With the media under attack in many parts of Latin America, social media is increasingly seen as providing a new opportunity to promote democracy. But can it live up to those hopes?
Historically, Latin American newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets have been dominated by large media companies that often operate in collusion with governments. At the same time, there is a rich tradition of grassroots media and investigative journalism. The consolidation of democracy in the past few decades has strengthened freedom of the press, but threats continue to come from both state and nonstate actors.
The challenges are well-known. The governments of Venezuela and Ecuador continue to wield power over media structures, using influence, privileged access to information and even state advertising to favor press supporters and punish press critics. At the same time, the influence of dominant business groups in key economic sectors has often skewed coverage in countries like Chile, the Dominican Republic and Peru, where critics have raised concerns about the influence of industrial interests in the news media. Elsewhere in the region, public broadcasting media remain anemic, and publicly owned broadcasting stations often operate according to personal and partisan criteria rather than public service principles.
At the most extreme, the press in parts of Mexico and Central America has been muzzled by violence. Armed gangs and drug cartels intimidate and murder journalists with impunity.
The expansion of digital technologies and social media—both in their use and penetration into the population—is seen by many as a tool to boost freedom of expression and strengthen pluralism and critical reporting. In Mexico and Central America, citizens must rely on social media for the latest information on attacks and personal safety.
As a result, observers hail social media networking tools like Facebook and Twitter as saviors to address entrenched problems for freedom of expression. But can these new tools really meet all the democratic expectations placed on them?
Digital Media and Democracy
The democratic potential of digital technologies and social platforms lies in their interactive, decentralized, participatory, and open-network design. Barriers to access are relatively low as the digital divide gradually narrows and smartphones become more affordable and widely used. Citizens exchange information, debate opinions and organize collective actions, and journalists have ample access to a range of sources. Both citizens and journalists can collaborate by trading tips, suggesting story ideas and producing content.
The question is whether digital media actually increase pluralism and popular oversight of public and private power.
On one hand, new digital platforms have transformed news ecologies in the region. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Internet penetration in the Americas is over 55 percent, but more than 93 percent of the population has mobile telephony.1 Studies show that more than 21 percent of Internet users in the region are on Facebook. Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City rank among the top 10 in the number of Internet users by city.
In a region of over 500 million people, Twitter has more than 55 million users. After the U.S., Brazil has the most Twitter subscribers of any country in the world. Unsurprisingly, these numbers vary across subregions (higher in South America than in Central America and the Caribbean), countries and demographic groups.
Digital platforms and their deep penetration do facilitate novel forms of communication, active citizenship and mass participation. For example, the initiative Cuidemos el Voto! in Mexico used a crowd-mapping tool to allow voters to report fraud through mobile phones in the July 2009 federal elections. In Brazil, citizens have used digital media to participate in decisions over municipal budgets and deliberations in congress. Last spring in Chile, a wave of nationwide Twitter-organized protests against the construction of hydroelectric power stations shook up national politics.
Digital platforms have also contributed to the rise of innovative, web-based journalism. Among others, El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacía in Colombia, SoloLocal in Argentina, CIPER in Chile, and IDL-Reporteros in Peru cultivate long-form, fact-based and critical reporting. Managed by experienced journalists, they investigate power abuses and inequalities and feature detailed analyses of electoral platforms, social problems and public policies. Others, such as Chile’s Red de Diarios Ciudadanos, are run by citizen journalists.
In spite of the ubiquity of these new platforms, digital innovations in communications offer only a partial snapshot of news environments in the region. The rest of the picture reveals that the old hierarchies and power systems persist. The mix of web architecture, economic prowess and search engine design give the advantage to established news brands and leading Internet companies. Without exception, websites of established media outlets (Folha de São Paulo, Televisa, Clarín, and El Mercurio) and global Internet giants (Google, Yahoo! and Facebook) attract the largest numbers of users in each country.
As in the U.S. and Europe, legacy media, particularly newspapers, remain the dominant source of original information shared, reproduced and cited in social networks. Their web traffic is further increased by offering catch-all content and constantly updating stories. In contrast, web-based journalism that primarily offers investigative content and has limited brand recognition cannot compete. Facing chronic funding shortages, it must rely on a combination of sources that include international support, limited advertising, personal savings, and pro bono reporting, and has yet to develop sustainable financial models.
