Facebook’s Free Basics: An improved version

The issue to be addressed: The digital divide in India
Actor: Facebook (or similar company), NGOs, Governments, local leaders

The issue I’m going to address here is one that I’ve already talked about in my paper. However, in light of more research and class discussions on communication for development, I believe there are lots of improvements that can be made to the internet.org initiative that Facebook has launched. I’m going to briefly outline the plan that I believe will be able to help bridge the digital divide.

Approximately half of the world does not have access to something that the rest of the world has taken for granted. This seems inherently wrong. While nothing but time can equalize this access, we have a way to temporarily bridge the gap until more permanent solutions are found. Offer some of the internet for free to those that have access to none of it. Along with this access (which Facebook is currently offering in the form of the Free Basics app), NGOs work on the grassroots level to promote media literacy. However, before full-scale operations take place, local leaders (village panchayat or government) are consulted and educated about the internet and its benefits. Convincing them will make it easier for this plan to be adopted by other people. It is also important to make sure that the Free Basics app contains the portion of the internet that would most benefit each particular region in which it is offered.

Village panchayat heads are influential leaders in rural India with a large amount of power to shape opinions. Before the courts, all disputes and governance issues were solved by the Panchayats and some of them still retain that power. This, in part, is the reason for India’s three-tiered system of governance (Central, State and Vilage) and it must be taken advantage of using Katz and Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow of communication theory.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Zuckerberg’s plan for free internet is the lack of instruction manual for people who have no experience with it. This is why the media literacy program is especially important.

However I believe this plan is just a tiny step towards bridging the divide. It is meant to simply act as a way for people to discover how the internet could help and this, hopefully, will lead to a more sustainable solution.

The internet is more than just Facebook and Twitter

It’s easy to assume that internet literacy is on the rise. With more young people getting hooked on to the internet especially from emerging countries, it’s natural to feel like everyone under the age of 18 is more in tune with the latest developments in the internet world than you. This is true whether you live in a developing or a developed country.

At first glance, this seems to indicate that formal internet literacy programs are a requirement of the past. “Kids these days don’t need to be taught how to use the internet. They know more than everyone else anyway.” However, this way of thinking may do more harm than good.

Firstly, what is so great about the internet that people need to use it? McKinsey and company have found that the internet accounts for a large part of GDP growth in most countries. The impact of the internet on economic, social and and community development have been studied and proven several times over. Given this, ensuring that internet access is worldwide is one of the most important issues facing us today.

Next, why is it important to make sure that people with access to the internet know what happens behind the scenes? We know from several articles that we have discussed in class that the internet is skewed in terms of its infrastructure simply because of the physical development of the internet in the western hemisphere. This is an important context to set for anyone who accesses information on the web. The principles of the internet most accurately reflect the principles of the west. While this seems simple enough to understand, it is a concept that needs to be taught to people from different cultures who might actually find it hard to fathom.

Apart from the need to inform young people about things like cyberbullying and cyberstalking, it is important to educate them about the cultural, sociological and power structure of the internet. These are things they cannot learn from spending hours on social media. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that heavy usage of social media does not imply a large breadth of knowledge about the internet itself.




Behind the scenes of the Internet

Question: DeNardis describes Internet architecture as “arrangements of power.” What does she mean by this (and by extension, what does she mean by “architecture”)?

Langdon Winner’s article “Do artifacts have politics?” talks about the theory of technological politics which “identifies certain phenomena as political in their own right.” In her book, DeNardis refers to this article when she talks about the internet architecture as arrangements of power.

When people think about the behind-the-scenes workings of the internet, they think about the technological aspect of it. Not many give a thought about the public-policy aspect of the internet infrastructure. This is what DeNardis aims to bring to the foreground in her book.

According to DeNardis, it is important to acknowledge that technology both affects and is affected by real world socio-economics.By virtue of being its birthplace, the United States has had a large role in the way the internet has been shaped (both inadvertently and otherwise). The principles of the internet espouse that of the United States itself: free-communication, horizontal hierarchy, no boundaries, freedom of expression etc. Likewise, intellectual property laws on the internet also mirror that of the United States.

More significantly, the decision making process behind the allotment of web addresses is also political in nature. The power of organizations involved in the process of governing the internet is largely unacknowledged. I believe this is what DeNardis means by the architecture of the internet being arrangements of power.

“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land”

Question: How might a focus on audience over messaging change the nature of how nation-states engage in mediated public diplomacy?

Welcome to ISIS land” was a milestone for the US state department’s efforts to counter terrorist propaganda on social media in more ways than one. A brain child of Albert Fernandez, then Chair of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), the video is a sarcastic take on ISIS’s portrayals of itself as a lavish place for devout Muslims.

On one hand, the video was the most successful effort from the State department purely in terms of hoe viral it went. On the other, it contained several graphic images and it’s edgy tone disturbed many officials in Washington as well as around the country. Their problem was not with the underlying message (that ISIS is not what it pretends to be) but with the way that the message was sent (graphic violence and snarky tone).

In the aftermath of this video, Fernandez was replaced as the head of the severely underfunded CSCC  and a new initiative headed by Rashad Hussain became the forefront of counter terrorism communications in the State Department. The instructions were clear: Hussain wanted his to be “more factual and testimonial.”

