Media power today suffers from the simultaneous shockwaves of changing business models, fake news, and fragmentation through social networks. In this context, how can the media construct and disseminate global narratives? In the past century, governments and political leaders played a major role in building global consensus. Today, however, a broader range of actors are trying to make their voices heard. In this new landscape, an incipient global conscience is emerging around issues led by “champions” of all sorts, through a bottom-up approach that harnesses the power of technology. A new role for the media may be to identify those champions, and help their voices stand out from the surrounding noise.
It was already a best-seller, but when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mentioned Moises Naím’s The End of Power as one of his favorite readings, the book became a worldwide hit.
What Naim describes in it is how power in all spheres – from politics to business and from ideas to religion – is more and more fragmented; how it is easier than ever to reach, but also easier than ever to lose; and how all that is happening at a faster pace.
That is happening to media, too. Once an extremely powerful industry – the press, a pillar of democracy – it is now suffering several simultaneous shockwaves. On the one hand, the change of business model, pushed by the economic crisis in general, the advertising crisis in particular, and the birth of the Internet, with its immense universe of free content. On the other hand, the growing threat of fake news, whereby progress in digital technology increases both our capacity to manipulate images, sound and videos, and our capacity to share ‘alternative facts’ on a large scale. While manipulation and distortion are nothing new, the emergence of an army of trolls and bots able to spread blunt lies to a worldwide audience and the quite certain suspicion that some governments may be behind them have undermined the trust of the public in the media.
A third major element contributes to the fragmentation of media power: social networks. Newspapers, TV and radio stations were for a long time the main agenda-setters. What was featured on their front pages and opening pieces signaled what the audience had to pay attention to. Now, a growing number of people get informed through the scattered landscape of social media, without a given order or hierarchy. This environment often acts as an echo chamber where opinions and preferences only get amplified, rarely confronted.
One of the most pressing tasks for the media may be to identify champions, and help them consolidate their work amidst all the noise.
In a recent Pew Research survey of 38 countries worldwide, a median of 42% say they get news on the Internet at least once a day. Overall, a global median of 35% get news daily through social media. A similar trend is observed by Latinobarómetro, the main regional survey in Latin America: while traditional formal (news outlets) and informal (friends) sources of information see their influence decrease, social networks see theirs increase.
This new environment makes the construction and dissemination of global narratives only more difficult. In fact, it has never been an easy task.
Audiences around the world declare that they follow national and local news closely (as per the Pew Research survey abovementioned), not so much international or global news. That fact is aggravated by the lack of global, or even regional outlets.
This, in part, can also be explained by a language factor. CNN was successful because they could reach an extensive – and quite elitist – audience in English, inextricably linked to a Western view of the world. Later, Al Jazeera or RT, among others, came to offer their own perspectives and agendas, in their own languages, to other kinds of audiences. However, these networks seem to increase polarization and fragmentation rather than to channel global collaboration. Accusations against RT, described as a weapon of misinformation by the Kremlin, or blunt attacks on Al Jazeera in the battle among regional powers in the Middle East are just two examples.
Whenever global consensus has been built in the past century, the voices of governments and political leaders have played a major role. It was the case with the creation of the United Nations and, at a regional scale, with the European Union, after the cathartic experience of WWII. It was the case again with different attempts to foster cooperation among African countries and Latin American states, and later on with the gathering of 10 Asian countries around ASEAN.
Today, however, any attempt to build a global narrative linked to the construction (or reconstruction) of global governance structures must face the co-existence of many different actors – political leaders, activists and NGOs, corporations, experts – all of them trying to make their voices heard. Moreover, the mere reference to the need for such global mechanisms is often met with opposition and suspicion. This dispersion increases the difficulty of articulating global narratives that resonate with the public, at the very same time that the media must adapt to a new technological, economic and cultural environment.
And yet, if media fragmentation poses challenges to global narratives, it also offers new opportunities. A bottom-up, more democratic approach that takes advantage of the possibilities of technology is emerging. The result is an incipient global conscience around certain issues – not so much around structures – led by “champions” of all sorts.
Probably the most impressive example is the Women’s March. Gathered around the opposition to President Trump. The movement took more than 6 million people to the streets in 34 countries around the world to defend women’s rights, equality and empowerment the day after his inauguration. More important, it has since then renewed the debate on gender equality worldwide. It is difficult to imagine the #MeToo movement, and its powerful impact, without the atmosphere created by the Marches – an atmosphere that was captured, circulated and amplified by the media around the world.
The media themselves can be the leading actor in bringing a crucial issue to the attention of the global community, as the Panama and Paradise Papers show. Here, a global network of journalists and media organizations joined forces in a unique manner to tackle a pressing global challenge: money laundering and corruption.
New platforms, such as Change.org or Avaaz, are instrumental in harnessing collective action around some of today’s most pressing issue. Avaaz, for example, claims to have mobilized more than 1,5 million people around the world to push for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, at a point when expectations of achieving any meaningful result at the summit were very low. In Europe, despite the traditional apathy of European societies towards the European project, thousands of youngsters showed their support to a common future based on a given set of values, coordinated by the movement Pulse of Europe.
In this new landscape where individuals, movements or civil society organizations become “champions” driving collective action, one of the most pressing tasks for the media may be to identify those champions, and help them consolidate their work amidst all the noise. But after all, serving as a filter, a watchdog and a disseminator of social change has been the traditional role of the media for a long time, hasn’t it?
Cristina Manzano is the director of esglobal, an online publication on global affairs in Spanish (former Foreign Policy Magazine Spanish edition). She is now a columnist for El Periódico, and writes for the Spanish-language Huffington Post. She is also editor of Pensamiento Iberoamericano, a magazine about political economy, trends and cooperation in Latin America, after a career in media, think tanks and corporate communications. She sits on the Advisory committee of the Real Instituto Elcano and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.