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Of having an opinion and mattering

The penetration of internet technology in the Philippines has changed the landscape of mass media and public opinion in the country. As more users or netizens interact in this new environment, social networking sites are starting to become significant sources of information and platforms for expressing opinions. While a percentage of the population is still unable to access internet technology, the proliferation of cheap internet cafes (even in urban poor areas), pre-paid internet, and cellular phone internet promotions, makes it accessible even to the non-elite. The significance of the internet can be seen when television, radio, and newspapers often tap the internet to gain further publicity and a broader audience for their stories. On the down side, the increased accessibility of the internet and mass media can generate a conflict of interest between the owners and operators of mass media, and media users.

Chino Cruz, student columnist in The Guidon, recently criticized Filipino and Philippine mass media in his article “Media Monsters”. Cruz noted the tendency of some Filipinos to use media, rather than go directly to institutional administrators, to air out grievances in the hopes of getting assistance or justice. Media outfits, in the meantime, show concern only in so far as they can boost ratings by exploiting the stories. According to Cruz, “the Filipino’s reliance on media is so intense that the only way we think we can solve problems is to head out to big studios to let them exploit our stories for a much wider viewership.”  He concluded by saying that mass media “is as corrupt and twisted as the government we ignore.” The difference between the two is that we trust the media more. The way media manipulates the stories of people who use media to broadcast their needs and gain instant publicity and aid is seen by Cruz as an outcome of the capitalist mode of production. Media channels are owned by large corporations. These corporations control what is disseminated and shown in such a way that will benefit them the most.

Meanwhile, Andrea Soco-Roda wrote “When Blogging about Wealth Becomes Deviant”. The article is a sociological take on the recent legal problems and lifestyle issues of the Napoles family. The matriarch of the family, Janet Napoles, is involved in a public fund mess that is currently under investigation. Jeane Napoles, daughter of the said personality, has made use of social networking sites to flaunt a lavish lifestyle that, netizens have speculated, might be supported by public funds. Many netizens have thus exercised social control against her online, which is the very means she herself used to show off. Thus, despite differing contexts and subcultures, a consensus against Jeane has been formed among netizens through the exchange of ideas and judgments. Netizens agree that she has violated an important Filipino value because of what she did over the internet, and they have expressed their disapproval using this same medium.

The two articles show two sides to mass media – the internet is a place where people can converge, form opinions, sell themselves, condemn or applaud; while television and radio are venues that, though also used for such, are subject to more stringent power relations in which owners have a greater capacity to directly exploit users.

From a sociological perspective, we can look at this phenomenon through Habermas’ notion of the public sphere and through Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital.  Jurgen Habermas (1996) defines the public sphere as a domain of social life in which people can converge as a public and form opinions, for instance, the internet and mass media.  During the middle ages, there was no divide between the public and private because those in power, e.g. the king and lords, represented only themselves to an audience – the opinions of this audience did not count. The only “public” comprised those in power. With capitalism and other societal changes, including the use of such spaces as coffee shops and salons for public debate and discussion, the public sphere emerged. The “audience” of the past, those private individuals, could now gather and communicate their interests.

Habermas also points to the importance of an ‘ideal speech situation.’ He describes this as an arena where consensus is arrived at rationally, discursively, and free of coercion and manipulation.

The articles by Cruz and Roda reflect two sides of the public sphere. In Roda’s article, the discussion on how netizens have judged Jeane Napoles for flaunting her wealth seems to show an almost ideal speech community. Social networking sites, being accessible to many, create a place where users can voice out opinions regardless of status. People can thus talk even though they might not be in positions of power.  However, there is a lot of room for distorted communication, especially if a party wants to take advantage of the situation. Or, in the case of Jeane Napoles, her use of the internet to express herself resulted in people condemning her through the very same medium.

On the other hand, Cruz points to how mass media is controlled by capitalists.  The mass media exploits public opinion and concerns in a way that will enable them to generate more income out of it. This made Cruz label the mass media as a corrupt institution, which does not make up an ‘ideal speech situation’ (and which, incidentally, has been Habermas’ concern about the mass media).

Based on these articles, it seems that the ideal speech situation is a goal that a society might not fully achieve. Habermas said that to be human is to communicate, and embedded in communication is the ideal of genuine consensus. But people who converge in the public sphere come from differing social contexts. Furthermore, other factors also mediate in the communication, such as mass media profiteers, parties that will benefit from distorting communication and discourse, and parties that can take advantage of the public sphere to gain power. The complexity of the situation increases as more people contribute to the discussion.

We can turn to Pierre Bourdieu (1990) for a further analysis.  The accumulation of what Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’ is an important investment in order to facilitate an ideal speech situation. Bourdieu defined cultural capital as the various linguistic and cultural competencies that set people apart from the common herd. Although he focused on artistic competence, it is undeniable that cultural capital also involves day to day knowledge that separates those who know important information from those who do not. This creates social inequality that spills over the public sphere. The opinion of people with a higher cultural capital will matter more compared to the opinion of a commoner who simply wants to share a point. The insights of an expert on culture and technology will matter more compared to those of a non-specialist. With increasing specialization, people who cannot cope will be left behind in the discourse and discussion.

In the end, having an opinion on a matter concerning public interest and voicing out this opinion is important in creating an ideal speech situation. However, achieving an ideal speech situation will always be a challenge. While conflicting forces may reach a consensus of opinion, such consensus will be vulnerable to various distortions that favour certain parties or ideas.  At the end of the day, even when everyone is entitled to their own opinion, what matters more is whose opinion counts.

Image take from this site.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Artistic Taste and Cultural Capital.” In Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates, by Jeffrey Alexander and Steven Seidman, 205-215. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Cruz, Chino L. “Media Monsters.” The Guidon. August 6, 2013. http://www.theguidon.com/2013/08/media-monsters-2/ (accessed August 15, 2013).

Habermas, Juergen. “The Public Sphere.” In Reader in Media Studies, by P. Marris and S. Thornham, 55-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Roda, Andrea Soco. “When Blogging About Wealth Becomes Deviant.” Verstehen. August 13, 2013. https://verstehenonline.org/2013/08/13/when-blogging-about-wealth-becomes-deviant/ (accessed August 15, 2013).

 

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