Media bias, political polarization and social movements

Posted: July 13, 2012 by jennroig in English, Interviews
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(This is the rough English version of the original interview published by AmericaEconomía on February 2nd, 2012)

Election season in the US. Oba vs Romney and as it was in 2008, social media and the online fuzz are expected to play a crucial role. Nevertheless, social media, digital newspapers, and all forms of online news diet are contributing to the increasing political polarization of the electorate. Magdalena Wojcieszak, scholar from IE University, share her thoughts about this and more.

Uncertainty and transformation seem today’s words of order, mottos that global media and relevant figures from the economic and political scenario keep repeating. Could you comment on how these specific preconditions are manifesting in political and economic messages? Do you find relevant differences among this two kind of narratives?

Basically I would say that yes. Uncertainty and transformation are definitely two words that relevant figures from the economic and political spheres keep repeating. They are present in both the economical and political discourse and they are reinforced by the Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish 15-M, by the Chilean protest.. and because the media has picked up these messages and the media has distributed images of these protests in television and newspapers, they’re linked on facebook, updated on Twitter, follows, and a general public is favorable toward these movements.. but we know about a general disatisfaction with the economic inequality, which is larger in the US than in most Western nations and we know about the rising unemployment because again, economic and political figures keep talking about it. we know about most cuttermen tend to support and the powerful and they contribute to the status quo of the 99%. but these are facts and problems that are mostly global and not nation specific.

These are goals, and facts and problems but not solutions, so what we don’t know, what most political and economic messages focused on uncertainty and transformation is that it seems to be little agreement as to the specific objectives. How to replace change where’s transformation. Cause change means disatisfaction and desire to abolish the established order and transformation means that we know what will come after we accomplish a change.

Everybody talks about uncertainty and transformation as not about solutions. So addressing these questions is the next step that needs to be defined by economic and political figures. And this next step means a real resource. But to me, it’s not clear that the political and economic powers are really ready for this factual resource.

Taking into account the meanings of both words, change and transformation, are basically opposed. So, to talk about uncertainty and transformation would be a sort of contradiction. Is the use of the word transformation an attempt to disguise a rougher situation from the general public, sort of masking the gravity of the circumstances?

I think that most figures, both from the politican and economic spheres are actually talking about change. They don’t necessarily talk about transformation. Everybody talks about change. Protesters talk about change, the occupy wall street talks about change, the presidents are talking about change, candidates are talking about change, but change basically means we want something different, and transformation means we want to move towards something else. So transformation implies that we know where we are going and I think in general in the discourse, people talk about change more often than about transformation.

So, basically we are talking about uncertainty and change and when we start talking about transformation, I think there will be less uncertainty. As it is now, we talk about change, because people don’t know where we are going, yet.

In Latin America, as these protest messages are configured, they are asking for systemic changes, for instance in Chile, could you name some differences between these basic discourses, the political and the economical…

I think all these movements that have emerged such as 15-M, occupy wall street and the protest in Chile, they are not dimensed regarding specific reports, they should be a general and global discontent amongst many large parts of society and it relates to high level of inequality, in chile, in the US. These protests aim or want a deep change of the system, they want a change in status quo, but what happens? In Spain, after 15-M, there have been a change in the government. We don’t know what would happen in Chile. Probably there will be another government after the election next year, but these changes in governments make perhaps attract small demands and slow reforms but they will not change the system. It’s not likely that the change, the systemic change will come in the next five years.

Is there any trend toward a different claim? For instance, after such successful campaign pulled by Obama, with such disappointing administration, is not there any different approach to how the “change” should be performed or brought to concretion?

In these movements, people have become increasingly aware that it’s not about a change in the recoverment or system approach, so that it’s the case. I think that this awareness is crunched to all these movements. But I think it would take many years for these systemic changes to be imaginable. The students in chile, the protesters in Spain or New York, while they want to change the system, the system itself doesn’t want to change because the people who are in political or economic power for sure want to retain it.

It will probably take a while.

Soon there will be elections in the US and in some Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Mexico. These three countries share a political landscape stressed by a deep partisan polarization, pulling messages related to the distribution of wealth, defined by two different narratives corresponding to eah side. How do you see the citizenry reacting to the political messages and narratives of both sides?

This question to begin with was not clear to me but let me try to answer it. Yes, worlwide, in the US, Latin America and Europe polarization is being increasing so society is more and more divided. Because of that, it’s more difficult for people from opposing sides to communicate with and understand each other. Also what happens in societies with many media channels is that people expose themselves to messages from the side that they already agree with.

in this regard, there are people who suggest that between these countries there are strong similarities pointing to the political pollarization, and the fact that figures in power represent an alternative to what has been the mainstream political force. Meanwhile, differences are posed by the different backgrounds of the forces in power, a minority in the US, a majority in Venezuela, and a political party who was always second in line in Mexico. How do you see this comparison? What do you think the nuances are between the three cases.

