This article is part of a series explained more fully in the first post here.
This series isn’t going to be an explication of the philosophy of science I have since learned as I would like to write about that in full detail, either in another series or a book. For this series, I would like to give a taste of what it is sociology, as one of the most denigrated sciences online, is actually like. Hopefully this will also inspire younger generations of students to study sociology and shows them how interesting and broad yet widely applicable this subject is. Contrary to the ignorant rhetoric popular online, it will hopefully show that sociology is not some easy option compared to the natural sciences, but we are held to similarly high standards- standards which all academics and intellectuals hold themselves to, even if we often use different methodologies in our research programmes.
The plan for this series so far is that the first 3 posts will be reflections of the last few seminars of a final year BSc Sociology (Hons) module covering “media, state and society”. The structure of this assignment, which I am reproducing here mostly unedited, was quite unusual compared to most work undertaken for this subject- essays and some fieldwork- but I think illustrates the variety of ways final year study is done. The first section is a short description of the seminar content, followed by my own critical reflections of the seminar, with discussion implementing my own interests in sociology and giving reference to the literature. Note: parts of the discussion are severely limited by the word count.
Elections & New Media
Since the 1970s, mass media has been used politically (Seymour-Ure, 1974) but the efficacy of this technology as a means of changing viewers’ voting behaviours remains disputed. Some theorists have even claimed that the results of modern elections is mainly contingent on the success of TV campaigns (Blumler, 1978), whereas others suggest the mass media effects are limited to the reinforcement of viewers’ prior beliefs (McQuail, 1977). In this seminar, we discussed the extent to which TV can be considered a primary factor influencing voter decisions and how the increasing demographic shift towards a voter base constituted by, what some theorists call “the digital generation” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1) implies an impending change in political strategy, if it has not already happened as some evidence suggests (Ridge-Newman, 2014).
FROM TV TO SOCIAL MEDIA
As research into the effects of viewing media violence indicates, investigating the effects of media consumption on consumer behaviour, in any aspect of life, is particularly difficult. One pragmatic solution to this problem- mainly, that we cannot isolate media effects, so are always at risk of confounding measurements- has been to consider multiple variables as accumulating risk factors in producing the behaviour under scrutiny (Anderson, et al., 2015, p. 6). Perhaps then media theorists, when considering voting behaviour, should adopt a similar risk factor model which considers viewing party campaign broadcasts as a factor which increases the risk of voting for that party.
Further, media theorists must also consider the increasing risk factor of social media effects, especially as contemporary research shows that general media consumption habits have changed dramatically. Consumers are being exposed to more information than any other time in history, from more sources than ever, and with more ways and choices about consumption habits, including new formats and technologies that allow for easier multi-tasking and passive consumption (Pentina & Tarafdar, 2014, p. 212).
Ironically, despite the massive increases in choice and availability of information, some theorists have suggested that, largely due to filter effects, problems such as information overload, suboptimal knowledge formation (especially as misinformation is more easily available) and biased worldviews, will only worsen. Filter effects here has a double meaning- referring to both “the filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011), and as another way of describing reinforcement theory.
In a sense, Pariser’s exegesis of the “filter bubble”, which explains how those with the power to tailor our search results, without our knowledge of what is being, in effect, censored by omission, paradoxically confirms and refutes reinforcement theory. Reinforcement theory posits that media effects are limited to the reinforcement of consumers’ prior beliefs, due to their ability to be selective about what media they consume, being largely influenced by confirmation bias. Some theorists posit that models based on this theory are more relevant than ever (Knobloch-Westerwick, 2015).
On one hand, consumers actively create their own filter bubbles when taking advantage of “produsage”- user-led content creation and consumption platforms and tools (Bruns, 2007)- so are even better equipped to be more selective about the information they see. However, the actual technology which allows users greater selectivity is mediated by experts which have the power to become “algorithmically paternalist”. This means experts can, in assuming that their knowledge of user preferences is greater than user self-knowledge, control what users are able to view. Also these experts have the standby excuse that omission is according to algorithms which users implicitly agree to being used when they use the technology at all.
FROM SPECTATORSHIP TO SPECTACULAR PARTICIPATION
Also in the seminar, we briefly discussed the idea that political participation is becoming increasingly spectacular. Ironically it seems, the widening of available avenues for potential participation has meant that participation is increasingly seemingly worthless. During the recent techno-political experiments in Greece, general assemblies were created using communication technology that allows for decision-makers to receive instant feedback, rather than having to wait for the next electoral cycle. For many, this proved that their aim was not a new electoral politics, rather they realised that they would always be unhappy when having to defer decision-making to a third-party, even if it was done using the “purest” form of direct democracy yet possible (The Invisible Committee, 2014, pp. 20-2). However it is difficult to determine what is true and false when considering information from illicit, to some states, “terrorist” organisations such as The Invisible Committee.
TV campaigns make political involvement into a spectator pastime whereas new media allows consumers to feel like they are more directly involved. I draw parallels about this false sense of involvement with magical thinking applied to sports. With sports we know cheering on the TV does not impact the outcome of the game- do consumers know this with political campaigns? If so why do they bother participating? Especially considering the dominant rationality of Western societies is cynical/instrumental reason.
I think that if people were more aware of how little power they actually have, even collectively in some places, then perhaps they would believe in the necessity for them to actually be engaged in politics beyond deferring to experts for the majority of the time between elections. As some research in the US shows, if we examine inequalities of political power using material power indexes, then the top 1% disproportionately own about 20-40% of political power there (Winters & Page, 2009, p. 736). I believe further research using this approach should be undertaken, especially here in the UK where some evidence is coming to light that money has a corrupting influence in that donations to political parties can seemingly buy one a seat in the House of Lords (Mell, et al., 2015).
Anderson, C. A. et al., 2015. SPSSI Research Summary on media violence. Analyses of social issues and public policy, 15(1), pp. 4-19.
Blumler, J., 1978. The challenge of election broadcasting. Leeds: Leeds university press.
Bruns, A., 2007. Produsage: towards a broader framework for user-led content creation. Proceedings Creativity & Cognition, Volume 6.
Knobloch-Westerwick, S., 2015. Choice and preference in media use: advances in selective exposure theory and research. New York: Routledge.
McQuail, D., 1977. The influence and effects of mass media. In: J. Curran, M. Gurevitch & J. Woollacott, eds. Mass communication and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 7-23.
Mell, A., Radford, S. & Thévoz, S. A., 2015. Is there a market for peerages? Can donations buy you a british peerage? A study in the link between party political funding and peerage nominations 2005-14. [Online]
Available at: http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/materials/papers/13888/paper744.pdf
[Accessed 25 May 2016].
Pariser, E., 2011. The filter bubble: what the internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin.
Pentina, I. & Tarafdar, M., 2014. From “information” to “knowing”: exploring the role of social media in contemporary news consumption. Computers in Human Behaviour, Volume 35, pp. 211-223.
Prensky, M., 2001. Digitial natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), pp. 1-6.
Ridge-Newman, A., 2014. Cameron’s conservatives and the internet: change, culture and cyber toryism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Seymour-Ure, C., 1974. The political impace of the mass media. London: Constable.
The Invisible Committee, 2014. To Our Friends. [Online]
Available at: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-invisible-committe-to-our-friends.pdf
[Accessed 25 May 2016].
Winters, J. A. & Page, B. I., 2009. Oligarchy in the united states?. Perspectives on politics, 7(4), pp. 731-751.