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Profiles

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.

 





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