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What communication does the world need? (Part I)

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Sunday, August 26, 2018 - 16:48

This question may seem overly broad or ambitious to be addressed in this short essay. But however briefly or incompletely, in a time of hyper-connectivity it is important to explore into this burning question. In a period of mass information, public opinions and social imaginaries have an impact on global feeling and governance, as a consequence of their growing mutual interdependence. It is almost impossible to understand national phenomena and international relations without taking into account the realm of public opinion—even in dictatorial or authoritarian regimes—and the architecture that shapes it. Reciprocally, the world’s current transition is leading to a new information order that goes way beyond the fragile rules in the multilateral framework. This situation means citizens, communicators and the media have new responsibilities and new battles to fight.

Since the nineteenth century, democracy, modern nationalism and communication have been converging. Essentially, widespread communication combined with the emergence of nationalisms has radically transformed public opinions. The scope from Gustave Le Bon’s prediction of an Era of the Crowds at the end of the nineteenth century to Dominique Moïsi’s contemporary Geopolitics of Emotions offers an interesting timeframe of this structural evolution and its connection with politics. Le Bon and Moïsi describe how the emergence of nationalism and democracy sowed the seeds of the manipulation of the masses. The latter left the field of political means to become an objective of politics itself, seeking to win the minds of people through mediated persuasion. Even current dictatorships, unlike those of the past that could negate the opinion of their subjects, need to win over public opinion through nationalist, religious or progressive narratives.

In this context it is useful to remember that apart from well-known periods of mass manipulation, such as Italy or Germany during their ultra-nationalist period, or during the history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the most effective mass persuasion campaigns have occurred in democracies, especially Great Britain during World War I. According to the geostrategist Gérard Chaliand, almost everything that was invented during this period inspired what was later implemented in peacetime.1 Curiously, this fact does not seem to have persisted in the memory. Forty years after the World War II and just after the intense propaganda of the Cold War, many western journalists were shocked during the First Gulf War (1990-1991) to discover that Iraq was not the only antagonist using propaganda. Like many other conflicts, the current situation in Syria2 sees these methods updated with new networked modalities of psychological manipulation from local to global level. In practice, communication and information continue to be weaponized, closely tied to confrontation and interests. In this respect, this is probably only just the beginning of a new state of affairs.

Emphasizing this issue must not lead us to excessively generalize mass manipulation. Our intention is mainly to point out the importance of the social and psychological dimensions that are now much more integrated with other dynamics within and between the societies. On the one hand, it has become more than evident that control over the media and journalists has increased all over the world, in parallel with a concentration of the media economy and an erosion of freedom of expression.3 Far beyond the weak regulatory framework for communication at national and international, not much seems to have changed at institutional level since the “non-aligned” proposals for a new world information order4 suggested by the MacBride Commission in the 1980s. On the other hand, we can observe that each significant event or issue at stake on an international or local scale is now inseparable from a stronger investment in psycho-cognitive persuasion. Let us think about the 2016 presidential elections in the USA, or recent referenda in Great Britain (Brexit), Bolivia, Catalonia, the migrant quota referendum in Hungary, or the intensity of industrial lobbies in global debate on such issues as climate change. Conventional political persuasion requires more investment in media and psychological manipulation.5 This phenomenon is often named “psychological warfare,” waged in the information and media realm, both in times of war and peace. But let’s relativize this term a little to focus more on underlying phenomena.

Because of these major changes in the sociopolitical sphere, two significant facts are important to consider for communicators. First, as social imaginary and psychological issues have become more deeply embedded in the political realm, part of its modus operandi has been reshaped. Reactionary populism or emotion-led decision-making, combined with psycho-emotional expressions, an obsession with opinion polls, moral principles and realpolitik pragmatism are forming a trend in the way leaders deal with global and national affairs. Resentment, grudges, revenge, hatred but also victimization and blaming are becoming more intertwined with political attitudes, both in the North and South. In the past, when post-Westphalian diplomacy was more of a confidential affair, passions were to some extent left out of the political equation. But that is no longer the case, and international relations are closely influenced by moods and opinions. In many aspects, political leaders are now using these new circumstances to their advantage. Attitudes to migrants and refugees are currently the most visible part of this iceberg. In another area, the irrational reaction of the USA following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, when the American superpower had to face up to both a massive psychological shock and its own naivety to understand the complexity of the international scene, has led to a complete fiasco in the Middle East. Modern terrorism is currently weaponizing the psychological field with efficient methods and intelligence.