Well, for me the three cases are so different that I don’t think I can’t even compare them in any way. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. What I can say is for example in mexico and the US there’s a general message of discontent. People are fed up with the current situation and especially the economic crisis. In the US, and for wxample the rising crime in Mexico and what happens usually when people are discontent with a specific situation is they blame the current government for the situation, without paying attention to the global context that much. So that was the case in Spain, when there was the change of government last year. What I detect in mexico is that the PAN will lose and the PRI will win. That’s because people blame the current government for the current situation. In venezuela is a completely different context. I would say that Chavez will maintain his power but it will all depend on how the opposition unites and whether the opposition manages to defend a strong leader. In the US I think it isn’t an easily predictable situation, because a lot can happen and as we know voters are very influenced by immediate events, such as wars, attacks, sudden increase in unemployment or decrease in unemployment. So very immediate events can change the outcome.

In one of your papers, you post the idea that we are going through “an era of egocentric publics”. Would you draw a portrait of such publics? In your opinion, how could we distinguish the narratives of an egocentric citizen opposed to governmental budget cuts and that of the egocentric entrepreneur or businessmen advocating for less state intervention?

A basic notion of egocentric publics is less related to egoism, it was more a term I used to describe publics that are enabled, or made possible, by new media technology such as the internet. Those are publics that are in media social networks and are not mass publics as audience of mass media, those are small publics connected via new media in which an individual is in the center of this network of relations. So basically I argued that these publics have different thoughts on people’s behaviors or opinions than interpersonal or mass communications. Now they press on what is storaged online, on twitter, facebook, it’s what it’s received by his network than those beyond interpersonal network.

It doesnt really relates to be egocentric.

But it could be related to egocentrism, for example, these people feel that they make a political comment, or like a certain cause on Facebook, or change their facebook status, they conceal that they are doing something political even though they arent, because changing your facebook status will not make any change of policy. Clicking “I like” on the link of an environmental action doesn’t make a difference. Yet, It can create a delusion of participation.

So people via these new media conceal power and they conceal participation. But they arent going out on the streets to protest or to make concrete actions. They shield that they are participating but they are only clicking likes on Facebook, which doesnt make a difference.

Considering this definition, would it be wrong to conclude that the fact that publics are able to consume only what they want to consume is related somehow to the current polarization?

Of course. There’s research that shows that as well. In the US the political polarization has deepened with the rise of new media. The more channels I can chose from, the more likely I would chose those I agree with. What this does, it’s that reinforces you prior views. So actually it’s the case that pleasing media options have encouraged being responsible for increasing polarization.

What else this does? Many people, if they have the choice, they will not select news or public affairs informations, they will select entertainment, sitcoms, reality shows, movies, fiction. So these people are becoming more and more withdrawn from the political system. These peeple who select entertainment are less likely to vote, to be interested in politics, to be involved in political actions. So what happens is that these people are also more susceptible, weaker to persuasion by political candidates and leaders.

However, Lazarsfeld, in the 40s, he was already talking about selectivity of information, how people were able to select what information they wanted to be exposed to. How is it different the current new media scenario? How to explain this correlation with new media, what’s the biggest change?

Indeed, it was something that Lazarsfeld’s studies already found in 1945, this selectivity. We talked to people who agree with us, and watched programs that are keen with what we believe. Imagine that this is what they found when there were three newspaper in a town. And now there are unlimited newspapers online, there are unlimited blogs and twitter sources. Now that we have more options these publics are yet more fragmented in selectivity. Selectivity increases when media options increase.

In a different topic, Avaaz -a worldwide non-profit organization focused on political and social campaigns- reported, somehow surprisingly, a strong, almost massive, response from Latin American internet user signing against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. In your opinion, what factors could explain such reaction and participation?

I think that for sure the fact that internet and new media have been proliferating in Latin America, and they are becoming more and more popular among Latin American publics, they are more and more connected through the internet and social networks.

For example, according statistics, in Latin America 37% of people are connected to the internet. Facebook alone has over a billion and a half users from Latin America. As we know, people in new media environments, on Twitter, Facebook, people clustered around this issue of sopa, pipa and acta, because they were very sexy topics, so I think it created a huge consensus that was similar to what in 2008 Obama accomplished on new media. These campaigns went viral. And because in Latin America new media have gone more and more popular this would explain this participation. And also becasue many people are noticing that this issue of internet regulation cuts on their lives and freedoms. Once such this importance is established, naturally they are becoming more and more engaged. People who are not involved in politics in general, when they see that a given policy affects their lives directly tend to react. For example, many of my undergraduate students are not very politically involved but each class given recently has been focused on sopa, pipa and acta and they are becoming more engaged against these internet regulation policies.

I think the convergence of these three factors explain the response of Latin Americans. New media proliferation in Latin America, the fact that it’s a very sexy topic that went viral in new media with different images, movies, youtube videos, and the fact that people, especially young people see that this issue affects their lives. Even though they aren’t involved in politics they have become involved in this particular issue.

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