Interview with Professor Stephen Coleman

juin 17th, 2013

By Rachid Filali

Stephen Coleman is Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, Honorary Professor in Political Science at the University of Copenhagen and Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
His main research interests are: i) methods of political engagement; ii) uses of digital media in representative democracies; iii) intersections between popular culture and formal politics; iv) political efficacy; v) citizenship education; vi) political aesthetics, performance and rhetoric; viii) literary and dramatic representations of politics; and ix) forms of deliberation and decision-making.


This year, Robert W. McChesney published a new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet against Democracy was published this year. On the other hand, other researchers have stated that the internet has contributed significantly to the dissemination of democratic knowledge. Professor Stephen Coleman, you have written several books on this issue. Don’t you see that these views are contradictory?

Stephen Coleman: This is a very good question, because it allows me to face some rather unhelpful dichotomy in the literature where there is much talk about cyber-pessimists and cyber-optimists; realists and utopians; the Internet as inherently for or against democracy. These are all terribly distracting antitheses which lead scholars to fall into unproductive camps. I want to argue that the Internet is a cultural product and that its relationship with democracy, like television, the telephone or the printing press before it, is determined by culture rather than technology; by the values we adopt as social animals rather than the tools we use to realise our sociality. I don’t want to argue here that access to the remarkable range of new media that have become available in the last couple of decades has led – or will lead – to a brave new world of enhanced civility, harmony or democracy. But I do want to argue that the emergence of the Internet has greatly increased the power of voices that were once unable to access the public domain or enter global spaces of communication; that it has given relatively low-cost access to a public platform for many (but not all) people who have a story to tell or point of view to state; that it makes it easier for people with similar interests and values to coordinate with a view of sharing their experiences, pooling knowledge and taking collective actions; and that it opens up a space of competing narratives, accounts and explanations that contribute to a levelling of communicative opportunities and a diminution of the power of corporate and state agenda-setters and story-tellers. This potential – which Jay Blumler and I, in our book, The Internet and Democratic Citizenship, refer to as ‘vulnerable potential’ – can only be realised by people taking democratic action to make the Internet accountable to public interests. So, for me, the question is not whether the Internet is ‘for’ or ‘against’ democracy (which is crass determinism), but whether democrats should be using the Internet to further our objectives.

Rachid Filali: Is it true that Facebook was behind the Arab Spring revolution? And is this new means of communication able to bring positive changes to the Arab societies’ political awareness?

Stephen Coleman: This is like asking ‘Was the printing press behind the French revolution?’ Of course, in one sense it was – but it didn’t make it happen. All of the evidence I’ve read suggests that the use of online and mobile-phone communication significantly strengthened the Arab activists and completely baffled the old dictators and their stooges, who simply didn’t know how to counter this new democratic space. I have spoken to people from Saudi Arabia who told me that every time the (unelected) government tries to suppress online communication, the number of people making their voices heard online increases. But the Arab Spring happened, not because people had the Internet and mobile phones, but because they were driven to exasperation by regimes that treated them with contempt.

Rachid Filali: Is the widespread use of social networks (in Europe and America in particular) caused by the search for a replacement of the “extreme individualism” suffered by Westerners in general?

Stephen Coleman: The grandparents of the Facebook generation had fewer social contacts than their grandchildren, but knew them better. Online social networks create what Granovetter called ‘weak ties’. I wouldn’t like to categorise networked sociality as a retreat to lonely individualism or a turn towards more collective engagement. It is both – and the empirical question is to identify where and when and how one kind of relationship is more dominant than the other. The crisis of Western individualism is deeper and more profound than can be explained by the use of technological tools. (Most people in the West feel that they have little influence on the world around them, leaving them as spectators upon political dramas in which they’re told, according to democratic ideals, that they should be centre stage).

Rachid Filali: Do you expect the demise of “the printed press,” after the huge success of “electronic media”?

Stephen Coleman: No – but some print dinosaurs will fall by the wayside, while others will adapt. I like the idea of a media ecology in which different media serve specific socio-cultural needs. We’re doing some empirical work on this currently in the city of Leeds, where my University is based.
Rachid Filali: We can notice a strange phenomenon nowadays. Is it true that while the “printed press” in the Arab world is successful, the opposite happens in Europe and in America, as it is threatened with bankruptcy?

Stephen Coleman: Yes, indeed this is the case. Much of the commentary and scholarship about the media is very Euro-American-centered. This is an important reminder.

Rachid Filali: There are a lot of fake news published by the press in many countries of the world, especially in the press that is financially and politically supported by companies and influential personalities. How to protect the truth of these evil forces?

Stephen Coleman: See this article: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/1946698/68514667/name/Television%20%26amp%3B%20New%20Media%20-%20Murdoch%20-%20Coleman.doc.pdf

Rachid Filali: How do you analyse what is currently happening in the Arab world including changes in political, social and cultural areas?

Stephen Coleman: I’m a democrat who believes that the work of building democracy is never completely finished. The Arab Spring was an inspirational phenomenon. It is too easy to forget just how risky it was for people to take to the streets and just how differently it could all have ended. But the current situation is certainly not what most of those demonstrators wanted. I’ve recently written a book called How Voters Feel (Cambridge University Press, 2013) in which I argue that democracy is fundamentally interruptive and transgressive: it overturns conventional assumptions about who should be heard and what can be said. Bringing about such a cultural change takes a long time. It cannot be enacted by legislation; nor will it follow on simply from economic reorganisation. Democracy requires a level of shared public consciousness that must be worked for consistently. This is not an Arab challenge or a Western challenge or an African challenge or a young people’s challenge. It is a human challenge. There are plenty of forces at work that diminish and disrespect public consciousness, writing off the brains of the many as if they had no value. These forces, it seems to me; however they may manifest themselves, should be supported by democrats.