The Larger Media Context
It is against this backdrop that mobilized citizens have advocated for the diversification of media ownership and content, and for making governments transparent and accountable. Civic groups spearheaded efforts that led to multiple advancements: the passing of “sunshine laws” guaranteeing access to government information in Brazil (2011), Chile (2009) and Mexico (2002); the legalization of community radio in Colombia and Uruguay in the late 1990s; and the abolition of “gag” laws and passage of a new broadcasting law in Argentina in 2009.2 In Brazil and Peru, civic organizations have played a critical role in promoting parliamentary debates about broadcasting reforms.
Meanwhile, populist administrations have also transformed media politics, though with the opposite effect. They have pushed for widespread reforms that strengthen their own media power and curb the presence of opposition media—including mainstream media companies that form part of diversified industrial conglomerates and have historically aligned themselves with conservative positions.
In addition, some presidents have frequently disparaged critical journalists and news organizations, leading opposition media to counter with relentless one-sided coverage.
The administration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is a prime example of both tendencies. The tense relations between populism and private media in that country have periodically reached breaking points, such as when the government revoked the broadcast license of RCTV, a television station critical of the president, in 2007. And in October 2011, the government imposed a $2 million fine on Globovisión for its coverage of prison riots, accusing the station of promoting criminal activity and disturbing the peace.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has vigorously denounced opposition media and freedom of expression organizations. Last May, he won a referendum which, among other things, restricts media owners from taking stakes in nonmedia companies and allows him to further regulate broadcast content. Just two months later, he won a libel lawsuit that imposed astronomical fines on the directors and former opinion editor of El Universo.
In Argentina, the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration abruptly broke off its formerly cordial relations with media giant Grupo Clarín, which it accused of supporting a nationwide revolt against a government tax hike on agricultural exports in 2008. Since then, the president and her supporters have portrayed Clarín as a “media monopoly” and the 2009 broadcast law forced the company to sell off important assets. Ownership of newsprint company Papel Prensa—a partnership of the government, Clarín newspaper and La Nación—remains a sore point of debate, with pundits speculating that Fernández’ government may decide to take over the company during her second term.
While governments continue to clamp down on traditional media, official news management has seamlessly adapted to the new world of digital media. For government officials wary of pesky reporters, Twitter is a “press-free” platform, a handy bullhorn to communicate with the public.
Some heads of state are among the most popular Twitterers; Chávez has more than 2.2 million followers. (see aq’s just the numbers, p.136.) In a region where presidents often avoid open press conferences, Twitter is a one-way channel without uncomfortable questions—information without journalism.
At the same time, old-fashioned media patronage has mutated into digital clientelism. Under the pretext that governments need to communicate with the population, subsidies for news organizations—from advertising to tax breaks—are still alive and well, with governments at the local, state and national levels remaining among the top 10 advertisers in most countries.
But these practices have now transitioned seamlessly onto the web. Today government news management includes sympathetic bloggers, news aggregators and “trolls” roaming opposition news sites, funded with public money. International freedom of expression organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch, have denounced the Chávez government for hacking opposition websites.
Despite the public outcry, political manipulation and coercion of the media continue. Governments use generous amounts of public funding for communication not just to announce public contracts, encourage healthy behaviors or increase awareness about services, but to promote partisan policies. Low-cost, digital platforms make spreading propaganda easier and cheaper than ever. Any government agency with a website and RSS feed now has new channels for propaganda.
The results are two-fold: governments seek to co-opt digital media while failing to correct the inadequacies of media markets.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Government support for the media is advocated by many as a way to fill gaps in information markets that generally favor resource-rich actors and profit-generating content. In this context, external support could offer opportunities for minority voices ignored by the market or for quality reporting that news businesses find expensive or inconvenient. Public funding could strengthen different and critical media by sponsoring content that reflects political and cultural diversity, reports on demands from various populations and investigates government and private abuses.
But that isn’t happening. Instead, public funding is often overrun by favoritism and a lack of accountability, perpetuating old politics of cronyism and personalism.