It is no secret that people all over the world are drawn to violence and depictions of it on the screen. The popularity of action movies and scenes of road accidents speak to that clearly. Even ISIS learned to take advantage of that early in the game. So it seems to me that using this to subvert ISIS’s objectives is a good plan.

However, doing so under the banner of the United States government can in fact do more harm than good. The legitimacy of US government’s claim to be better than ISIS is up for debate, especially people directly and indirectly affected by the US’s actions in the middle east. The limitations placed on the content is also largely due to its affiliation to the government.

So I believe, private PR firms may be a safe bet to have effective audience-focused counter messaging propaganda.

But to be fair, I think John Oliver does have a point when he says the CSCC overestimated people’s ability to understand sarcasm with their video.


Balancing audience expectation with journalistic integrity

Foreign correspondents likely do not pick a job that requires grueling hours of travel in less-than-favorable conditions unless they have a passion for their job. International journalists take on a monumental task when they set out to tell the stories of people from different corners of the world. An important dilemma they face is telling these stories unflavored by their opinions from home and their native culture.

What I’ve found in my move from a high context culture like India to the United States is that every action of mine had some kind of cultural significance. Explaining that action without explaining its cultural context can make it seem eccentric or alien. However, journalists do not have unlimited time or space to make these contexts clear. This results in events and actions being oversimplified so that the audience back home can understand it. Matti Friedman explains this with the example of western media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Another problem is that once the audience form opinions about an issue, culture or action, there may be pressure to serve that opinion. This pressure could be financial or political. For example, reporters for Al Jazeera who are stationed in Pakistan are likely to have an entirely different segment on a conflict there than reporter for Fox News. Both perspectives are very real but the decision to choose one or the other is colored by their belonging to a particular context and by the kind of audience they draw.

However, this is not a condemnation of international journalists. I believe that they definitely play a role in bringing new issues and perspectives into the focus of local audience in most cases. Without these journalists, we would likely be unaware of the critical issues that face a majority of the world. The onus lies on them to balance the demands of their audience with their responsibility to be objective.

Reconciling the nation-state with globalization of communication

I believe that globalization of communication is inevitable. In this so-called age of information, there have been no boundaries yet that could keep people from accessing information if needed. However, I do not believe that this will lead to the fall of the ‘nation-state’. I also do not believe that this exposure to cultural differences through globalized communication flows reinforces nationalism in everyone. This ignores the context in which the communication is received by the audience and the mindset of the audience itself.

In India, liberalization of the economy occurred the year before I was born, in 1992. I have been brought up on a steady and continually increasing feed of American, British and other Western media. Suffice to say that the kind of culture I was exposed to through these entertainment and news shows were entirely different to my reality. However, I did not see a stronger streak of patriotism in my peers simply because they were exposed to these globalized communication flows. But this does not mean that it didn’t happen to other people. Therefore I think it is really important to consider the audience and the context of the communication before advocating that it may have increased a sense of nationalism among people.

I do believe, however, that this globalization and the subsequent cultural homogenization has alarmed several governments and this has led to some countries imposing tighter controls on external influences through media on domestic audiences. Most recently, the Russian parliament approved a bill to limit foreign ownership of media to 20%. The latest development in China’s longstanding tradition of protecting its information sovereignty is inclusion of cyber security in the draft of its national security law.

From a realist standpoint, these actions by various governments make sense. Governments are alarmed by the increasing influence of western media on domestic audience especially when there is a disparity between what people see in media and their reality. But it remains to be seen whether these walls are sustainable in the age of the internet and the various subversive means of obtaining information.

According to Mattelart, audio-visual piracy is a significant means of obtaining media in developing countries. I have seen scores of pirated DVDs and books lined up on the side of roads. I have also seen pirated versions of the same online as torrents. Piracy is a very real threat to the motion picture industry. It is also undeniable evidence that, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, information will always find a way.


Tristan Mattelart Audio-visual piracy: towards a study of the underground networks of cultural globalization, Global Media and Communication 2009 5: 308

Wanning Sun  (2014)  “Foreign or Chinese? Reconfiguring the Symbolic Space of Chinese Media” http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2583/1175

A new kind of community

It’s safe to say that media has come a long way since Anderson came up with the idea of an imagined community. But has its evolution necessarily changed the fact that media plays an important role in sustaining the idea of a nation as an imagined community? I would argue that the answer is both yes and no.

There are two ways that media has changed in the last few decades. On one hand, there is a large variety of perspectives and opinions on traditional, mainstream media channels. On the other, there are a large number of other ways to get your news. People don’t have to rely on national media any more.

I believe this duality has impacted nationalism in two different ways. Traditional media as it always has plays an important agenda-setting function. Although there are different opinions that are aired on different news channels, they all talk abut the same thing. This allows for the whole nation to think about the same thing. This ritual contributes to a feeling of nationalism.

However, the proliferation of media online has contributed to the creation of different kinds of niche communities. These communities often cut across cultures, country lines and other “imagined communities.” They have led to a sense of community among otherwise disparate kinds of people. Whether this undercuts the idea of nationalism is arguable.

An interesting question comes up when you think of the different roles media now plays in sustaining/hindering nationalism. Could this explain the disillusionment many young people (who possibly consume more non-traditional kinds of media) have towards patriotism?