An Evaluation of Internet Policies and Power

“In today’s world, information is power, and policies on the flow of information shape economic, developmental, and societal outcomes” (Group 1).

internetcensorship

Group 1 made an excellent presentation of the immense amount of power in the hands of those that control the internet, as well as how that power shapes the rest of world.  Internet censorship is one of the ways governments are able to control the internet through available content in addition to laws that control individual speech and expression.

Russia is one government that chooses to enact censorship on a grandiose scale.  In 2012, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media enacted the Blacklist Law which allowed the Russian government to censor websites that contain content deemed unsuitable for minors or containing extremist ideologies against the government.  Under these laws, if one page of a website is deemed unsuitable, the rest of the website is also eligible to be blacklisted.  If one blog post is deemed inappropriate, it’s likely the entire blog will be shutdown.  The websites that have been blacklisted are listed on the Roskomnadzor website.  According to Group 1’s presentation and RT, in 2014, “Facebook, Gmail and Twitter were warned by the Russian Government.”

Coincidentally, I recently attended a Freedom House forum on internet freedoms.  During that forum I heard two women – one from Azerbaijan and one from Pakistan – expel stories of their countries and their immense fear and lack of hope when it comes to freedom on the web.  The girl from Azerbaijan told a story of a prominent blogger that went to renew his identity card and was subsequently told he had been using a fake ID card, had his ID seized by the government, and now he is unable to leave the country.  This was all because of statements he made online.  The girl from Pakistan explained that four women had been stoned this year merely for owning cell phones.

Report: Internet Freedom Declines Worldwide

These stories are tragic and illuminating into the power of the internet, censorship and culture. “There is an inevitable conflict between two distinct social values. The question is how do societies value those competing rights. Technology didn’t create the tension but just revealed it in a dramatic way” (Elliot Schrage, Facebook Vice President of Communication and Public Policy).  Group 1 did a great job illuminating a number of areas where internet has the potential to empower or imprison.

Russia Today > Putin today

rt-logoFor the most part, I would not depict Russia or its President Putin of possessing optimal skills in public diplomacy.  Propaganda, maybe – not public diplomacy.  However, despite this, Russia has propelled one of its public diplomacy efforts world wide and with relatively high standards and respect.  RT, which stands for Russia Today, is a broadcasting effort that “provides an alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaints an international audience with the Russian viewpoint.”

I love this description particularly because it honestly portrays itself as an effort to disseminate the Russian viewpoint.  In my opinion, this statement is excellent and creates all the difference in terms of my respect for this organization.  Namely, because unlike Fox News, which claims to be “Fair and Balanced“, RT accepts the fact that their position as a news organization is biased, thus allowing its audience to take that into consideration upon absorbing its information.  Knowing that every news organization in the world is biased to some extent, I sincerely respect RT for acknowledging its own bias especially when the majority of news organizations place an enormous amount of effort and capital on ensuring audiences of their complete neutrality.

In addition to their forthright self-portrayal, RT has made a number of accomplishments including reaching an audience of “over 700 million people in 100+ countries” in four languages.   Part of this success is undoubtedly due to RT’s outstanding presence on YouTube.  RT was actually the first TV news channel to reach one BILLION views on YouTube.  RT’s YouTube presence alone shows its owners’ immense foresight into the best media platforms to reach young, emerging audiences.

RT has represented itself honestly, disseminated itself wisely and promoted itself under the purposeful slogan, “Question More“.  I see RT as an excellent example of public diplomacy in the way that it promotes and portrays world news stories through the Russian lens.  I appreciate that it does this strategically and honestly.

However – while I, personally, respect RT – as an effort to make global audiences like Russia and its people more, I guesstimate that RT is not the taking the best approach.  I say this because – while I am quite blunt and unapologetic and appreciate this characteristic in others – I recognize that a lot of people do not appreciate those qualities.  While looking at RT’s “USA” page, I am even quite annoyed at the way RT has taken every opportunity to portray the United States government as evil and incompetent.  However, that being said, when I see this I remember that RT has already acknowledged its own bias, and that makes me less mad.  I also appreciate it because while RT is quite harsh towards the United States, perhaps it does provide, to some extent, a view of the U.S. and the rest of the world that Americans should consider.  Much like how the U.S. tends to demonize Russia, perhaps we, as Americans, should take a closer look at ourselves through that hypercritical lens, and make an effort to address some of those critiques that we can’t bring ourselves to admit.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps RT just effectively implemented soft power on Russia’s behalf – persuading me (and others) to think just the way they hoped.