An interview with the bravest woman in the world Rose Savage

juin 7th, 2013

By Rachid Filali


- After the great success of you in the field of adventure across the seas and oceans, do you think that you are given a lesson enough for the enemies of the environment, note that the risk of environmental pollution is increasing from day to day?

I haven’t even begun yet, relatively speaking! Over the past 8 years I have used my adventures to raise awareness and inspire action on environmental issues, via my blogs, podcasts, Facebook and Twitter. And I think it had some considerable effect, especially in reaching people who didn’t naturally regard themselves as environmentalists.

But obviously we still have a very long way to go. As you say, every day we continue pollute our one and only planet. We live on a finite Earth, and now that there are 7.1 billion of us here, we are overburdening our ecosystem. This will not end well for us! Unfortunately, we seem to have mostly lost our ability or willingness to look into the future, and to see where we are heading. Ancient and indigenous cultures knew this well.

My belief is that we need to create a new metric of success. While we perpetuate the notion that “success” means a big house, a fat paycheck, and the latest fashions and gadgets, we have no hope of achieving sustainability. Psychologists have proved that this conspicuous consumption doesn’t even make us happy. Any such happiness is short-lived compared with the greater factors of happiness - contributing to our communities, nurturing our friendships and relationships, and living life with purpose and passion.

In a perfect world we would have greater human happiness, derived from the true and long-lasting factors, and at the same time reduce our environmental footprint by understanding that once basic needs are met, less really is more.

-Do you think you defend the rights of children as well,
Especially since they are exploited in many countries ugliest roads, and are there other adventures you have done in defense of similar humanitarian issues?

That is an interesting question. I have not campaigned specifically on children’s rights in terms of child labour etc, although by being an ethical consumer I believe I vote by making informed purchasing choices.

What I am campaigning for is the preservation of our ecosphere not only for children alive today, but for the children as yet unborn. I love to scuba dive – I hope to help preserve our oceans so that the children of the future can enjoy healthy coral reefs and rich marine life. I love seeing animals in their natural habitat – I hope that children of the future will be able to hear songbirds and watch dolphins and walk in the wilderness of the forests. I love to feel healthy – I hope that we are not contaminating our planet so much that future generations have to tolerate impaired health and diminished vitality.

Right now, we are stealing from the future. Our current way of life is diminishing the quality of life for future generations. That makes me feel guilty. But we have the knowledge and the science, and we can set a different path. I want the children of the future to look back on our generation and thank us – rather than being angry with us for having robbed them of Earth’s beauty, I want them to be grateful to us for having made wise, although maybe tough, decisions, to preserve this amazing and beautiful planet.

-There is still a large racial discrimination between women and men, have been adventures and clear message that women are able to achieve miracles, I want to ask you, in this context, where did you get all these extraordinary courage?

Throughout history, women have been at least as brave as men. Courage is not dependent on gender.

As to where I got my courage, I firmly believe that courage can be learned. It is not something you have to be born with. I did not used to have courage – I used to be afraid of all sorts of things. I was afraid of the dark, afraid to be different, afraid to be myself, and afraid of the ocean – in fact, I still am! The first two weeks on the Atlantic, especially at night, I was terrified. But after a while you get tired of being afraid, you find a way to come to terms with your own fear. There were so many times that I thought I had hit my absolute limit – of fear, frustration, boredom, pain – but when you have no choice, because you’re in the middle of an ocean and there is only one way to get to the other side, you just push on through it, and you realise that your limit was just a mirage, a figment that existed only in your mind, not in reality.

-What do you think Madam in the character of Arab women?Do you have a special message for her?

I understand that life is very different for Arab women, that they have many restrictions that women in the West do not have. Probably some do not mind these restrictions – and that is fine – but I do believe strongly in freedom to choose, and so I pray that women in the Arab world will claim greater freedom for themselves.

Thousands of years ago, many societies were matriarchal. Now we are in a patriarchal era. My vision for the future is that we have a world where neither gender dominates, but rather that we realise we function best when both the masculine and the feminine are honoured and respected.

-Do you achieved all your dreams in life and what is your philosophy?I mean, what are the most important advice you worked in your daily life?And is the author of your favorite?

I still have so much to do! For me, rowing across 3 oceans was just the start. It was an important stage on my life journey, showing me what I am capable of – and if I can go from being fearful to being courageous, if I can go from being a nobody to being a somebody – then anybody can. We all have so much potential, and I hope that my life story will help inspire other people to rise up and be all that they can be.

My favourite quote is by the late actor Denholm Elliot – “surprise yourself every day with your own courage”. I try to live by that. We are all so much more courageous, have so much more potential, than we dare to believe. Believe it!!


Roz Savage is an ocean rower, environmental campaigner, author and speaker. She holds four world records for ocean rowing, including first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. She has rowed over 15,000 miles, taken around 5 million oarstrokes, and spent cumulatively over 500 days of her life at sea in a 23-foot rowboat. Her first book, “Rowing The Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean”, was published in 2009. Her second book, “Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman’s Search for Happiness and Meaning on the Pacific” is published on October 15 this year, by Hay House.

She is a United Nations Climate Hero, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Fellow of the Explorers Club of New York, and has been listed amongst the Top Twenty Great British Adventurers by the Daily Telegraph. In 2010 she was named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic.

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