Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
20 June, 2017
Editorial: 107
Fecha de publicación original: 17 febrero, 1998

When the fox preaches, then beware your geese

Although nobody knows exactly why, the US is once again going to attack Iraq with what promises to be a devastating military offensive. Politicians in the West, almost without exception, are backing Bill Clinton in his latest lecherous war “affair”. From the unconditional support of phoney Tony Blair, to representatives of minor countries, such as our own, White House coryphaeus haven’t stopped singing the praises of the sacred mission which the world’s most recent empire has taken upon itself to fulfil in honour of an alliance whose destiny is a mystery. Leading US media, from the Washington Post to The New York Times, whose mastheads are every journalist’s dream, have had no qualms about offering up their opinion pages to warmongers who casually rave on about extermination, the final solution, saying We’ve had enough! and Just how much are we prepared to put up with! If it were up to them, they’d go over there personally and shoot Saddam Hussein in the back of the head. Kill the dog and we can all live in peace. At last we will be able to relax with no permanent threat of bacteria-laden missiles or deadly gases hanging over the planet. Meantime, radar, satellites, aircraft carriers and marines are preparing the only real threat that the average citizen can actually see. The question is, what do they, in fact, think about all of this? As far as the warlords are concerned, the answer is simple: public opinion support us. But is this really so? What kind of public opinion are they referring to when they say it is behind them? Does the Internet have anything to say in this regard, or does this decisive public opinion, perhaps, only apply to the rules of a world where the traditional communications media reign unopposed?

The notion of public opinion is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its existence dates back to the founding of media corporations at the end of the last century, which began the game among the big mastheads of the written press and, after the Second World War, when TV and radio news broadcasts joined in as well. As the airing of public opinion became an industrial activity dependent on large investment, public opinion began to depend increasingly on those very broadcast centres, better known as the communications media. Today we have reached the point where the vast majority of information acquired by citizens about daily events, stems from those media. So, in that sense, they are, of course, the biggest public opinion makers. Much can be said about this activity, from claiming that the media encourage a non-critical attitude –or not– to the events they report, to saying that they get people to latch on to certain catchphrases or slogans, or that they manage to generate opinion trends based on strategies of social tension by means of an “information consortium” (all the media acting in unison on a particular subject). Viewed from this perspective, it seems strangely paradoxical that the media have taken on the role of social educators in spite of the fact that they belong to private companies whose principal objective is, logically enough, maintaining their own position in the market. In other words, making a profit.

However, the growing complexity of our society has meant, amongst other things, an extraordinary diversification of information sources (if we continue the simile of education, there are more and more students in relation to the number of teachers). And in our world, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s only important when it gets into the news. And not everything can get into the news. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the news package has been of a fixed size determined by the format of the media itself, whether on the printed page or over the airwaves. On paper, the 80 pages (give or take a few) that make up each copy, on the TV 30 minute news bulletins, and radio too has its quota, although short news updates give us the artificial sensation of a continuous flow of information. CNN grew out of this idea, breaking barriers with its 24 hour news broadcasts, but, in reality, the news is the same for long intervals with a few random changes per bulletin.

The rigidity of the format has not been altered by the proliferation of media. Quite the contrary, in fact. The increase in information sources (administrative, professional, political, economic, scientific, judicial, educational, etc.) has “reduced” the real space in each individual media and in all of them in general. The 80 pages of the past are clearly not able to accommodate the growing volume of information coming from the different sectors of society.

The results of what we could call this “information disalignment” are multiple:

1) Constant dissatisfaction within all sectors of the community about the role the media plays. The idea that they do not really represent the society they are supposed to serve is a truism of public opinion. But the complaint is misdirected. The question is not whether the media cover the news better or worse, nor if they do so competently, nor how professional journalists are. The fundamental question is the problem of space. There just isn’t enough of it to satisfy all the sources that have emerged at the turn of this century.

So, the lack of space leads to individual negotiations invariably with unsatisfactory results: not all the news is covered (because it is physically impossible to do so) and that which is covered is never enough. The direct consequence of this is that the closer one is to an event dealt with by the media, the more obvious it is that it has been insufficiently dealt with by them.

2) The competition for appearing in the media and taking up some of its precious space, is so ferocious that it reinforces the “world feeling” that communicoligists theorise about: only that which appears in the media exists. It is this which gives the media its social prestige and credits it with having given birth to public opinion via a symbiotic relationship between sectors with the social, political or economic capacity to emit information, and the media itself.

3) This “world feeling” is determined by the verticality of information. If the media does not shield this verticality it loses out in the game of social pressures that surround it. The greater the number –and quality– of social sources, the more they tend to reinforce their own hierarchical information regime. Given this state of affairs, if public opinion wants to really express its own opinion it either has to get out onto the streets, write letters to the editor (an option as old as the Industrial Revolution itself, and which is quite obviously insufficient in a scenario overpopulated with information sources) or

4) It creates new means of exerting pressure (not of expressing itself), what we could call “the information prostheses of the transition”: press offices, “in-house” and “out-house” organs, public relations departments, etc. This model has quickly shown itself to be inadequate as well, however attractive it might be in a society with the narcissitic tendencies such as our own which thrives on its own reflected image. The mistake here though lies in the belief that activities of this kind (this kind of investment in human, material and financial resources aimed at communication) can create space where it simply does not exist. In fact, quite the reverse is true, as these “prostheses” increase in number their possibilities in real terms of finding a bit of space in the media decreases due to growing competition amongst them for space which, once again, just isn’t available. Those that do manage to print a few lines or get a few seconds on the airwaves represent the tip of a gigantic iceberg of news producers with the rest remaining below the water line.

Given this state of affairs, the present communications model is becoming more and more incapable of shaping real public opinion and more and more capable of creating a fictitious public opinion based on the little piece of the world about which it informs. It’s a system which creates public opinion on the basis of the perverse idea that appearing and being seen in the media is prestigious, and as a result no-one really knows what’s really going on at all.

To start off with at least, the birth of the Internet has changed the rules of the game. In the first place, everyone who enters the Net is a potential information source. And, they don’t need a web page to be so, just using e-mail is enough, their own or other people’s electronic distribution lists, “news”, forums etc. We could say that they are, in principle at least, opinions that “go public”.

In the second place, the Net allows information to flow unrestrictedly beyond the bounds of space, diversity and continuity. And, in the third place, this information could go in the direction of the knowledge arrow from facts to information, to knowledge and then wisdom. In other words, towards opinion-making that is personalised, verified and based on the individual’s own criteria. The mere existence of cyberspace does not guarantee this process, of course. Initially, the basic element is the creation of one’s own content and interaction with content provided by other information sources, something which is completely out of the question within the present communications model in the real world. In order for this content to attain some degree of substance it needs to be packaged in the format of interactive electronic publications, in other words, in a combination of Net resources with communicative objectives previously defined and openly known by the users.

One can see how public opinion is starting to take shape in the context of the Net, although it is still in an embryonic stage, through alternative news reports which are springing up in response to those in the real world used by the communications media to spearhead consolidation of their faithful readers’ opinions, which they see as a massive, syncopated, hierarchified, sequential universe incapable of responding objectively. At the moment, for example, there are many interpretations of events in Iraq moving through discussion lists which would never get into the traditional media, but which are, nevertheless, available to millions of internauts. It is up to us to help one another, through these alternative visions, to create a public opinion which is based on our own personal criteria. How this phenomenon will emerge in the Net and how it will influence real events is one of the most interesting questions posed by a world interconnected by open networks of computers.

Translation: Bridget King.