Why is mass communication a social force

Media literacy

Marianne Kneuer

Kneuer, Marianne, Dr., Professor of Political Science at the University of Hildesheim; Research focus: research on democracy and autocracy, including Research on the role of the internet; Publications: Social media in protest movements (2015, with S. Richter) and Web 2.0, Demokratie 3.0 (2017, with S. Salzborn).

Media are an important part of the communicative design of public space, especially for the communication and negotiation processes between the political elites, social actors and the population. Social media have massively changed the structures of political communication. On the one hand, this change has the effect of a quantitative multiplication of the channels of political communication; on the other hand, it is reflected qualitatively in the type of communication and in the opportunities for interaction between political actors, social groups and citizens. This article is primarily devoted to two questions: How do political processes change due to the use of digital media by political actors? And how are these changes to be assessed with regard to the democratic processes?

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Since the emergence of media societies in the 20th century, politics has been understood as a communicative process. The actions of the actors in the political arena - be it the citizens, the social organizations, the parties and associations and ultimately the political decision-makers - are largely based on communicative mechanisms. This applies to the articulation of political interests as well as to their bundling into programmatic positions in political competition and ultimately also to political decisions, their implementation and legitimation. Insofar as politics has to be communicated - the concept of political communication goes back to Ulrich Sarcinelli (1987) - in addition to informing and orienting citizens, the dependency on consent and the need to justify politics come to the fore. In democratic societies, media are indispensable for this communicative design of public space, especially for the processes of understanding and negotiation between the political elites, social actors and the population.

Various political functions are traditionally assigned to the media (Ronneberger 1974: 197-205, Schulz 2011: 309). First, there is information and education of the citizens. Education is to be understood here as the ability to absorb information, to understand it coherently and to form an opinion on this basis. Secondly, the dissemination of comprehensive information about political events and their background is an essential basis for this. Thirdly, the media themselves function as actors in the political will-making and decision-making process, and in this role they make an important contribution to the control of political actors (keyword: "fourth power").

Fourthly, on the basis of classical mass communication, there is a central function in the creation of the public sphere. This function is of great importance because the public is to be equated with the space in which the political actors present their ideas, programs and goals for discussion and consequently the "public opinion" is formed, which in turn - potentially effective in decision-making - influences government action takes. The media - in times of mass communication, radio and press - create this public space for political debate and decision-making. Linked to this function is the structuring of political communication, namely in the sense of Luhmann as a selection aid and as a mechanism for reducing complexity (Luhmann 1974: 28, 34 f.). In this context, fifthly, the media provide an integration service whose importance increases the more modern society differentiates itself and is thus exposed to the danger of falling apart. On the other hand, classical media were ascribed to avoiding confusion, the emergence of subcultures or political absenteeism, to make people aware of the general interest in relation to the individual interests and thus to direct the gaze from the personal to the general (Ronneberger 1974: 201).

The technical characteristics and the associated functional logic of social media have massively changed the political communication structures. This change has a quantitative effect on the one hand in a multiplication of the channels of political communication, on the other hand it is reflected qualitatively in the type of communication and in the opportunities for interaction between political actors, social groups and citizens. In addition, there is an expanded political potential of social or digital media, the assessment of which cannot yet be regarded as complete.

With the beginnings of the Internet in the 1990s, the possibilities for disseminating information as well as for obtaining information have expanded significantly. Websites presented new places for actors to present themselves and gave their objectives a new framework. E-mails in particular simplified the internal exchange of information in parties, organizations and groups, made networking cheaper and faster and increased the range of communication. The emergence of new applications in Web 2.0 has pushed networking even more strongly. The dynamics of technical development (wireless networks, internet via mobile devices, social software, social media) have significantly expanded the forms of online communication and interaction, but above all extensive, namely infinite and cross-border networking on social platforms. Beyond purely communicative exchange, social media enable interactions between users, for example from microblogs such as Twitter, content communities like Tumblr or social networks like Facebook.

Similar to previous innovations, with regard to the emergence of the Internet and social media, the question arises to what extent the framework conditions for political communication have changed and what influence the functional logic of this new technology has on political communication and, moreover, on political processes in general. Analogous to the controversies in connection with earlier innovations, where it was disputed to what extent the respective innovation push and the associated potential for use of the "new" medium unfold positive or negative effects, the same applies to digital media. This article is primarily devoted to two questions: How do political processes change due to the use of digital media by political actors? And how are these changes to be assessed with regard to the democratic processes?

