Where Does Democracy Take Place?

Journalism 3.0: Where Does Democracy Take Place?
1:08 min

Was the 2010 Swedish parliamentary election decided on the Internet? What really happened when Barack Obama was elected America’s president in 2008? Was this the first time social media was the determining factor for democracy?
   Clear-cut answers don’t exist, but one element is apparent: the large electorates participate in the democratic process through established media. It’s there they meet up with the content that determines their political positions. But at the same time established media has weakened. Superficially, the old structure appears strong but there are cracks in the foundation.
   Where will democracy take place in the future? Everyone knows huge changes are occurring. But still the purveyors of big media seem to assume that tomorrow will be essentially like yesterday—that everything will be different while hardly anything will be changed.

Social media, Emilie, Barack Obama, Youtube, television debates, Twitter, Facebook, MyBo, daily newspapers, Rupert Murdock, BSkyB, Max Weber, Jürgen Habermas, Manuel Castells, Marshall McLuhan, Clay Shirky, Wikinomics, ABC News, Bonnier

With only five days left until Election Day in Sweden, the Internet was buzzing. Emilie, the daughter of a woman with a rare hormonal condition described in her blog how poorly her mother had been treated by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency as a result of its interpretation of the sitting government’s new health insurance regulations. Emelie’s blogpost generated over 2,000 comments and was re-posted by over 14,000 Facebook users.

After the 2008 American presidential election, democracy was said to be leaving traditional media and entering the realm of social media. In the discussions prior to the Swedish election campaign, social media and other new forms of media distribution were given a significant and far-reaching roll in the election campaign and its outcome. The expectation was that the parties would use the Internet to its full potential.
   Expectations, however, fell short. The parties never seriously established themselves in cyberspace. They were there with their homepages, blogs and Twitter feeds but their presence was formal.

Perceptions of reality are, as always, more black and white than reality itself. After the fact, it’s impossible to know exactly what roll was played by Emelie’s blog in the Swedish election results.
   However, the debate and historical progression of the election that swept through social media following the American election was not seen in Sweden two years later. Right now, the question of how our changing media society is transforming the infrastructure of the entire democratic process is moot.
   Fall 2010, the international debate is focused more on cell phone apps causing the rather than the power grabbing by social media. In just a short time, a significant shift of perspective has occurred. But such fluctuations have been seen before.

In the mid-1990s, portals were the big entry to the Internet.  Once in, each user would be his or her own guide: previous search patterns would determine what we were offered once we entered the Internet through our personally selected portal. Then came the blogs and social sites. And now, in a world dominated by smart phones and electronic readers, apps are to be the big sorters of the Internet.
   Why did the 2008 American presidential election play such a major role in our notion of the new media world’s development?

The answer is twofold. First, this was an election that engaged many; never before had so many Americans visited the voting booths. Second, Barack Obama received an overwhelming majority of votes from young voters and minorities. Two-thirds of the under-30 vote went to Obama. Nearly to a man, black voters chose Obama, as did Asian Americans.
   The person and the personality of Barack Obama was the reason for the landslide, but it was modern media that triggered it.

Three million Obamasupporters were registered on Facebook. Obama’s Youtube channel received 20 million visits and Ellen DeGeneres’ interview with Obama was seen by almost 10 million on YouTube. More than 100 thousand followed him on Twitter.
   Nearly 70 million Americans voted for Barack Obama but only a fraction of these voters met Obama on the Internet. Over 63 million viewers saw the second of the three televised presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. (The first and last debates were seen by 52.4 and 56.5 million viewers, respectively.) And most remarkable: the televised debate attracting the most viewers (70 million) was between the two vice-presidential candidates, Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin

Two years after the American election the gloss of the Internet is gone. Today, features on Obama’s YouTube channel are watched by between eight thousand and 800 thousand viewers, with the higher number being the exception.
   Democracy did not take place on the Internet, not in 2008 in USA and even less in Sweden 2010.  Democracy’s biggest platform is still the “traditional” media—newspapers, radio and television. The 2008 presidential election campaign did not relocate to the Internet. The election campaign organizations, however, did.
   Democracy is a public process. Political ideas and suggestions are chiseled out in large communities: political parties, opinion groups, think tanks and interest groups. Candidates go to the polls on their programs. Media presents images of the alternatives to the voters.
   Media aren’t only presenters but also reviewers. What’s presented in one radio program is just as likely to be questioned in another.