Another important aspect is that western public opinions and ideologies have grown more vulnerable, reticent and weaker. In the last forty years, attitudes to violence, social diversity and political transformations have changed deeply, particularly in those societies coming from a period of stability and prosperity. One example of this is a growing sense of fear, accompanied by skepticism about science, the media, mainstream narratives and political institutions. The consequences of this change of mood, hard to imagine only a half century ago when imperial North America and Europe were convinced of their superiority over other societies, include identity crises, difficulties in engaging in deeper political changes, and the emergence of a new radical politics (including Donald Trump) and the challenge of irregular warfare.6 The psychological “energies” and motivations are different in many societies of the global South. This new equation between geopolitics, thought manipulation and widespread communication is a central aspect of our times. And the modern information technology revolution is not so much a cause as a new condition that interacts with and speeds up this long-term evolution.

What kind of world architecture are we moving in? This is certainly another ambitious question, closely connected to the above, that we will only outline briefly here in as much as it concerns the main theme of this article. Basically, a new historical period is underway, dragging with it the two main driving forces inherited from the last centuries, nationalism and modernity, in a shifting balance of global powers. The great European boom, from the fifteenth century to its colonial zenith at the beginning of the twentieth century, have placed these two driving forces at the core of the international system. Their assimilation through the Industrial Revolution but including also the concepts of Republic, Nation-State, political party, democracy, critical rationality and human rights, was a central issue in the independence of various countries. But these concepts are still fairly new for societies coming from other political backgrounds. In practice, many world crises are still due to some societies’ difficulties in updating their own structure to this modern globalized system, and the need to deal with persistent forms of domination on the international scene, such as neocolonialism. One illustration is the growing antagonism between local “winners” inserted into the global economy and “losers” on the margins of the market. The same can be said with the divide between national identity and cultural diversity (migrants, minorities), between urban and rural population, between national perspectives and global realities which have deeply reconfigured social classes and political parties in the last four decades. In this sense, the place of hegemonic capitalism in these crises is sometimes overstated. Naturally, the latter generates many contradictions, but political leaders have historically played a crucial role, surrounded by a cohesive national elite, in mobilizing their society towards modernization.

A persistent factor of transnational relations is that geopolitics continues to be the result of a permanent flow of common and divergent interests, managed by fluctuating power relationships. Half a century after World War II, despite the emergence of transnational phenomena and a culture of global politics oriented towards common goods and human rights, no consistent supranational organizations have been created to rule above national sovereignties on a legal and political level. In general, indirect strategies of conflicts and diplomacy (on economic, psychological, and political grounds and common spaces) have continued, while direct conflicts between nation states have diminished. In practice, the impossibility of reforming the laudable United Nations and the failure of hegemonic players like the post-war United States to address global issues beyond their own vision or “imperialist instinct” are two of the main reasons why a cooperative governance system suited to the level of global interdependences has not been brought into place. Aside from discourses and human rights norms, the international system continues to be contradictory, anarchic and cynical. Is it necessary to remember that human rights were exploited to implement the first ideological offensive against the USSR at the outset of the Cold War? The facts show that western countries are not fundamentally concerned by regions standing up for their own interests. Consider Rwanda, Congo, Kurdistan and other minorities, or to some extent Syria. In this changing international system, new issues like climate change, global terrorism and transnational capital flows bring a new level of complexity to the world agenda, going far beyond the mere sum of national and corporate powers. Civil societies play a growing role but without graduating to the role of a supranational actor organized around common ideologies and objectives. Of course, huge social progress can be seen7and must not be ignored. What perspective is emerging from these global trends? In short, a geopolitical reconfiguration, switching from an imposed (due to the outcomes of previous conflicts) and relatively stable single-pole, inter-state model towards one more complex and multipolar.

