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New Challenges To Power And Authority From Fifth-Wave Digital Media

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The introduction and subsequent rise of information technology over the past two decades has certainly transformed our perception of “information”. In the past information was valuable as it was scarce. The downside of this scenario was that information was controlled and manipulated by a few groups or individuals because of which information became authoritarian.

Previously, the public was not aware of multiple interpretations of news, information etc. They received and digested information from analysts, politicians, advertisers and media gurus. With the bombardment of information after the revolution of InfoTech, especially social media, the public became aware of how media houses perplex the ordinary citizens by feeding them their version of reality. It also brought awareness to the public that not a single word they come across on media should go unchecked whether it comes from a government official, advertiser, analyst or politician. Martin Gurri brought forth the concept of “digital revolution” to denote the public’s revolt against authority because of growing mistrust between the public and institutions such as police, politicians and journalists due to increasing inequality. He posited that the public is angry and that it has found a proper platform in digital media to vent its anger and resentment. Gurri has called the recent spread of information “the fifth wave” – the previous waves including the invention of the alphabet, to the later printing press, all the way up to the growth of mass media in the industrial era.

In a nutshell, digital revolution enabled the public to challenge authority in print, electronic and social media. Because of the rise of digital media, power dynamics have changed between the public and government authority. There is a lot more criticism of government policies than ever before. News which hardly ever makes it to mainstream media gets viral via social media platforms.

The digital revolution transformed the public from producers to consumers of knowledge, thereby changing its relationship with information. In the world which has emerged after this revolution of information technology, many old institutions are losing their credibility and control over the public. Just as there are hierarchies of money and power, information, too, became hierarchical as the gulf between producers and consumers of knowledge was wide. The public trusts authority because of the power attached with the person who owns this authority. In societies where power is vested in individuals instead of institutions, this authority is quite vulnerable to abuse. Anti-government content regarding police, foreign policy failures, and incompetent responses to disaster find their way into social media easily. Examples of public’s digitally assisted revolt against authoritarian governments can be found in Egypt where Wael Ghonim, who was by profession a computer engineer, became famous around the world for leading a pro-democracy anti-government revolt in Egypt in 2011. Following this, he was taken into custody for 11 days by the Egyptian police who questioned him regarding his Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” which ignited the revolution of 2011.

We have seen instances of abuse of authority in media in Pakistan when people in responsible places lie and misinform the public regarding issues of national interest. In recent years, we have noticed a war of this manipulative authoritative power and information technology in the hands of the masses. The information sphere is free for the public to exercise their will which the new media clearly shows. Opinions that were considered forbidden such as religion, and abuse of institutions and authority, came to the forefront in Pakistan as the craze for blogging among the public increased. Media controlled by the government is challenged through digital spaces so the legitimacy of the government and its rule is increasingly brought into question.

In recent days we have seen a government crackdown of bloggers, independent writers, bloggers, journalists and media houses whose information collides with the state version of reality. Now the battleground is digital media where a power war between the public and authority is being fought and mediated. Established hierarchies of power are threatened by these digital platforms which are often attacked and maligned by government officials. Previously sacrosanct institutions, ideas and beliefs began to lose power and prestige because of these digital platforms. Public discussions have made these institutions and ideals susceptible to inquiry and criticism.

In this fifth wave, hierarchical politics is challenged by the rise of this relatively new culture.  It’s a kind of digital revolt of the masses against abuse of authority.  However, we must challenge and confront what is served to us as information. We must develop understanding and sensitivity towards the temper of the age in which we are living. Selectivity is the key to survival in this new era of information.

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Naya Daur