Russia’s Justification of the Annexation of Crimea

Russia’s justification of the annexation of Crimea stems from two main narratives: a historical narrative dating back to Kievan Rus; and Putin’s self-proclaimed responsibility to protect the ethnic Russian population of the world. Both narratives have their own strengths, and I’ll attempt to delve into them in the following paragraphs. First, let’s examine Crimea’s historical narrative which may provide some insight into Russia’s justification of the annexation of the peninsula.

Crimea has been the center of struggle since ancient times.  From the 9th Century AD, Crimea was fought over by the Greeks, the Romans, the Huns and the Goths. Once empires started emerging, Crimea became even more entrenched in an unruly game of tug-of-war. Although the peninsula was in the process of being fought over by Ottomans, Byzantines and Kievan Rus from the 10th to the 13th Century, once Genghis Khan came along, Crimea became a part of the Tatar Empire and thus remained until the Turks came along roughly 200 years later.  However, despite the Turkish influence, the population of Crimea remained predominantly Tatar.

It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that Russia earned its first claim to the Crimean peninsula when Catherine the Great came along and decided she wanted it. During Catherine’s reign, the Black Sea Fleet was established and Sevastopol proclaimed its primary port. Crimea remained a part of Russia throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th until the establishment of the Soviet Union, where Crimea was declared an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921.  However, once Stalin came power, the Greek and Tatar population of Crimea were systematically supplanted to Central Asia and a wave of native Russians were imported into the peninsula.

In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union and decided that as an act of goodwill, he would “gift” Crimea to Ukraine.  This act was significant, because it changed the identity of the entire population of Crimea, gave Ukraine claim the resources of the peninsula, and simultaneously dissociated those resources from the rest of the Soviet Union in just a few minutes. This territorial transfer was controversial back then, and it has been controversial ever since.

Today, although some Russian’s might claim a right to Crimea dating all the way back to Catherine the Great or even Kievan Rus, Putin is using the 1954 Khrushchev arrangement as his primary justification for the Russian annexation of Crimea and violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. That’s understandable, right? After all, Russia did legitimately own Crimea for three centuries, and Russians have been Crimea’s predominant population for the past seven decades.

However, what about the last eleven centuries? If Russia is going to claim ownership of Crimea as a point of historical justification, should they not take us all the way back to where Crimea started, rather than where history becomes most convenient for them?

Narratives in international relations require attention to how actors select from the raw materials of international affairs to lend narrativity to the experience of international affairs so as to try to create the intended meaning to the political past, present, and future.[1]

It is apparent that Putin is attempting to elevate Russia to the narrative of a great power. The characteristics of a great power narrative include an emphasis on sovereignty, a strong leadership structure and a proclaimed responsibility to others.[2] Putin’s actions in Crimea provide evidence of Russia’s strong leadership and responsibility to ethnic Russians. However, what did annexing Crimea say about Russia’s opinion of sovereignty?

Within Chapter 2 of Strategic Narrative alone, Russia is designated as a great, normal, and rising power. I venture to claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea exemplified characteristics that could be analyzed through all the primary narrative categories. Despite the fact that narratives are supposed, “to help us understand how status is defined and determined, and is central to setting out expectations about the behavior of states, including great powers,” when it comes to Russia, I don’t agree.[3] Russia has created it’s own narrative, which does not fit snugly into any of the aforementioned categories.

[1] Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. New York: Routledge, 2013, 1-54.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Governance and Parenting

Government is to governance as parents are to parenting. Although initial forms of governance may have originated with the government, today governance takes many different forms and is enforced by many different actors. Much like a mother with her child, although she was the first to provide structure for her child’s life, as her child grows and develops, her child is subjected to regulation and discipline from a variety of authority figures ranging from teachers and coaches all the way to the babysitter and even peers. When it comes to media, as globalization increases, the authority figures of governance begin to shift from government to non-state actors, NGOs and even corporations.