The existence of a pre-multipolar system should a priori be celebrated. National autonomy and post-colonial independence have continued to spread since the 1950s. Economic growth in emerging countries, depending on their capacity to modernize and build a “state capitalism”, has become a sure way to regain power and recover from past humiliation. First Asia, then Latin America and Africa have emerged in this way, often prioritizing growth over human rights. But while the geopolitical center of gravity is migrating to the global South (by 2020, eight-five percent of the world population will be living in the global South), oligarchic connivance and half-measure governance still characterize the deep logic of current world politics. Even if the asymmetry of geopolitical powers is gradually diminishing between the USA and the main emerging countries, China, India or Russia are still outsiders to be able to modify the rules of world governance. In the weakened but far from defunct multilateral framework, issues like climate change, collective security, migration, financial stability and social inequities are only loosely addressed. In practice, these questions are already creating serious crises and destabilization. The same goes for telecommunications and cyberspace, where states and private companies have gained control over the common infrastructure. In this context, in the absence of a new regulatory framework, instability and complexity are becoming two main variables of the international system. Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly pointed out that without a stable geopolitical basis, any effort to promote international cooperation is bound to fail.8 This can explain to a certain extent why the winds of hope that started to blow in the 1990s around a stronger multilateral culture have died down, in particular since 2001. Two central perspectives must be retained: first, that the world is increasingly volatile and must be stabilized; and second, that the international architecture must be reformed to address the new level of global interdependences.

If we digressed from the above issues before, it is fundamentally because they offer a more holistic and political framework to tackle the issue of communication. While communication and information always go hand in hand with the idea of human emancipation, they have also become more socially ambivalent, squeezed in this international reality. It is one thing to analyze communication from an epistemological basis, which is necessary as we will see below, and it is another to understand how information and communication are becoming intertwined with all layers of power in a context of pervasive connectivity. In practice, many of the issues that have recently come to the fore are reflected in the realm of communication and media. On the one hand, rising informational interdependences, in a context of a lack of regulation, are creating mayor vulnerabilities, corporate captures and mistrust, while a techno-ideological and monopolistic inclination has gained ground over communication architecture due to new technologies and financial convergences, and on the other hand a multipolar configuration is underway in the media. While the western media continues to proselytize, new actors—especially India, China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Russia—have harnessed the potential of digital globalization and emerged to challenge US hegemony and prefigure a multipolar information order.9 Naturally, this multipolar dispute, as a new ground of counter-hegemonic and ideological confrontation, is not really synonymous with a new democratic information order.

This anchoring to power politics leads us to the structural issue of the central place science and technology hold in the economy today. Almost everywhere, technologies, markets and science have developed much faster than ethics, thought systems and regulations, causing political purposes and means to be reversed.10 Communication systems are no exception to this fundamental lag. They have been shaped in the last decades by liberal globalization and it shows: commodification, concentration and deregulation, uniformity, erosion of diversity, financialization, speed and immediacy, information overload, techno-centered approaches, etc.11 The ideological biases of this framework in the presence of a galloping cybersphere have created symptoms like cognitive bubbles,12 disinformation, and other forms magnifying the broken lines of modern societies. In the mainstream media, profit interests often drive editorial considerations in a broader context of economic turbulence. End-to-end networks transporting digital information are generating unprecedented monopolies, contributing ultimately to the erosion of freedom of expression, confusion and miscommunication. In summary, things unfold as if the nature of economic tools, networks, protocols, devices, were becoming self-referential and evolving separately from social values.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that media and communication closely interact with traditional systems—myths, beliefs and religion—that still give meaning to societies. The so-called era of “post-truth” demonstrates once again that the distinction between power, beliefs and information is very porous. The historian Yuval Noah Harari points out that “humans prefer power to truth and spend far more time on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it.”13 Are the current times of information overload propitious to embracing reality rather than myths or power? Are there signs of renewal in mainstream political imaginaries and public opinion, in particular regarding global affairs? Nothing could be less certain. In practice, even if serious media and investigation do really exist, only a few are actually working to prepare a public opinion on world affairs. It should be remembered also that a more honest and realistic understanding of societies in the global South is quite recent in western countries. The language used in the media,14 often prioritizing national insights and event-centered approaches, does not gain a deeper understanding of complex realities. Here again, the perceptive gap regarding migration issues between old and new democracies could be an accurate indicator. In general, it seems that the greater complexity of global phenomena creates more restrictions for dealing with realities, even in a more globalized information system. Depending on the issues and societies in question, facts are often argued over, negated and exploited through ignorance, ideologies and dogmatisms, instead of considering biases and mistakes. Causes and root problems are rarely addressed. The black and white duality of both radical left-wing and right-wing groups feeds this trend. This general pattern is amplified further in a context of political crisis, where national opinions become more defensive, for instance in the USA, in the European Union after the 2007 financial crisis, or the case of Brexit (although various countries in the Eurozone demonstrate a consistent awareness of regional affairs); and also in Latin America with the conservative right’s conjectural offensive and polarization.

