Looking for the Legitimacy of State Narratives: Asymmetries, Triumphs, and Tragedies of Liberal Democracies

Luiz Peres-Neto is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

At the end of December 2014, President Barack Obama proposed an unprecedented shift in US relations with Cuba claiming that “If you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing’s changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome.”[i] This is one of many recent global events that invite us to puzzle through the new imaginaries and semiotic layers of an increasing multipolar world. Recently, we have witnessed new players subverting asymmetries in global governance constituted after the Bretton Woods new economic order and the Washington consensus. Examples such as the establishment of Global South relations, China’s presence in Africa, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the emergence of the Islamic State are evidence of an even more multipolar world framed by competing narratives for new forms of legitimacy.


This new multipolarity has evolved in the context of a globally networked and multi-modal media environment. If during the past century, traditional media and information architecture were an important piece of diplomacy, today new media systems are essential. During an intense two-day program, the scholars, activists, diplomats and journalists who took part in the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy were challenged to think through evolving paradigms in international relations. Conventional discussions of international relations typically focus on traditional categories of states and citizens.  In this seminar, we were invited to consider how changing international communications practices create a more complex global political environment populated by many different types of players.


As part of this conversation, discussions evoked the “media ecology” approach and explored how different narratives flow through this ecology and compete for ideological hegemony. First expressed by members of the Toronto School circle, which included communications scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman and Harold Innis, the media ecology approach has recently experienced a revival. The concept of a media ecology assumes two propositions: 1. Media constitutes a force—a “medium” as McLuhan[ii] would say—that modifies our cognitive processes and perceptions of reality; and 2. Different types of media might be compared to different “species” living together in a communicative ecosystem, an ecosystem that we all inhabit and are influenced by.


If we accept these two propositions, we can recognize the importance of a media ecology that promotes the free flow of information from a plurality of sources and the growth of competitive narratives. Contemporary political arrangements are more inclined to induce disruption and anxiety.[iii] Governments, states, industries, and religious leaders, among others who occupy dominant positions, are tempted to block, shut down, or re-design media architecture. These actions are part of desperate efforts to forge what ontologically is not forgeable: a fully controlled media ecology.  The internet—as a central part of the new media ecology—constitutes a rich environment in which information circulates and narratives are constructed, despite attempts at control.


Iran’s attempts at internet governance or China’s great firewall are examples of political actors actively interfering in the architecture of speech. However, authoritarian regimes are not the only ones interested in controlling the contemporary media ecology. The complex growth of the internet “medium” has invited numerous attempts at oversight as a means of controlling ambiguity. In a sense, major US telecommunications company’s involvement in net neutrality legislation is a similar expression of anxiety about the changing media ecology as well as apprehension about potentially declining profits.


Legitimacy and Democracy: Asymmetries and Freedom of Expression

Asymmetries between states have always been an important part of the foreign policy strategy. These asymmetries are fundamental to the formation of alliances, military strategy, trade agreements, international division of labor, etc. However, the development of a multipolar world in recent decades has pushed states to deal with asymmetries in different and unexpected ways. The changing dynamics of global activism flows and new players pressuring hegemonic actors from the bottom-up (aided by the new media ecology) means traditional states and institutions are fighting to assert the legitimacy of their sovereignty.


The classical political model interpreted sovereignty as recognition. State power and sovereignty depended on the state’s recognition by other states. Legitimacy was a consequence of power distribution. Sovereignty flowed from hegemonic pacts and agreements among the international community. The recent crisis in Crimea has demonstrated that traditional models of sovereignty no longer work. Propaganda through the complex contemporary media ecology has inundated people’s lives in Russia and Ukraine with narratives that manipulate historical facts or generate what Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann labeled “the spiral of silence:”[iv] the tendency for people to remain silent when they feel that their opinions do not conform with the majority view on a certain issue. These techniques played an important role in the Kremlin’s strategy of legitimizing the Crimean annexation in the minds of the public. In order to conquer minds and hearts, Putin’s strategy was to take silence as a sign of approval.


The Crimea example stresses the importance of the domestic circulation of narratives about international relations and sovereignty in the public-opinion-building process. Domestic narratives can reinforce or legitimize public opinion regarding foreign policies. Although there is no proven direct correlation, if an actor controls the majority of a media ecosystem, opposing narratives will likely be marginalized and circulate only in the periphery of that media system. In a restrictive context, such as seems to be the case with contemporary Russia, this explains how anxiety can prompt states to embrace media and information policy.