The change in democratic processes through digital media

The technical potential of digital media harbors new features (interactivity, real time, placelessness, synchronicity, multimodality) and different logics of action (networking, transnationality, connectivity). The dislocation and delimitation enables information to be disseminated with a large, namely potentially global reach. The exorbitantly increasing use of mobile devices has reinforced this lack of location. The temporal dimension of communication has also changed: content is distributed in real time, which not only enables information to be transmitted quickly, but also enables direct exchange, as it were in the analog world. In contrast to classic mass media and their one-dimensional, indirect communication based on the sender-receiver model, interactivity expands the possibilities for interaction and makes the individual user at the same time sender and receiver, who is (a-) synchronous with one or more people in a group communicates and exchanges ideas with several people or as part of a group with one person. This user-based provision of content is also multimodal, i. This means that both texts and photos can be distributed, but also audio-visual elements (films, podcasts, etc.), and all of these can be combined with one another when they are distributed.

The technical potential of social media has several effects on the political opinion-forming and decision-making processes: First, the flow of communication has accelerated considerably, which requires constant reactions from politicians not only to news, but also to posts, blogs, etc. Second, on the other hand, the user has become a content provider or a "pro-modeer" in a dual role as user and producer. This has led to the fact that the citizen addresses the political actors (and vice versa) directly and thus a direct citizen-politician dialogue can take place. Politicians have long discovered this direct approach to citizens as an effective form of communication and are therefore present in networks such as Facebook or use microblogs such as Twitter. Thirdly, this is associated with a loss of importance for institutionalized communication channels. Classic media are no longer the central authority for informing all citizens about political events (this is especially true for younger people) and they no longer exercise their filtering and bundling function for news to the same extent. As a result, the majority of messages are now characterized by the fact that they move unfiltered in the communication space. Fourthly, anonymity in the network plays an important role in the type of communication; on the one hand, it lowers the hurdles for participating in communication, on the other hand, it is seen as one of the reasons for the lowering of inhibitions that can be observed (keyword: hate speech).

Network theorist Manuel Castells pointed out two other central characteristics of the Internet early on. According to him, the network develops and promotes weak rather than strong connections between users and also leads to a "privatization of sociability" (Castells 2000: 389) - developments that Wellman calls "networked individualism" (Wellman 1999) and Bennett as personalization of describe political communication (Bennett 2003). Communication in these networks is "thin", but rich in identity and lifestyle narratives (ibid: 145–151). It shows that ideological standpoints or political goals have lost their meaning in communication, while the importance of individual identities and emotional connections has grown. The Internet is a particularly well-suited medium for satisfying the needs of citizens who are not looking for "thick", i.e. content-oriented, permanent and in-depth communication contexts, but preferring to perceive and perceive superficial and short-term messages that are emotionally, affected or event-driven to ship. Thought further, this can be conceived as a new type of public, namely the "personal" public in the sense of users who "present themselves to an audience with their own interests, experiences, cultural values ​​or opinions without necessarily claiming socio-political relevance" (Schmidt 2011: 107). More on this below.

After all, communication largely follows the functional logic of the network insofar as it is decentralized. Together with the loss of importance of institutionalized communication channels, this means for political actors that on the one hand setting their own topics and their "careers" are more difficult to predict and, last but not least, addressing a structured public is becoming more and more difficult; on the other hand, politicians are driven by issues brought up by the Internet. For the function of the public, which is so essential in democratic societies, as a space in which the interests of citizens are articulated, aggregated and channeled, decentralization poses a considerable problem. The pluralization of communicative places on the net not only expands the public spaces, at the same time it also atomizes the public sphere, which is relatively structured by the classical mass media (Dahlgren 2005: 152). Elements that could exercise a similar structuring function in relation to the public, namely "to recapture, select and re-edit the decentralized messages in a synthesized form" (Habermas 2008: 161), are missing (for the time being).

The pluralization through tens of thousands of websites, chat rooms, blogs etc. creates a myriad of self-referential sub-publics that form "information cocoons" and can undermine the common public sphere that is essential for the political community (Kneuer / Richter 2015: 98). A less critical interpretation regards this as a development towards a "personal public", understood as an expansion of a professionally produced public. This special form of online-based public is non-volatile, as the messages are permanently stored and can be duplicated, i.e. information can be reassembled and reused (remixing, mashup) and their range is scalable and searchable and discoverable by search engines (Fraas et al. 2012: 43). "Personal" publics do not replace the "classic" public, but should rather be seen as a supplement, nonetheless they have a considerable influence on network communication. So it is very likely that the subjectively shaped online communication - orientation to one's own interests, experiences, opinions, etc. - is reflected equally in the offline communication.

The online public is also subject to a different structure, namely a quasi-technical one, due to the relevance of the search engines. Algorithms control the selection processes of the information offer (ibid .: 35). Furthermore, considerable doubts can be expressed as to whether the network theorists ascribed freedom of hierarchy and thus greater equality of votes in the network can actually be ascribed to it. Because at the same time, discourses can be controlled or even dominated by the loudest or shrillest voice, a controlled algorithm or even large numbers of bots.