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign did nothing to change the image of politics’ dependency on traditional media. Traditional media is still the place where many people derive their images of reality and get the political impulses that determine how they will cast their votes come Election Day.
   This is evidenced not least by the recently concluded Swedish election campaign where a total of 1.3 million listeners followed Swedish Radio’s party leader hearings and 2 million viewed the final debate on Swedish Television. Prior to the 2010 election campaign, a number of seminars, conferences and lectures were arranged discussing the impact of social media on the election results.

A number of politicians have expended time and energy both blogging and tweeting. Presence on social media has certainly been relevant but not, however, decisive. When it actually comes down to voting on Election Day, independent reviews and analyses still weigh heavily as does information and guidelines that, for example, public service media can provide on the Internet.
   It’s the same and yet not the same.

A cracking media structure

Within mature media democracies, the time spent reading newspapers, listening to radio and watching television hasn’t changed radically during the last few decades. Patterns developed during the 1930s and onward — during the emergence of the modern mass democracy — have continued. Superficially, these patterns appear stable but upon closer examination, big changes can be seen.
   Consider the image of an earthquake caused by the shifting of tectonic plates. Solidly built above ground structures remain standing despite massive subterranean shifts. At first glance, the media society — or Media City, if you prefer — with it’s many buildings and facilities hasn’t been affected. A closer look, however, reveals how everything has shifted slightly and cracks are visible in the standing structures. It’s uncertain which structures are about to collapse and what devastating effects might follow the next tremor.

The Swedish daily newspapers have lost 20 percent of their advertising revenues since 2000 and 40 percent since 1990. American daily newspapers (pdf)  have lost readers as well as advertising. During crisis-laden 2009, 27 percent of ad revenues were lost, falling to the lowest level in current values since 1986. American newspapers sold 27 billion dollars worth of ads on paper and on the Internet in 2009, compared to 39 billion dollars in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a decline of 53 billion dollars compared to 1986. In 2010, the decline continues.

The circulation of American daily newspapers has decreased from 80 percent in 1964 to just below 50 percent in 2007. Massive sums of money have been going to the Internet and to players on the ad market that didn’t exist ten years ago. Google’s advertising revenue in Sweden is estimated to reach nearly 1.5 billion in 2010. Meanwhile, the editorial resources of traditional media have been reduced. Further, editorial resources have been transferred from news to lifestyle and entertainment. 
   Similar events have taken place within commercial television all over the world. Traditional channels are losing viewers. Television revenues are increasingly derived from cable and satellite subscriptions.

The array of channels has increased drastically. In Sweden there are now about 50 nationwide televisionchannels. Add to this the satellite channels available and the options are nearly limitless. Naturally, among the new televisionchannels there are specialized channels oriented towards news and social issues but the real winners are movie and sportschannels. A listing of Robert Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcastings (BSkyB) channels and services is illustrative:

When Lyndon B. Johnson was voted President of USA in 1964, there were three important American television networks covering national political events: ABC, CBS and NBC. The situation, described as such, isn’t radically different today. While CNN and FOX have been added to the list, national coverage in America remains limited to a few television channels. The same goes for newspapers and periodicals.
   In the 2010 Swedish election campaign, new players published material in new digital forms. Aftonbladet, for example, published their own party leader hearings led by Karin Magnusson, and reported five million unique visitors to their website. Readers were able to experience a combination of journalism and entertainment by following Aftonbladet’s web television.

How are we to interpret this combination of radical changes and stability? Most of us operate from an “idealistic” perspective when we consider our media society and the role it plays in the exercise of democracy. Political parties or candidates campaign against each other in free elections. Independent media then presents high quality, socially relevant content, thereby conveying images of the election alternatives to the voters. Individuals cast their votes based on the ideas and interests of the presented alternatives. In just this manner a majority constellation is shaped in the Swedish parliament, a President is elected in the USA and members of the British House of Commons are chosen.

Of course, the image of perfect interactions between politics and quality media is quintessential Max Weber — a stylized model of performance that weutilize to understand the world. In the best of cases, the models we endorse are robust and able to tolerate substantial changes to reality without forfeiting their relevance.
   Within this very robustness lies a catch: significant changes to reality can occur without actually affecting the description of the reality.

Habermas’ Prophecy

Sociologist Jürgen Habermas introduced one of the formative descriptions of the dynamics between democracy and opinion building. His term “bourgeois public” describes an informed discourse among the populace, where mature and independent citizens join together to discuss common concerns: Public space and political public sphere (PDF)

This Habermas-like ideal lives within most of us as a more or less conscious point of reference. But according to Habermas the bourgeois public easily degenerates.  In the mass society, informed discourse instead becomes media consumption. The citizens no longer formulate collective positions. Instead these are produced in a capitalism characterized by monopoly. Citizens become consumers.
   These citizens consume not only merchandise and services but also the opinions they later express, or reiterate really, at the voting polls. Politics becomes a power play within a superstructure where capitalist and state interests have grown together.

Habermas’ description is striking. His book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiryinto a Category of Bourgeois Society (Strukturwandelder Öffentlichkeit Untersuchungenzueiner Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft), published in 1962, seems nearly prophetic. The only glitch is that Habermas incorrectly calibrated his time machine, claiming that collapse of the bourgeois public’s press occurred at the end of the 19th century and early 20th. Total collapse of the critical media, according to Habermas, occurred with the breakthrough of radio and television.

Habermas sees things occur a half — or even an entire — century before they actually do.

Castells’ Prophecy

Manuel Castells has less of a problem with his time machine. Without specific reference to Habermas, Castells describes his fourth stage:

  • The net result of such business competition and concentration is that while the audience has been segmented and diversified, television has become more commercialized than ever, and increasingly oligopolistic at the global level. The actual content of most programming is not substantially different from one network to the other, if we consider the underlying semantic formulae of most popular programs as a whole. Yet the fact that not everybody watches the same thing at the same time, and that each culture and social group has a specific relationship to the media system, does make a fundamental difference vis-á-vis the old system of standardized mass media. In addition, the widespread practice of “surfing” (simultaneously watching several programs) introduces the creation by the audience of their own visual mosaics. While the media have become indeed globally interconnected, and programs and messages circulate in the global network, we are not living in a global village, but in customized cottages globally produced and locally distributed”.
    [Castells, The Rise of the Network Society 1996, p. 341] 

McLuhan’s Prophecy

The acclaimed books of Marshall McLuhan focus particularly on the features of different media or, more precisely, the intellectual and social roles they play depending on their character.  Hence, the classic expression “the medium is the message”.

McLuhan has, without a doubt, influenced the modern media debate. Nevertheless, his theories are problematic in that they are thinly supported by evidence.
   This doesn’t change the fundamental insight that the message, when presented by different media, will be affected in some way by both the technical and user interface features of the presenting media.
   It’s hardly a coincidence that the leading established theories on the media society describe more the mature television society than today’s global Internet village. Nevertheless, plenty is written about the repercussions on democracy and the media society based on recent years’ media development.

What happens to citizens’ involvement in social processes when just about everyone in the industrialized world—as well as those belonging to certain established layers within developing countries—possess all the tools of an advanced media society?
   Today there are 4.6 billion cell phones in the world. Personal computers with connection to Internet number 1.7 billion. The transition to smart phones in the foreseeable future means most cell phones will become portable Internet terminals.

When McLuhan wrote about the “global village” there were no personal computers, cell phones or Internet. Hence, he wrote about electricity not electronics. Despite ambiguity and a certain lack of clarity in McLuhan’s reasoning, it nonetheless conveys a prophetic vision: the image of a cohesive global village. His was not a global society characterized by fellowship and conformity but, rather, a conglomerate of differences and conflicts.
   McLuhan didn’t foresee the individualization and reciprocity of virtual communication but sensed, strangely enough, the impact of new communication technologies on the various societies where they were likely to spread.

Shirky’s Prophecy

One of the more serious and popular philosophers is Clay Shirky , author, consultant and adjunct Professor at New York University. Shirky describes a future where new information technology releases an as yet unseen collective ability in people interacting virtually. In his latest book, Cognitive Surplus, he describes how billions of people use their free time becoming co-producers instead of consumers of media.
   The development of Wikipedia becomes the exemplification of just these possibilities of new collective creativity and makes clear possibilities in other areas as well.

Shirky claims it’s impossible to describe what future media may burgeon from existing technology. We don’t know who will be the new developers. It could be “some 19 yearold kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence”
   Shirky doesn’t differ from other, more serious commentators. Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams write “a new mode of production is in the making” in the introduction to their widely received book Wikinomics. Tapscott and Williams describe how entire international production and distribution systems arebeing revolutionized. Shirky discusses the media sector in particular. He claims not to know what is coming but asserts with certainty what will disappear. The traditional daily newspaper – by far the most important media platform in democratic society – retained its dominant position as long as high print and distribution costs effectively prevented new players from competing against the existing monopolies or oligopolies. In this way the newspapers could allow the large department stores, through their advertising, in Shirky’s words “subsidize the Baghdad bureau”

With Internet, both print and distribution costs disappear. The marginal cost for obtaining the upcoming copy of an article — just a mouse click on the newspaper’s website somewhere in the world — is zero. Consequently, the price becomes zero. The barrier to new players entering the news market has been drastically reduced.
   What Shirky asserts about newspapers applies to some extent to all commercial media. Competition increases dramatically. Since distribution is, technically speaking, virtually unlimited and, practically speaking, free, competition in the area of “moving pictures” (i.e. movies, film clips, streaming video, etc) will be markedly tougher.

