How has the relationship between power, the media and politics changed in the context of globalisation, the crisis of political legitimacy and the emergence of new media technologies? What opportunities do these technologies provide for non-traditional actors to set the political agenda? This paper argues that politics and power relations has historically involved a battle over values and ideas played out in the media. The rise of new mass self-communication via new technologies provides opportunities for non-institutional forms of social movements to gain influence. Corporate media and mainstream politics recognise the power of this influence, leading to convergence between traditional and mass self-communication. The battle for power will in future be played out in non-traditional and dynamic forms.
Politics relies on the ability to influence the way that people think, their values and norms; few institutional forms can exist based on coercion and fear alone. Politics relies on simple messages communicated to voters by mass media, especially television. Television dictates that messages must be simple and image-based, leading to personality politics where individuals portray values of trust and credibility to gain popularity. Counter campaigns are hence typified by allegations of corruption or wrongdoing. Allegations damage the individual politician involved, but frequent allegations undermine politics itself and lead to the current widespread voter indifference. However, surveys show that individuals retain the belief that they can influence outcomes by acting together outside the formal political system.
The new range of digital media tools has led to a profusion of horizontal interactive communication as people have built their own communication channels such as blogs, podcasts and wikis. There is growing use of these new networks to distribute content and to add an interaction with the audience to traditional media, such as via internet-based news media or cable tv that draw on user-generated content. This vertical-horizontal interaction creates a new set of power relations as network owners seek to control traffic in favour of business partners and customers. Growing corporate interest in internet-based communication is termed mass self-communication.
Recent years have witnessed growth in social movements. All seek to modify traditional political and corporate power relations. Mass self-communication offers enormous potential to continue with local campaigns whilst linking to others who pursue similar issues but who are not geographically proximate. Examples include the following:
- The use of physical symbolic direct action (co-ordinated by new media communications) by the movement against global capitalism
- The creation of autonomous communication networks to challenge the monopoly of government and business-controlled media in Italy
- The participation in traditional voting of voters mobilised by internet-based methods
- The spread of instant political mobilisation via mobile phone.
Mass self-communication has generated a new public sphere in which to contest power, giving rise to new battles for control and influence. For example:
- Professional journalists are no longer powerful gatekeepers of political messages: new media provides a new balance of power. These give new actors the opportunity set the agenda, eliminating the role of editors.
- Ordinary people can become political commentators through automated publishing and editing tools New political tricks emerge, such as spoof websites or Google bombing, which links candidate names with negative terms in search engines.