Again, we should be cautious not to generalize such conclusions when the context is so diverse. The idea here is to focus essentially on communication in its transversal dimension, as an interface between public opinions and socio-political dynamics. In essence, as an institutionalized or informal vector of meaning and knowledge, media and communication processes are part of the problem in envisioning medium- and long-term social transformations. The more they avoid delivering a clearer reflection of what is at stake at national and international level, the more they feed a perceptive barrier and mistrust in their legitimacy. According to a 2018 survey15 of thirty-eight countries, world public opinion overwhelmingly agrees that the news media should be unbiased in its coverage of political issues. This is a reassuring finding. Nevertheless, only fifty-two percent say the news media in their country do a good job of reporting on political issues fairly. People in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-Pacific are more satisfied with their news media, while Latin Americans are the most critical. Indeed, significant disaffection and growing skepticism are affecting dominant media, not only in global issues.

In addition to the information biases described above, all these trends are contributing to bringing the fundamental values and the political dimension to the forefront. What goals frame communication and information systems? What is the purpose of so much information flow? What communication is needed? What is the new role of information and communication in society? In many ways, widespread connectivity is leading to a return of meaning through the “back door” for many communicators and citizens concerned by the divorce between media, knowledge and political action. In practice, this willingness to re-appropriate or re-signify communication is visible when one participates in debates on climate change, feminism, conflicts, social struggles or any social transformation that engages a cultural shift. Around all these issues, communication strategies are handled as a central leverage, going far beyond the sphere of the media.

This last point is an opportunity to outline some perspectives contained in our initial question. Like other social struggles, these perspectives should not be considered in a theoretical or abstract way (although this is still necessary), but mainly in a context of transformation here and now, where specific conflicts and actions can help reach new horizons. First, it is important to seize the opportunity to re-appropriate and re-signify communication in this new political context and in long-term effort. It should be kept in mind that communication is both a vast and loose field, including many domains and practices with their own logic and way of evolution. But as can be observed in other strategic areas, new meta-perspectives or models are emerging beyond scientific positivism. It is imperative to consider these perspectives as a whole, as communication researcher Dominique Wolton suggests.16 On the one hand, the progress of markets and technologies has broadened the possibilities to both communicate (and miscommunicate). The right to communicate is emerging implicitly (sometimes explicitly in constitutional texts), as a reflection of the possibility for everybody to access and practice modern communication. On the other hand, the effort to renew a conceptual framework of communication in a time of growing inter-sociality has been delayed or even substituted. In this way, communication should be situated above economic and technical processes, as a sociopolitical construction and a power to build collectively. This emphasizes a more social-oriented communication approach, where contexts, situations, cultural backgrounds and relational patterns are becoming central variables. Communicating is far from synonymous with informing, nor is it a linear transmission between persons or groups. It is a process of conflict negotiation, involving social contexts, circumstances and a diversity of identities, subjects and interpretations.