The Frenzy of McNews
The digital platforms and citizen reporting made possible by new technologies may increase access to news. But neither necessarily improves the quality of news.
In some cases, smaller news organizations, such as nonprofit web-based groups, occasionally publish well-researched, multimedia stories about publicly relevant issues such as health conditions, poverty, discrimination, and human rights that would otherwise not be covered in traditional media.
In Colombia, for example, the Agencia Prensa Rural, the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, Verdad Abierta, and the television news program Contravia regularly cover issues such as violence, the environment, abuses committed by paramilitary forces, and the living conditions of campesinos. In doing so, they combine old-fashioned, courageous reporting with digital technologies to produce citizen-generated stories that include dedicated channels on YouTube.
More often, citizen reporting has become part of mainstream media. O Globo’s Eu-repórter in Brazil and the reportuiteros of Televisión Nacional de Chile are examples of large newsrooms that incorporate new technologies and platforms into their reporting. Citizen-generated content is generally filtered by journalists, although in some cases it is posted without any editing.
News organizations are particularly receptive to user-generated information during emergencies, crises, natural disasters, and accidents. Coverage of the February 2010 earthquake in Chile and the annual Caribbean hurricane season show how the media can reposition themselves as communication networks for public exchanges during major tragedies. However, in a day-to-day news context, conventional journalism maintains limited connections with citizen-produced news, preferring instead to rely on professional reporting.
And access does not result in quality. With websites relentlessly focused on attracting traffic, solid reporting is frequently sidelined by breaking and/or sensational news. The content that generates the most hits is most rewarded. The public importance or proper fact-checking become secondary considerations.
It is debatable whether such constant flows of information have any significant implications for media democracy. It’s news, but it’s not obvious that it matters for public life. The kind of information necessary to dissect deep-seated problems, voice public demands and scrutinize political and market power doesn’t conform to sensational news flashes or 140 characters. One result: lower priority for important stories about employment, education, safety, health, or accountability of public officials.
A Mixed Result
It would have been quite remarkable if a utopia of participatory, interactive media had followed the arrival of new interactive technologies. But the excitement over technology ignores the extent to which power and old-media politics survive today.
Instead of a revolutionary leap forward, “media democracy 1.5”—a combination of old and new media politics—better describes the current situation. Today, retrograde media politics blend with mobile telephony, social media and digital platforms. Opportunities for interactivity and participation overlap with barriers and actions to curb public expression and scrutiny. Colluding government and private interests coexist with citizen activism and innovative reporting.
Social media do open up innovative possibilities for citizen participation and the circulation of diverse information. Yet the notion that new digital platforms inevitably catapult citizens to the center of public expression should be viewed cautiously. Traditional media have shown a remakable capacity to adjust to a new technological scenario, with governments and media businesses remaining formidable powers.
Social media also are unable to counter government attempts to suppress dissent or prevent access to public records. Even without formal censorship mechanisms such as those in place under authoritarianism, some governments apply legal tactics to stifle criticism and discourage democratic expression. The discretionary allocation of public funds encourages sycophantic news and deters critical news. Social media cannot offer much of a counterweight to balance these heavy-handed tactics.
Moreover, social media do not necessarily produce information that is unavailable in traditional media outlets. As long as journalism—whether traditional or social media—is conceived purely as a business, substantial investments in quality reporting will not be a priority. If audiences and advertisers can be reached through low-cost news, then media companies have few incentives to cast a wide net.
Although they offer new opportunities to produce and exchange information, social media do not solve fundamental deficiencies of media democracy.
In a region with no shortage of journalism that is beholden to governments or solely driven by commercial goals, rigorous and critical information that spotlights social challenges and scrutinizes power is still needed.
Random tweets and status updates supply quick news bites, offer vehicles for amateur journalism and occasionally support collective mobilization. But they are themselves used by governments and public officials for the same purposes. Nor do these tools fill the considerable information gaps created by the collusion of governments and media owners, by overly simplified news and by public officials with little patience for democratic dissent.
Interview by Nina Agrawal
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Interview with Silvio Waisbord
1. “The World in 2010,” International Telecommunications Union.
2. “Legislation on Community Broadcasting: Comparative study of the legislation of 13 countries,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2003.