Another moment of tension lies in the fact that social media, on the one hand, are seen as new spaces of opportunity for discourse due to their potential for networking, connectivity and interactivity, but on the other hand the predominant interaction, which is based on loose ties, individual identities and fluid political ideas, makes it difficult makes to assume deliberation and the public in their original meaning. In democratic theory, deliberation is understood as a concept in which public deliberation in the sense of a debate based on arguments that seeks political solutions can lead to better decisions. A similar moment of tension arises for the assumed transnationalization of communication. Technically enabled transnational network connections do not necessarily have to develop a transnational public or transnational civil society structures (Kneuer / Richter 2015: 100). According to Baringhorst, the network does not automatically become the network public (Baringhorst 2009: 629) - this applies nationally as well as transnationally.

In summary, it can be stated: The functional logic of the network has brought about a more individualized and personalized communication power, which is accompanied by a loss of control over the communication flows on the part of politics, business and classic media, with the result that the public communication space has been fragmented many times over .

What does the changed communication mean for democracy?

The answer to this question is very much shaped by normative assumptions. Network optimists take up democratic-theoretical demands on the media that have long been dismissed as utopias and suddenly seem realizable. On the one hand, this concerns the hope of better access to public opinion-forming for social actors who are outside the political arena (inclusion). In addition, it is assessed as positive that the filter function of the classic media is bypassed and direct access to information, institutions or actors has been created. The expectations are particularly directed towards a potential that stimulates democracy through expanded opportunities for participation, deliberation, transparency and responsiveness (Wilhelm 2000).

Net pessimists, on the other hand, suspect either a mirroring of the already existing patterns of participation and deliberation or even a loss of quality in democratic processes. They fear that the level of rationality in political debates will sink and that only the shrill and simplified voices will be heard on the Internet.The assumption that the network can actually produce more inclusivity and also the equality of votes is opposed to the argument that the exclusion mechanisms are different, but not less effective (Hindman 2009: 12 f.), Because the threshold of exclusivity is shifting from information production to information filtering. This list of both network-pessimistic and network-optimistic arguments could be extended. As a yardstick for the assessment, it emerges to what extent the effects of digital communication and interaction tend to enrich democratic principles and processes or not (Kneuer 2013).

The expectations of the democracy-strengthening potential of online interaction were particularly nourished because, in view of the fatigue in which the representative model of democracy finds itself - keyword: political disenchantment, participation gaps, loss of trust in political institutions and representatives - the Internet and social media as a remedy for Revitalization, perhaps even for renewal and thus to strengthen legitimacy. In the meantime, a more realistic approach, which assumes that the Internet is neither conducive to democracy nor hostile to democracy, has proven to be the more suitable (cf. Barber 1998, Kneuer 2013, Kneuer / Salzborn 2016). Whether the use of social networks promotes or hinders democracy depends on several factors: the actors, the type of use (what is communicated how?), The motives and goals for use (why is communication with which aim?) And the political institutional and the social context in which they operate. The same applies to the logic of action of political actors.

So whether social media develop a democratizing force or are used more for the repressive control of democratic forces in the country; whether the network is used to form new types of forums for deliberation or to initiate campaigns or shitstorms; whether there are alternative ways of participation (electronic petitions and signature lists), with which more people and especially those who are otherwise more likely to be excluded from political participation, or whether more inequalities arise, since the latter is either the hardware or the Network competence is lacking; Whether politicians show themselves to be more responsive through new ways of addressing citizens or whether they use the Internet solely for self-expression - all these possibilities, which are somewhat strikingly constructed as opposites, depend on the factors mentioned.


Just like other media innovations before, digital media have had a massive impact on political communication; the changes are nonetheless unprecedented and the effects are only partially foreseeable, especially since they only have a limited half-life due to the dynamics of the technological process. At the same time, it is no different than with the earlier innovations that digital media do not operate in a social vacuum. The net is a medium, the effect of which depends on the actors and their motives for use, as well as on the messages they spread. The idea that only the existence of new technical ways is able to remedy deficits or undesirable developments in representative democracy is therefore naive. The Internet cannot provide simple solutions to the problems of democracy. Nevertheless can e-democracy-tools offer a successful addition to offline processes if they are embedded in an appropriate framework - for example, if debates or decisions are controlled by a fixed catalog of procedural elements so that all users have clear guidelines and align their behavior accordingly.

Whether democratic processes are ultimately facilitated or undermined by online interaction does not depend on the technology, "but on the quality of our political institutions and the character of our citizens" (Barber 1998: 13 f.). First of all, this means that online reform ideas must be compatible with the institutional architecture of a country and must be adapted to it. Second, however, the focus is on the competence of the citizens, who not only have to deal with these media technically (which should not be a problem especially with digital natives), but also have to have the necessary skills to process the wealth of information and meaningful use as well as being able to compensate for the missing content-related filters through increased critical questioning. Ultimately, it is the users who decide on the type and intensity of use, the circle of their communication partners and the messages that are spread, and who are responsible for their form of communication. In this respect, the increase in communication and interaction options through digital media also means increased demands on the responsibility of users. This affects the citizens as well as their representatives.


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