This first reframing of communication has important consequences. It implies rethinking temporality, polarized today around the speed of information transmission, and respecting social learning cycles. It also means rethinking pluralism and diversity, techno-centered ideologies, mediations, norms and regulations (for each domain of communication.) In the background, the interdependences generated by a pervasive communication are pushing towards a new institutionalization in the political systems. As we said, communication became a modality of social and political relations. In a similar manner to legislative or judicial powers, the importance of the communication realm enhances the institutional architecture with a more advanced definition of functions, domains, governance models and communication resources, going beyond market-led information patterns. Indeed, we are probably only at the beginning of this debate with the regulation of data, digital services taxation, multimedia convergences, monopoly regulation, etc. These perspectives are inseparable from existing human rights standards. But a new governance architecture of information and communication is at stake. More details are required to feed these proposals, but it is not the purpose of this first chapter to respond exhaustively to these initial perspectives. Our aim here is to bring together disparate elements and give a general overview.

If communication is to be reframed, particular attention should be paid to how mainstream communication is being questioned and changed here and now. What specific struggles or practices could lead to new frameworks and paradigms? Again, there is no simple answer. There is at least a diversity of innovations and resistance ongoing in every kind of political regime. Paradoxically, while a certain culture of “permanent revolution” might lead one to think that pervasive communication could also push the political system to democratize, the reality shows a much more complex equation. There is an ongoing struggle to democratize communication and defend the right to communicate. But states and national institutions are still here and are basically determining the geometry of communicational citizenship, depending on their ambition to democratize and control. We have learned from the last three decades that this doesn’t stop communication from becoming widespread as a common space and a social practice, especially through the expansion of modern tools of communication. And as occurs in other common spaces, this point strategically moves the discussion towards the possibility of building power in the communication sphere.

One illustration of this power to build collectively is that during the last three decades, a large number of communicators, researchers, media workers and journalists have constructed new kinds of alliances around issues, shaping a progressive communication agenda at global level. Climate change and sustainable transition, regional integration and social movements, democracy and rights, racism and Islamophobia, the emergence of sciences and technologies, corruption and transparency, social economy and finance, immigration and mobility, gender and feminism, violence and conflicts, technology and digital sovereignty, free media and communication rights, conspiracy narratives and fake news all appear among the issues where communication is closely tied to social struggles. Independent and “free media” are propagating in a context of stronger state repression or capture by corporate powers. These networks and alliances17 do not necessarily depend on institutionalized media or structures and are configured according to issues, ideologies, regions and methodologies, and organized at national or transnational level, with a highly variable level of intensity and depth. Although it is ambitious to expect consistent coordination between them, given such a thematic diversity (except at national level), they configure a multi-layering of identities and frameworks, rooted in ethical and conceptual foundations. In the latter,18 communication is often given as a common or public good and a process to leverage new practices and system transformation. In addition, new funders back initiatives for an investigative and independent media sphere. It is relevant that these networks are growing reciprocally, empowered by other political movements and struggles. This is the case with democratic or environmental movements, for instance, or with religious or feminist mobilizations.

Asymmetric struggles for a “citizen communication” are likely to proliferate in a context of increasing power disputes. This landscape is similar to what is happening in other global common spaces, whether land, urban spaces or cyberspace. Here too, confrontations with the leading powers are intensifying. It is likely that new crises or scandals in information ecosystems will create new conflicts and thus opportunities to forge new paths. This is an argument in favor of building a proper strategic intelligence for the communication realm and being prepared to oppose new architectures capable of replacing the old ones. Precisely, in terms of intelligence of the asymmetric struggles where the weak fight the strong, the power balance in the information and communication realm has its own rules and equations. The large, monopolistic players are not always the most powerful. While monopolies controlling content and infrastructure are obviously a serious obstacle, they are ultimately key allies in influencing minds. But in a world flooded with irrelevant information, other variables are likely to turn powerful. Clarity, reliability, and the capacity to innovate are three examples.