“To express it another way, “the formal institutional” order, which Levi-Faur refers is the order set by the traditional governmental institutions whereas in “everyday life order,” national governments and their institutions are not the only agents of social order,” (Ginosar, 362).

A better understanding of governance leads to a better understanding of how power is distributed. Because the media plays a huge role in the way culture is shaped over time, those who control the media, essentially control the evolution of culture. Media holds the power to influence opinions ranging from political persuasion, to fashion preferences to cultural values. For example, American media—including movies, television shows and commercials—generally promote capitalism and democracy as cultural values.

The parent-child analogy gets a bit tricky when Ginosar goes on to explain that governance cannot be defined in just one way. Nowadays, governance can be executed through funds, laws, influence or even binary code. And, unlike a child who has parents and guardians looking after his/her best interests, the media is governed by a powerful few with the intent of wielding said media to gain even more power for themselves.

Ginosar, Avshalom. “Media Governance: A Conceptual Framework or Merely a Buzz Word?.” Communication Theory 23.4 (2013): 356-374.

Media Participation in an Information Era

Increased participation in the media has allowed for a much wider range of discussion amongst everyday individuals as well as the political elite.

This participation has also led to quicker dissemination of information. This information ranges from breaking news and current events to celebrity gossip and local traffic. Advances in technology and social media have propelled world into an information era where essentially every individual with a smart phone is capable of becoming a correspondent or contributor to a news story.

Although open participation allows for fictitious sources, unbiased collection of information from large aggregates of sources verifies the truth. At one point, news organizations and governments were the only providers of news stories and information. That position of power allowed these sources to disseminate information under whatever frame they wanted. Now, individuals around the globe are capable of contributing meaningful information on a global scale through participation in the media. The result is full spectrum of information rather than deceptive frames from biased demagogues.

M.I.A.–Global Artist in Action

The artist, M.I.A. presents a perfect example of globalization and the global media system in action. Sri Lankan native, Mathangi Arulpragasam, grew up incredibly poor in the northern Sri Lankan city of Tamil.  At around eight years old, the Sri Lankan civil war began around her, and as a result her family was displaced and eventually she and her family became a refugees in Great Britain.

However, once given the opportunity to gain experience in visual art and film, Mathangi Arulpragasamwent quickly blossomed from Sri Lankan refugee to British rapper.  In her music, M.I.A. explores complex global political issues ranging from women’s rights, gun violence, poverty and war.  Her music is especially powerful because it combines musical elements from many cultures.

In the following clip from the Colbert Report, M.I.A. discusses some of her story as well as her reasons for mixing politics with art:

Globalization in our Modernizing World

Although many would argue that there is no consistent theory of globalization, Colin Sparks points out, “that globalization [simply] means greater interconnectedness and action at a distance.”

Regardless of the distinctions and paradigms used to explain globalization, the simple definition provides an explanation for the increased homogeneity and heterogeneity of our modernizing global society. Homogeneity takes form through easier access to goods and cultural elements no longer bound by their national borders. For example, although avocados and coffee beans are agricultural crops that are only capable of being produced in certain climates, increased globalization has permitted these produce to become common in the diets of people around the globe. In addition to regional food crossing borders, music and fashion are other elements of regional/local culture that are capable of crossing oceans, adapting and contributing to an increasingly homogenized culture.

However, on the other hand, many of the local products, foods, and customs that make their way across the globe endure subtle changes in order to be incorporated and accepted into the community they are attempting to penetrate. This glocalization, occurs because of sustained heterogeneous cultures. From this perspective, rather than the individuals adapting to newly incorporated global goods, the global goods are adapted to suit local customs. This phenomenon reinforces the fact that people raised in different cultures are actually different and have different tastes.

Globalization has also contributed to an increased importance of local culture. Increased importation and exportation of goods across the world, mean that it is often more difficult for producers to maintain success in their own local markets.  This has created increased heterogeneity across cultures–in some circumstances–in an effort to revert back to tradition.

While the basic globalization theory merely states that people are now connecting on an increasingly global level, the field of international communication delves into what makes those connections possible and contributes to the pursuit of deeper, more efficient, and more meaningful connections.

Sparks, Colin. “What’s Wrong with Globalization?” Global Media and Communication (2007): 135.