This perspective is not free from contradictions, nuances, and shadows. First, it is necessary to point out the role of audiences. During the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar, participants frequently discussed changing audience behaviors and the importance of an active audience in political communication processes. As a consequence, some colleagues argued for improving media literacy. In the information age populated by competing narratives, media literacy may help active audiences produce meaning and decode messages even as the media ecology grows more complex. However, the Russian example may indicate that audiences actually behave in the opposite manner.


When we advocate for “active audiences” and “media literacy” from the academic perspective of a communication scholar, we should be careful. When it comes to the audience’s role, it is worthwhile to reference Stuart Hall’s encoding-decoding model.[v] In our hurry to analyze the impact of the new media ecology on politics, culture, and society, we often forget that the active audience is not something recent or exclusively related to new media. Since the 1970s, cultural studies has shown that all audiences are active and often serve as content producers. Nowadays, the main shift seems to be more related to the intensity of the interaction between producers and audiences: audience productions are now a more central part of the media ecology. The consumption of media narratives, according to Hall’s model, is related to three potential audience positions: 1. A hegemonic/dominant position, in which the meaning decoded is the same as the one encoded by the speaker; 2. A negotiated position, in which audience acceptance of the encoded message is only partial and used as a reference point; and 3. A resistance position, in which the audience rejects the message.


The construction of meaning through encoding and decoding, which can lead to the legitimization or rejection of political actions, is related to a different type of symmetry/asymmetry. This type is between an encoders’ desired meaning and the decoders’ understanding. In this sense, as argued before, media system architecture is also critical for guaranteeing the pluralistic flow of narratives. In order to promote the active engagement of receivers and the negotiation of meanings, a media ecology that supports the flow of contrasting narratives must be promoted. This is where media literacy is important. Media literacy must be as Paulo Freire outlined—an emancipatory literacy. In other words, media narratives should not provide “truth” or “certainty,” but offer the audience the tools they need to negotiate competing meanings and interpretations.[vi]  A pluralistic media system that amplifies or gives a place to dissonant or alternative views is also desirable. Putin’s response to criticisms about the closed nature of the Russian media system is to argue that an open media system no longer exists in Western liberal democracies either; however, Putin’s discourse is a manipulative rhetorical take on pieces of a more complex reality.


Are we facing the death of Enlightenment legacy?

The growth of the internet gave people the means to express themselves without gatekeepers. As the new media ecology continues to expand, governments, states, corporations, and religious leaders, among others who occupy dominant positions, have faced a crisis of legitimacy. The concept of a liberal democracy, as part of the legacy of the Enlightenment, has entered into a crisis.


In the process of criticizing authoritarian states, political actors and other institutions that are actively interfering in the architecture of free speech, are avoiding a deeper and more awkward issue: liberal democracy was designed according to a representative basis model and is dependent on asymmetries of power and communication. However, the new media ecology driven by the rise of internet is pushing global governance towards a more participatory democracy that is based on an equal dialogue, transparency, and more symmetric media and political systems. If this contradiction is not addressed, the simple defense of the great American model of democracy will only serve as another narrative that is criticized by opponents and opportunists. Achieving new outcomes requires exploring different angles and engaging in self-critique. In fact, this self-criticism is probably the most powerful legacy of the Enlightenment, and one that will never be in crisis.


[i] Bradner, Eric. “Obama’s year-end message: North Korea, Cuba and Congress”. CNN Politics, edition of 12/19/2014. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/ 12/19/politics/obama-press-conference/ (Access: May 1st, 2015).

[ii] McLuhan, Marshall (1965). The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[iii] On the anxieties of contemporary society and its implications to free speech, see: Price, Monroe (2015). Free Expression, Globalism and the New Strategic Communication. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[iv] See: Noelle-Neumann, Elizabeth. The spiral of silence: public opinion, our social skin. 2nd. Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[v] Hall, Stuart (1973). “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse”. In: During, Simon (1999). The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge.

[vi] For an overview in Paulo Freire’s theories, see: P. McLaren and P. Leonard (eds.) (1993). Freire: A critical encounter. London: Routledge.


About the Author

1234Luiz Peres-Neto, PhD in Communications Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain), is a full-time Senior Lecturer at the Communication and Consumption Practices Program, ESPM School (Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing) São Paulo, Brazil. His current research project focuses on the ethics of digital privacy policies. During the Spring 2015 semester he developed his research as a Fulbright Visiting Post-doctoral Fellow at the Center for Global Communication Studies, Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania). Follow him on Twitter: @luizperesneto.









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