person, is clearly going to have a chilling effect across the board, and particularly on organizations without deep pockets. Providing greater support for libel actions against newspapers and Websites will lead the press and bloggers to over-censure their work in anticipation of potential retribution by the regulator, such as in disproportionate awards to claimants.

Most importantly, this creation of law and regulation by the state to control the press in print and online is the beginning of the end of an independent press – the Fourth Estate identified by Edmund Burke. The press is a Fourth Estate because it is separate and relatively independent of the state, and therefore able to hold government to account. Now we are seeing some newspapers (e.g., FT, Guardian) joining the state sponsored club of papers, losing their independence, while a few papers, such as The New Statesman, have had the courage to refuse to join this group.

So the question that I must ask myself is whether this loss to freedom of the press through the creation of this regulator is justified by other values that will be protected by the regulator. My conclusion is that it is not, but let me explain by taking you back into increasingly familiar territory, which has been well developed by many others, but ignored since the day that Mum’s Net made phone hacking a politically powerful issue.

Phone hacking is a good example as it brings together the major wrongs attributed to the press and other actors in this saga. Namely, it involved unauthorized access to personal information (violation of privacy and data protection), bribery of police officers (police corruption), and defamation (libel or slander by the press).

Immediately after the phone hacking scandal broke out, the principle focus of blame fell on the Press Complaints Commission. It was said to have had no teeth, and was ineffectual in regulating the press. Self-regulation therefore lost credibility, and this created momentum behind the Leveson Inquiry and then behind statutory regulation of the press – regulation imposed by the state although cloaked in a Royal Charter.

In the immediate aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and attacks on the PCC, I approached my colleagues enmeshed in the study of journalism and the press and argued that the Press Complaints Commission was being used as a red herring, deflecting attention from those responsible for the law and policy that should protect the public from phone hacking. Thinking I would be corrected, I found to my surprise that they generally agreed, but they shied away from openly challenging what was soon becoming the dominant narrative among the critics of phone hacking. Far from the Internet creating an ‘echo chamber’ of self-reinforcing opinion (Sunstein 2007), the groupthink within the club of those critical of the tabloids put politicians in a true echo chamber.

Clearly, unauthorized access to personal information is a violation of privacy and data protection but it was and continues to be the responsibility of the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). The ICO reported on phone hacking well before the issue exploded with pressure from Mum’s Net in the pre-Hacked Off days. Politicians failed to take onboard the findings of the ICO and support the ICO in dealing with this problem. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is not the ICO or Parliament. The government should give the ICO the resources and support necessary to address this problem.

Likewise, the bribery of police officers is not the job of the PCC and could never be. How could the government create a press regulator capable of taking on the Metropolitan Police. This is absurd. Again, the PCC was a red herring here as well. The arrests of many journalists over hacking and bribery – without a PCC – attests to its irrelevance here as well. While I believe the arrests of journalists has been disproportionate in the extreme, and damaging to the press, they illustrate that laws and public bodies exist to address bribery and corruption. No need for a state press regulator here.

That leaves defamation, but here again, there are major existing laws in Britain that protect the public from defamation. In fact, Britain has become world famous for being the place to bring lawsuits. American legislation has sought to block individuals bringing libel cases to the UK courts in order to protect freedom of expression in the US. Britain is known as the destination for libel tourists. But one need only think about examples in the UK, such as failure to expose allegations against the BBC’s Jimmy Saville, to see that defamation is so protected here that the public was unaware of these allegations for decades, and reported only after his death.

Freedom of the press and expression, more generally, are being shaped by an ecology of choices being made about other policies and values, including libel, privacy, security, and other digital rights, such as freedom of information. Worldwide, choices being made by public officials about this wide-ranging ecology of law and policy is increasingly restricting freedom of expression (Dutton et al 2011). Internet content filtering is increasing around the world, as is the application of inappropriate regulatory models to the Internet, such as state pressure on ISPs to control content as if they were a broadcaster. On top of this, the previously unthinkable state regulation of the press in Britain is indeed a set back, but hopefully not a point of no return.

Together these trends are threatening the role that the Internet has played in empowering individuals in ways that are creating a Fifth Estate of networked individuals (Dutton 2009). The Fifth Estate can source its own information and networks in ways that can challenge the press, government and corporate elites. However, in one ‘little’ law, the UK is putting the Fourth and the Fifth Estate in great jeopardy, at the time when independent thought and accountability are desperately needed. This is the foundation of a pluralist liberal-democracy.

What can be done? I will try to support the journalists who are speaking the truth to power, such as Simon Jenkins with The Guardian, John Kampfner, Nick Cohen, and others, who are not towing the all party line on the new press regulator, and support the papers and Web sites that have the courage to challenge this new imposition of greater fines in a country that has been a libel tourist destination, such as The New Statesman. Also, it seems clear that this new press and Internet regulation has begun to wake up an otherwise too complacent blogosphere to stop taking freedom of expression for granted. Everyone needs to be more watchful of moves nationally and internationally away from support for and tolerance of freedom of expression (Dutton et al 2011).

Academics need to stop being afraid of offending politicians and challenge the echo-chamber that the anti-tabloid press and those public intellectuals seeking revenge on the press barons that have put politicians. As a number of commentators have said, this is all about freedom of the press and expression that is critical to well functioning liberal democratic societies, and not the time or way to take revenge on the press barons. Parliament should bring concrete actions in line with their abstract principles and drop this unwarranted press regulation, since competing values are already well protected by other law and policy.

References

William H, Dutton, (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, 27: 1–15.

William H. Dutton, Anna Dopatka, Michael Hills, Ginette Law, and Victoria Nash (2011), Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet. Paris: UNESCO, Division for Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace. Reprinted in 2013; Trans. In French and Arabic.

McCloskey, Herbert, and Brill, Alida, (1983), Dimensions of Tolerance: What Americans Believe About Civil Liberties. New York: Russell Sage.

Sunstein, C. R., (2007), Republic.com 2.0 . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.