This interview was published in the last issue of Reset (Number 124, March-April 2011)
Professor Livingston, in what way can IT technologies contribute to the fall of anti-democratic regimes?
The new digital It systems move the position of governance and the ability to attract attention to certain issues as well as providing solutions, within a complex scenario involving new players, such as, for example, NGOs, sections of civil society and international organizations. This broadens opportunities to recognize problems linked, for example, to poverty or health, acknowledge their importance and resolve them. Governments are thus faced with new forms of pressure, applied with new force by subjects who were previously excluded from this sphere of intervention on reality. The regimes belonging to the old system were able to exercise strict control over the media and perpetuate the illusion of good government.
Nowadays people can discover the problems afflicting them and share their unease openly, almost immediately and feel they are playing part in searching for solutions.
Is it this possibility to share that led to a soaring demand for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and in other countries where protests are taking place?
There is a tendency to exalt the role played by social networks, and other specific platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, within the media world. The truth is that a broad range of technologies make information available and shareable in a manner that cannot be controlled by those in power, or at least not to the same extent as in the past. These technologies allow people to discover a common ground where they can identify common interests and requirements. Without all this, Mubarak’s regime would have lasted a long time and would also have been capable of repressing the demands of protesters.
Today instead, people can take to the streets chanting “we are all Khaled Said” identifying with what that young man experienced, and by adopting it as their own and sharing it they have the strength to oppose the regime’s power. Authoritarian governments, instead, are made vulnerable and desperate by digital media when these provide citizens with a space and means, and hence the power and capability, to collectively identify as being oppressed.
All this, however is not sufficient for creating a new democracy. It is one thing to mobilize public opinion and another to definitively ensure the fall of a regime, but it is totally different to then create a democracy one did not previously have and in the name of which one has taken to the streets.
We will have to wait and see whether the government that comes after the uprising will be capable of incorporating the characteristics of digital communication, of remaining within the IT environment and adopt a form of governance in line with the times, society’s needs and the media of the times. What is democracy? It is a system of organizations and institutions that encourage transparency and the responsibility of those governing regards to their actions. The institutions and structures in our democracies are 17th and 19th century inventions. Nowadays we need new models and new methods, because, also thanks to social networks, demand for transparency and accountability has increased.
The challenges faced today lie in discovering forms of democracy capable of using technology, ranging from Facebook to satellite systems, making them fully part of the political process, of choices and of the implementation of decisions. In Portland, for example, there is a project that uses potential presented by social networks and satellite images, to improve the quality of public services, reduce pollution, asking for police intervention or to report abuse.
More open, transparent, efficient democracies. The IT environment you mention reminds one a great deal of the network society described by Manuel Castells, a world in which the digital media obliges a change in the relationship between power and counterpower.
Castells refers specifically to the manner in which the new flow of digital information can or cannot be controlled by those in power. According to the Catalan sociologist, the network-like structure in which these flows originate, make all forms of control exercised in the past impossible. The infinite multiplicity of news and relationships that exist in a network society take power away from the old hierarchical structure, depriving it of a capacity to supervise and manipulate everything and are an ongoing challenge for ways of managing power that now belong to the past. The pluralistic and network-like nature of the digital word makes communities adaptable to the reality they are faced with and this facilitates a number of kinds of initiatives and actions that were previously not possible.
Have we really entered an era of democratic transparency? You yourself in the book When the Press Fails, co-written with Lance Bennett and Regina Lawrence, described the manner in which American news was broadly influenced by the White House during the early years of the war in Iraq. And yet all the technologies we are discussing today, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, already existed in the United States.
When the Press Fails is a report on what happens when those having political power are able to control how events are portrayed. In 2003, when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq and was supported by the British government, the country was fully involved in the war on terrorism, a unique moment in American history and one in which the state was best equipped to give life to a public debate. I think (but I do not know whether the other authors would agree) that events at Abu Ghraib represented the moment at which this power and ability to control reporting by the state began to disintegrate due to the proliferation of video equipment and cameras that documented the torture. The spreading of films and images allowed American citizens to be directly informed about what had happened, portraying the worst possible side of power, and public opinion, not only in the USA, was stimulated to distance itself from the military police’s behaviour in Iraq and from the Bush administration in general. In this case too, it was the digital media world that allowed the overturning of the facts portrayed and provided different witnesses than those holding political and military power.
Steven Livingston teaches Media and Political Science at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. His books include When the Press Fails (Chicago University Press, 2007) on the American press’ failure from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina.