Digital media and the challenge to institutions
4.1. Digital media and the challenge to institutions¶
Three examples show how digital media enable the challenge of institutions. Journalists in the United States are responding to their experiences during Donald Trump's presidency by calling for a new normative foundation of journalism. Instead of an objective and neutral journalism, they demand a journalism that takes a clear position on social, moral, and political issues, a journalism based on moral clarity. They use digital media to advertise their normative reorientation and to show their broad social acceptance.
In Italy, against the backdrop of the Berlusconi years and various technocratic governments, political activists question whether representative democracy actually allows the population to control their elected representatives and to ensure that they act in the interests of voters. They use digital media to form a new party that works according to the principles of direct democracy and binds its elected officials very closely to the will of the party members - Movimento 5 Stelle, the five-star movement, is born.
The belief that prevailing standards and conventions in science are no longer suitable for adequate quality assurance of findings is spreading among young scientists. Widespread conventions in statistical analysis, public availability of data, and the documentation of analysis steps are put to the test and the approaches of scientific luminaries and entire subfields are publicly criticized. This primarily does not happen in the channels of established journals or the conferences of umbrella organizations, which are intended for this purpose in science. But this happens via digital channels. The logic of authority is replaced by the logic of public verifiability. On the one hand, digital media serve as a public forum for discussion and criticism. At the same time, however, they also serve as an infrastructure that enables the establishment of new standards for analysis and documentation. Digital media provide the basis for open science.
In all three cases, important social institutions - journalism, party democracy, and science - are publicly challenged with the help of digital media. The challenge comes from young people who are either already part of these institutions or who look at them from outside. Contemporary practices or functioning of these institutions are publicly criticized if they deviate from their normative legitimacy and alternatives to their normative bases or their real-existing working methods and practices are formulated.
The global accumulation of these challenges in very different countries and institutional fields is clearly related to digital media. But before we examine this mechanism in more detail, we must first ask ourselves what institutions are, what function they have for societies, and the conditions under which they are challenged or lose their legitimacy.
4.1.1. What are institutions and what do they do?¶
Institutions are an important and widely used concept in the social sciences. However, importance and popularity bring the disadvantage that the term is used in a variety of ways and with different meanings. So let's start with a definition of the term institution to make sure we are actually talking about the same thing.
In his essay Political Institutions and Social Power, the sociologist and political scientist Claus Offe defines institutions as:
"(...) systems of rules that apply to the future behavior of actors. They constitute actors and pro-/prescribe their scope and mode of action. These rules can be sanctioned through mechanisms that are specified in the charter, or legal specification, of an institution. These rules are, consciously or habitually, observed and complied with by actors who are aware not only of the rules but also of the fact that these rules are being enforced and deviant courses of action sanctioned. Institutions often impose severe constraints on what actors are permitted to do."
[Offe, 2006] p. 10.
In other words, institutions are systems of rules that influence people's behavior. They have different levels of control and sanctioning options that punish misconduct. Since they have a normative character, they can be criticized and challenged for their legitimacy and effectiveness.
Of course, this is only one possible definition. However, Offe's focus on institutions as societies' building blocks, their normative character and possible and legitimate challenges posed by individuals and groups is very suitable for examining the impact of digital media in society and politics. Other conceptualizations and definitions of what constitutes institutions may be more suitable for other research questions and projects and are of course completely valid but shall be ignored here.
The institutions from our previous examples correspond to Offe's definition. Take journalism as an example. Journalism can be understood as a binding set of rules for organizations and people belonging to the institution. These rules can relate, for example, to the selection of news items, the representation of political factions in a society or the quality assurance of reports. Violations of these rules are punished either within newsrooms and media houses, by professional associations or in public. Violations of rules can lead to the exclusion from newsrooms for individual journalists or to punishment by professional associations or the public for media organizations. In extreme cases, particularly intense violations of the rules and regulations can lead to a general population-wide loss of trust, which can also be associated with a general loss of legitimacy for the institution journalism.
Institutions are not neutral elements of social or political competition. Instead, they are the expression and instrument of existing power relations in society. In the words of the sociologist Manuel Castells:
"[Societies] are contradictory social structures enacted in conflicts and negotiations among diverse and often opposing social actors. Conflicts never end; they simply pause through temporary agreements and unstable contracts that are transformed into institutions of domination by those social actors who achieve an advantageous position in the power struggle, albeit at the cost of allowing some degree of institutional representation for the plurality of interests and values that remain subordinated. So, the institutions of the state and, beyond the state, the institutions, organizations, and discourses that frame and regulate social life are (...) crystallized power relationships (...) that enable actors to exercise power over other social actors in order to have power to accomplish their goals."
[Castells, 2013] p. 14.
This perspective emphasizes the role of institutions as the outcome of earlier social conflicts and expressions of earlier power relations and norms.
Back to Offe:
"Social power manifests itself in a mode of action that has the effect of setting parameters for the action of other social actors, be it in favorable or unfavorable ways, as seen by those others. In either case, the exercise of power is conflictual, controversial, and contested. In this conflict, some legitimating norm of (political, social, economic) justice is invoked and appealed to. The exercise of power affects others in ways that are perceived by them to be justice-relevant, either fulfilling or violating standards of justice. Given the controversial and essentially contested nature of these standards (...) any institution can be criticized for failing to live up to some version of justice."
[Offe, 2006] p. 20.
For Offe, this institutional challenge can be triggered either by a crisis:
"One way in which institutional failure may happen is through a more or less accidental change of conditions in the external world that undermines the viability of institutional patterns or limits their ability to function. If that happens, rules and institutionalized goals and power relations are rendered untenable, whether because of some emerging discrepancy between an institutional complex and its economic, demographic, or technological environment or because of an evolving lack of fit between institutional complexes (...). In either of these cases, actors who have so far complied with institutional practices will start a process of (potentially self-accelerating) defection. (...) institutions may lose their "fit" with the external context conditions on which they depend, and hence their viability."
[Offe, 2006] p. 18-19.
Alternatively, a general loss of legitimacy by institutions can also lead to their challenge. This is what Offe calls conflict:
"Other cases of institutional breakdown grow out of the failure, or loss of moral plausibility, of the implicit theory of a just social order that comes with any institution. Institutions can implode because of a shortage of the moral resources and loyalties that are needed for their support."
[Offe, 2006] p. 19.
Here, Offe presents two mechanisms through which institutions can be weakened and publicly challenged.
In a crisis the institution loses its fit with current social events or concerns. This can happen through external shocks - for example technological change and subsequently changed social conditions. The lost fit of an institution leads to a deterioration in its functions and effects. Consequently, people no longer adhere to the institutional set of rules and the institution loses its power to sanction deviancy.
In a conflict an institution is ignored or publicly challenged if it has lost its moral legitimacy for parts of society. This can either be due to a degeneration of the institution itself - i.e. an internal decline that leads to parts of the institution no longer adhering to their own set of rules or its normative basis. However, it can also be due to a social change in values outside the institution. Over time, the values a society shares change. Challenges to institutions might arise once values that form the basis of its normative rules at the time of its founding become seen by parts of society as outdated. Finally, it may also be that there has been a shift in the social balance of power and that the institution is seen as an expression of old, outdated power relations and accordingly rejected.
Both of these mechanisms of institutional decline can be triggered or reinforced by digital media. At the same time, digital channels create space for articulation and coordination for people and groups who are dissatisfied with current institutional configurations. Of course, this alone does not say anything about the legitimacy, direction, or impact of such challenges. But more on that later.
4.1.2. Digital media as staging area for challenges to institutions¶
What is the role of digital media in the challenge to institutions? The sociologist Manuel Castells offers some helpful considerations in his book Communication Power.
In the preface to the second edition of Communication Power, Castells describes the role of digital media in the various challenges to established institutions that we encounter all over the world.
For Castells, the control of the means of communication by the state and social elites is an important element in their exercise of power. By controlling the flow of information and means of communicative coordination, social elites can prevent alternatives to their rule or the institutions that support their rule from being developed and coordinated. For Castells, new communication technology leads to the weakening of this central control and thereby enables challenges to established power relations and structures to manifest:
"Any new technology of communication, such as the printing press, has challenged authority, because the seeds of revolt existing in most individuals who are embedded in perennial unjust forms of social organization can only grow and blossom when they are connected to other individuals, breaking the barriers of individual experience to become social mobilization and alternative projects of social organization."
[Castells, 2013] p. xxi-xxii.
This is where digital media come in. The classic model of mass-media communication largely followed a predictable one-to-many pattern. You had one medium - be it a newspaper, a television program, or a radio program - and this medium communicated to an audience of many people. One sender - many recipients. Now, digital media shifted this model to a many-to-many pattern by allowing people to become communicators themselves. In the early days of digital technology, this process was cumbersome. People had to learn to code or host a website to be able to put their voice online. Today, this has become much easier. People can simply open up a social media account and communicate their views in text, audio, or video. These views potentially can be seen by large numbers of other internet users. Communication runs from many senders to many recipients. This makes communication much harder to control. With mass media, it is comparatively easy to control what is said by whom to which audience. With many-to-many communication, this becomes much harder.
Back to Castells:
"Thus, multiple messages emerge and multiple meanings can be constructed by the actors, who at times agree on meaning, and at other times disagree over the construction of the meaning, but who are nonetheless largely independent of the agenda-setting strategy of the deciders in the mass communication paradigm."
[Castells, 2013] p. xxii.
For Castells many-to-many communication, such as digital media, allows for the emergence of a communication sphere that allows for those disappointed, discriminated against, or not represented by established institutions to voice their disappointments, find each other, and propose alternatives.
"Established institutions, in every domain of life, are challenged by those who feel dominated, devalued, exploited, humiliated, and misrepresented. These challenges need to confront the coercive capacity of institutions as well as the persuasive ability of the dominant mindset that legitimizes existing forms of power relationships. (...) Unlike the deliberative institutional sphere that is systematically biased toward existing domination, the communication sphere is shaped by the multiple inputs it receives from a diversity of sources, as well as by their interaction. The larger and broader these inputs are, and the faster the speed of their interaction, the more the communication sphere becomes a driver of social change."
[Castells, 2013] p. xxii.
Digital media, in so far as they open up communication for many-to-many and lessen the degree of control of established institutions over who says what to whom, provide a space in which the perceived and objective failings of institutions can be exposed, discussed, and alternatives formulated. The growing prevalence and ease of use of digital media thus renders institutions vulnerable to challenges. At the same time, this dynamic makes digital media into important elements to the widespread challenges to institutions we wittness.
Still, it is important to voice two caveats at this point. First, challenging institutions can have good as well as bad consequences for societies. Challenging institutions in order for them to achieve a higher degree of inclusivity and representativeness strengthens societies. Challenging institutions in order to restrict access to others or silence voices on the other hand is much more troublesome. Challenges with either goal are prevalent and digital media plays a role in both. So digital media by themselves are neither a force for beneficial or detrimental change in societies, they simply allow for the challenge of the institutions that support the powers that be. How that challenge is phrased and in which direction change is supposed to happen lies with the challenger. We will get back to this.
The second caveat concerns that expectation that digital media are necessarily lessening the degree of control over communication. In the early days of digital media they were perceived as providing a largely horizontal communication environment in which voices and content became visible based on its merit and the interests of users. This view has been challenged importantly by researchers like Matthew Hindman who in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy pointed out that actually for information to reach a lot of people in digital environments, it had to be picked up by one of a few central information hubs that garnered a lot of attention. What had looked to early commentators, such as Castells, like a horizontal communication environment was actually dominated by a few central actors who decided where the attention of most internet users were focused on at any given time. Digital media might allow the publication of alternative voices but did not guarantee their visibility. In the words of Hindman:
"It may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard."
[Hindman, 2009] p. 142.
Since the early days, the potential for control of digital media has only increased with the move from publishing information on individual websites to a few central platforms - such as Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Meta/Facebook, or Twitter. Those platforms provide the backbone for content publication, distribution, and access to digital media. This potentially constitutes a return to the centralized control of communication to which Castells saw digital media providing an alternative. In the light of this, the support digital media provides to the challenge of institutions might turn out to be less of a constitutive element of digital media itself but a byproduct of a specific configuration in its implementation.