Clarity means the intelligence to understand and structure a deeper vision of realities. Analyzing his own society during the national liberation period, the distinguished African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral suggested that “a battle should be waged against ourselves to raise the knowledge necessary to transform reality.”19 He pointed out the challenge, too often underestimated or ignored by ideological bias, of making a qualitative leap in the relation between realities, knowledge, mass mobilization and action, as a condition for power relationships shifting in an asymmetric confrontation. Today, this kind of clarity is needed to embrace a deeper knowledge of world and national affairs, the diversity of the sociocultural and historical foundations of societies, and their relation to globalization. In some ways, this effort to generate knowledge in this new international period could be compared with the postwar period when the western world changed its whole interpretation of the world to finally leave behind the posturing of colonialism and western superiority. Of course, this structural shift was not the outcome of a mere movement of intellectuals of both colonized and colonizing sides. Instead, it resulted from a mix of conflicts, political struggles, critical reviews, cultural and communicational processes, leading to a complete questioning of these societies.

Reliability connects the idea of legitimacy, transparency, security, trust and rigor with the production of knowledge and information. It involves a mediation processes, today in crisis in the news industry due to disintermediated or deregulated forms of connectivity. This also means mechanisms to rank communicational practices and actors.20 The capacity to innovate culturally (and technologically) entails different aspects. The USA, as a main technological power, leads numerous innovations in the domain of electronic communications and internet, even if other powers are gaining ground in the electronic industry. To illustrate its cultural radiation, Régis Debray recently underlined how the whole of Europe and Latin America has partly absorbed US culture.21 But as mentioned above, western ideologies have somehow declined and weakened. Some regional powers, for example in the Middle East, have a better understanding of how to exploit irregular conflicts to benefit their ambitions, regional interests or hegemony. In countries of the global South, although racism and class segregation are a serious barrier, the framework of identities is in general more flexible. The struggles of migrants, the young and women are currently generating cultural syncretism, creating a deep shift in the cultural patterns in these societies, inseparable from new forms of cultural cosmopolitanism and communication.

The organizational frameworks are also a key dimension in the capacity to innovate. Political or “vanguard” parties are often overwhelmed when ideological or local divides widen. There is a need to design new flexible frameworks where a plurality of innovations, identities or social movements can converge towards common perspectives. The international movement around the “commons”, as a paradigm going beyond market and state regulation, is one current example. The rise of free media in many places, with local coordination, and sometimes international movements like the World Charter of Free Media is another one. It implies a capacity to ally with other political identities, to boost them through communication as a vector of sociocultural transformation.

To be continued in part II… 


1Philip M. Taylor, Munitions of the Mind, 1990 and British Propaganda in the First World War, 1982.

2 The Atlantic, War Goes Viral. How social media is being weaponized across the world, 2016.

3World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, UNESCO, 2017


5See the interesting study Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation, Oxford University, 2018

6Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism, 2008 ; Gérard Chaliand, Why we’ve stopped winning wars?, 2017.

7Growth of alphabetized people, development of female education, life expectancy duplicated in Southern countries, reduction of inter-State conflicts, etc. It is useful to read the long-term perspective of Yuval Noah Arari, in Sapiens. A brief history of humankind, 2014.

8Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision, 2012.

9Daya Thussu, A new global communication order for a multipolar world, 2018.

10Conclusions of the World Citizens Assembly, 2001, Lille, France.

11See for example Laura Flanders, Next System Media: An Urgent Necessity, 2017.

12To be balanced with Social Media, Political Polarization and Political Disinformation: a Review of the Scientific Literature

13Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018.

14World Charter of Free Media, 2015.

15Pew Research Center, Publics globally want unbiased but are divided on whether their news media deliver news coverage, 2018

16Dominique Wolton, Informer n’est pas communiquer, CNRS, France, 2009.

17Just to mention some existing networks: International alliance of journalists, Indymedia, Confederation of contents for a world democracy, Real Media (UK), Global ground Media (Asia), In Depth News (Asia), Democracy Now (US), Communication Forum for Integration (LatAm), World Forum of Free Media, Climate change communication center (China), Coordination of free media (France), Peace and Conflicts Journalist Network, Global investigative Journalism Network, First Look Media.

18See for example the charters of the Alliance of international journalist, the World Forum of Free Media or Other News.

19Amilcar Cabral, The Weapon of Theory, 1968.

20For example the Trust Initiative of Reporters without borders.

21Régis Debray, Civilisation. Comment nous sommes devenus américains, 2018