In October 2017 the 22 chapter report of the International Panel on Social Progress was published online. The IPSP is modelled on the International Panel on Climate Change and has brought together 250 critical social scientists from around the world since summer 2015. Most importantly for ICA readers, this is the first time in such policy settings that media and communications scholars have been invited to the table, joining economists, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists. The report as a whole will be published in book form by Cambridge University Press in 2018. As the joint coordinators of the report’s chapter on Media and Communications, we would like to let you know the background to this exciting initiative and to explain how you might contribute to the ongoing debate on our findings.
At a time when the cracks in the edifice of neoliberal thinking are evident, the concept of social progress remains a key term for introducing alternative perspectives to mainstream policy debates. But where exactly do media and communications fall within these debates, especially at the time of increasingly anxious public debate in the US, UK and elsewhere about ‘fake news’ and the incipient social responsibilities of digital platforms?
Our 37,000 word chapter had a huge task. First, to introduce non-specialists to what is happening in media, communications and information technologies today: how often do we hear people treat as banal or ‘common knowledge’ the difficult questions that our field seeks to address? But that was only the start to our second, and more important task, which was to evaluate on a global scale the possibilities and constraints in media’s contribution to social progress at a time of increasing conflict and uncertainty.
The chapter brings together 17 authors from 6 continents and foregrounds narratives from the Global South, many of them ICA members. Some early audiences have compared our chapter to the 1980 MacBride report for UNESCO. Certainly this is a time of huge challenge for rethinking the structures that underlie the media environment, as well as new hopes comparable to the time in which MacBride was published. But can we find a way forward?
That at least was the goal of our work over the past two and a half years. We were determined throughout to avoid falling into the common trap of telling ‘universalist’ narratives dominated by the perspectives and interests of one part of the planet. We were determined also to avoid assuming that only ‘new media’, and only media produced by the dominant media industries matter. Local communities have a vital role to play in forging a different media environment, as many examples in the report from around the world show.
What specific themes, in brief, did we cover? Developments in digital technologies over the last thirty years have expanded massively human beings’ capacity to communicate and connect. Media infrastructures have acquired great complexity as a result of rapid technological change and the uneven spread of access. So there is no doubt this is a good time to think critically about “connection” and its potential contribution to social progress.
Our chapter first explores some key developments in media infrastructures and communication flows across the world, bringing out salient differences in the local evolution of, and inequalities in media access. We include case studies from China, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, and South Africa.
Second, we examine how media – as infrastructures of connection – contribute to public knowledge (including through, but not limited to, journalism). More broadly, we discuss how media platforms enable new types of encounter between people on various scales, while also enabling counter-movements for social progress.
Third, drawing on a major contribution from legal theorist Julie Cohen of Georgetown School of Law, we examine the changing governance of media infrastructures, the issues of social justice that such infrastructures raise and the counter-movements to which they give rise. The chapter includes small case studies on Brazil’s Marco Civil and Facebook’s failed and highly contested attempt to introduce Facebook Free Basics into India.
Fourth, and crucially, we consider media as a specific site of struggle for social progress, arguing that measures of social progress themselves need to be expanded to take account of the human needs (such as voice) that media serve.
The result overall, we hope, is to offer some balanced reflections on how media and communications flows and infrastructures both maintain and challenge asymmetries of power. The implications of media and communications for social progress are certainly complex, but there is no way they can be ignored. Nor can the dangers of the current moment be ignored, even as we continue to look for hope and recognize the many positive struggles for a better media under way today.
So where next? First of all, if we have whetted your appetite to read the full chapter, it is in English here and in Spanish here. Some people are starting to use it as teaching material too: it is written in accessible non-specialist language that assumes no advanced knowledge of media, so do please consider this.
Most important, however, is to start a field-wide debate about the policy questions our chapter raises and, if possible, to take that debate beyond the field and into other academic fields (such as economics, philosophy and political science) and, above all, into the wider public and policy domain.
That means hearing from you with your critiques and additional perspectives on our chapter and the report generally. That discussion has already started in sessions at the ICA in San Diego and also in the IAMCR (2016 and 2017), but there is much further to go. We are open to whatever ideas you have not just on specific issues, but on how best to take the debate forward.
A special issue later this year of the journal Global Media and Communication will bring together debates on the chapter, with commentators from Brazil, India and Canada. Meanwhile, an Arabic translation of the chapter is planned, and possibly more. A small book version of the final draft of our chapter will also be printed for teaching purposes by CARGC at the University of Pennsylvania, with the kind support of Marwan Kraidy, one of the chapter’s authors; a parallel Spanish book version will, thanks to Omar Rincón, be published by FES Comunicación (Friedrich Ebert Foundation).
We and the other authors of the report are happy to do talks about the report and engage with faculty, students and civil society interested in what media institutions could do for social progress around the world. If that interests you, just let us know at email@example.com
We hope there will be many more opportunities to extend the arguments and the policy proposals of our chapter. All our work so far in writing the chapter is just the start of a much longer process of debate and collaboration to which we now look forward: thanks in advance for your interest!
NICK COULDRY, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL SCIENCE, UK
CLEMENCIA RODRIGUEZ, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, USA