The logic for newspapers applies to a significant extent to the television market. Oligopolistic positioning has made it possible for journalistically ambitious television companies to allow advertisers to pay for the “Bagdad bureau”—advertisers who are entirely indifferent to the journalistic content of the particular channel.

Fall 2010 Prophecy

It may sound speculative to assert that daily newspapers and commercial television as we know them today will change so radically that we will have difficulty recognizing them in the future. Worldwide, newspaper development has been moving in a downward spiral since the end of the 1980s.

Recessions and economic crises are the reasons for newspapers’ downward spiral. Reduced editorial staff, smaller and thinner newspapers, more efficient advertising sales and improved targeted edition sales are all measures that allow newspapers to adjust to reduced revenues. With each economic recovery, newspapers have breathed a sigh of relief and set about renewing financial stability at the lower levels of revenue. With the next recession, additional measures are taken to assure survival and the downward spiral continues.
   The end is not yet in sight. Many of the world’s daily newspapers retain healthy resources and maintain high journalistic ambitions. Newspapers continue to play a significant role in democracy both locally and nationally.

During the global economic crisis of recent years, a number of newspapers in the USA shut down while in Europe the newspaper structure has remained largely unaffected. That said, only twelve American newspapers were forced to close down during the last three years while eight have transferred their distribution either entirely or partially to the Internet. It’s not today’s newspapers that are the problem. The problem is the erosion of the financial base for the newspapers of tomorrow.
   Developments within the television market are similar to those of newspapers. The news programs of the large commercial networks are losing viewers both in the USA and Europe. Newsrooms are losing editorial resources. In America, ABC is cutting back within ABC News and cutbacks are also happening at CBS.

For a variety of reasons radio, especially public service radio, has been less affected by the increasing competition in media. This holds true for public service television as well. Radio is in general less dependent on commercial revenues, particularly public service radio. As a rule, it’s often financed exclusively by public means or, as with public radio in the USA, by various listener contributions and, additionally, by a combination of federal and state funds and private donations.
   When it comes to revenues, the situation is almost identical for public service radio and television. However, public service television shares the same viewer market as commercial television and in this way exists within a strongly commercialized media environment.
   In an article in the European Journal of Communication (2009:24) , the authors Curran, Iyengar, Brink Lund and Salovaara-Moring find in their comparison of a number of European media systems with that of America, that public service television devotes more attention to social issues and international relationships than does commercial television.
   The comparison also asserts that citizens of countries with strong public service media are more informed in these areas than citizens of countries that are more dependent on commercial television.

Internet is changing the world. This applies to media structure, to communication between individuals, and to the production system as a whole among societies at widely dissimilar levels of development. Never before has the number of media players been so large or the options so many. The struggle to claim the public’s time gets tougher and tougher and the competition is palpable even for public service.
   What was said after the 2008 American presidential election was at once both true and untrue, both an exaggeration and an understatement. Internet, or more precisely social media, did fundamentally affect Barack Obama’s campaign but not actually in the manner it’s been said to have affected it.

Social media gave the campaign an entirely different inner life that wouldn’t have been possible without these forms of communication. But the outer life didn’t change all that much—most potential voters encountered Barack Obama in the traditional way, through newspapers, radio and television.
   This says something about the interdependence between old and new media. In addition, it speaks about how radically media structures are changing—and how it changes the conditions of democracy. This change doesn’t belong to the future. It’s happening now and has already made an impact not only on media but also on democracy and how it works. Reality changes and even more radical changes are coming.
   The only aspect that seems to remain unchanged is our own perception of reality. To the extent that any changes do occur, we tell ourselves too often that they will lead to simply the same things we have today, only more.

Somehow, oddly, this ensures that what’s yet to come will be as it was yesterday. The Times and the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter   will continue to dominate the media market, while owners Murdoch and the Bonnier family will reap the profits with little effort.


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