Does New Media Give us More or Less Freedom?

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In order to contest new media’s influence over freedom, first we must understand what is meant by the term. Freedom in general terms can be defined as the ability to do, think, and say as one pleases in the absence of unwarranted constraints and external coercion (Gammon, 2012). Freedom is also synonymous with liberty, which is a right protected under the Human Rights Act, 1998. However, as this question relates to new media, it would make sense to ground this essay in the perspective of internet freedom within the broader context of freedom itself. In this way, freedom is related to the blanket access of new media, the practice of free speech, the liberty to seek and publish information with editorial independence, and the general freedom to not be unduly restricted in access to the internet (Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, 2016). In light of this definition, this essay will argue that although new technology has afforded us the prospect of more freedom, both on and offline, it also propositions the potential of increased scrutiny and subjugation by the state and ruling classes. In this way, this question demands a more political perspective, particularly as the notion of internet freedom has become a highly contested concept in many prominent global political entities.

To address the comparison of “more” freedom, an evaluation of what new media brings compared to old media seems a logical starting point. The potential of new media lies in its socialising tools, fostering communication, activism and participation in a way that cannot be furthered through traditional media (Barnett, 1997). New media and social media have become almost synonymous terms with the meteoric rise of such platforms, which create ease and rapidity of communications between any persons in any part of the world, should they have access (Khan, 2018). New media also espouses engagement with vast audiences at effectively no expense. Firstly, in terms of communication, many social media sites have, as part of their allure, granted users the freedom to message any other persons both privately and securely, with featured security measures such as end-to-end encryption. The liberty to communicate instantaneously in this way with the promise of discretion is something unique to new media, thus inciting that people can enjoy more freedom to connect and express themselves as a result. The freedom of expression enjoyed through such digital media technologies further plays a catalytic part in the fortification of other human rights online, ensuring further freedoms (Joyce, 2015). However, Joyce (2015), further argues that at an international political level, freedom and superintendence become juxtapositions. The procurement of internet freedom through user confidentiality creates political tension with cyber-security and counterterrorism measures. Technology companies and governments have conflicted over privacy safeguards for social media users, with state security foregrounding the argument for regulating internet freedom; yet, such security procedures jeopardize free speech and freedom from interference. Regardless of where states lie on the democratic spectrum, counterterrorism and data-mining measures imposed on digital media by various governing-bodies were projected to hinder freedoms on expression and privacy (Kelly et al., 2016). There is a genuine fear that states are using the façade of cyber-security for counterterrorism to spy on and control their populations. In some authoritarian regimes, governments exploited anti-terrorism laws, litigating users for commenting on issues of democracy, human rights, and belief (Kelly at al., 2016). These constraints of freedoms were not only present in authoritarian regimes, but democratic states also, with a report from democratic think-tank, Freedom House, in 2019, exhibiting that 40 out of 65 countries examined for internet freedom, had extensive social media surveillance programmes, with a view from governments to steadily erode such freedoms (Bowles, 2019). Therefore, internet freedom is not only tacit in its augmentation of human rights, but also paradoxically becomes an expression of state authority (Carr, 2013). However, this corrosion of freedom through excessive surveillance has a history preceding the 2019 report, with the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon (2014), stating that “surveillance programmes are becoming too aggressive”, thus endangering freedom. Supporting the evidence of a decline in internet freedom, intrusive surveillance measures have excelled in 2020, as the Covid-19 global pandemic has been used by states to justify the implementation of new observation technologies, which out of the context of the current pandemic, would be regarded as too invasive (Shahbaz and Funk, 2020). The utopian vision of new media affords us an extension of freedom of expression, communication and privacy, but, in reality, new media has evolved into a state surveillance tool that essentially diminishes freedom overall, rather than increase it.

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Further to this, new media communication technologies have progressed to bypass certain surveillance measures, reinstating freedoms prohibited by such. The option of anonymity online for users, or the use of a VPN for encryption, intends to deliver a level of freedom in cyber-activity again. Anonymity and encryption can provide cover to protesters, activists, and those being actively supressed, as well as for personal safety, or speaking out on controversial issues (Torbet, 2020). So, in this way, anonymity safeguards freedom of expression. Although this is a way to bypass external regulation on new media, these circumventions also provide cover for anti-social actors participating in criminal behaviour, or a way for users to namelessly terrorise others (Carr, 2013). Social networks, such as the Dark Web, have also developed, catalysing the ability to remain anonymous and untraceable online. Such social networks have been instrumental in facilitating freedom from state repression, but have conversely been criticised for the role they play in the promotion of illicit undertakings (Gehl, 2014). This abets arguments for tougher cyber-security and hard-hitting surveillance measures, inciting ambiguity around the future of online anonymity.

New media innovatively proliferates opportunities for far-reaching global digital activism outside of the reach of traditional media, goading prospects of more ‘real-word’ freedom through socio-political change. Although the use of the internet does not directly and automatically correspond to political freedom, or to democracy, it is a powerful tool in freedom of expression, holding the conduct of state and non-state actors to account, for accessing and distributing information, and expediting active citizen participation (Joyce, 2015). There is potential in such freedoms to build democratic societies in ways unfathomable pre-new media. This can be categorised as an ability of new media to increase freedom for its users, as democracy is symbolic of institutionalised freedom, primarily characterised by its free and fair elections. Social media platforms have been significant in the sphere of contemporary political freedom, elevating individuals from being passive receivers of news and state affairs, to active contributors and broadcasters of information. Particularly in despotic societies, the expanding penetration of the internet and social media networks has enabled civic discussions and the spread of intelligence deemed contentious by some states, contesting corruption and government exploitation, facilitating transparency and freedom of access to information and protest. This rise in digital activism and an open information environment has led to palpable outcomes in many authoritarian, and democratic, nations, demonstrating the real-world impact of internet advocacy in procuring and maintaining political freedoms (Kelly et al., 2016). However, such internet freedoms are being compromised by digital authoritarianism, election interference and the silencing of nonconformist opinions (Bowles, 2019). Worryingly, not just in oppressive regimes, governments are manipulating the lack of regulation around social media platforms, and are utilising them as vessels of political misrepresentation and societal jurisdiction (Shahbaz and Funk, 2019). This is compromising the potential of new media to advance societal freedoms, and when considering the extent to which unscrupulous state actors are influencing and monitoring social media platforms, solicits the conclusion that government exploitation of new media is subsiding our freedom. Through the participation culture of objectively unregulated new media platforms, the spread of fake news, inflammatory content, and disinformation has become a prodigious occurrence. Although not a new phenomenon, new media has permitted a mass misinformation culture unlike anything overseen by traditional media, with both regular citizens and leading officials contributing to this issue, polluting the freedom of the digital sphere. In a 2019 study assessing internet freedoms, Freedom House reported that around 93% of people living in states with upcoming elections encountered online election meddling from their own governing bodies, falsifying facts and manipulating opinions through propaganda and false information (Shahbaz and Funk, 2019). Governments have also been found to be sanctioning the use of automated bots and accounts online to spread partisan discourse, and to supress dissemination, especially in politically antagonistic times (Newton, 2018). Furthermore, the subdual of political opposition online by authorities has led to curbs on free speech, with the threat of prosecution lingering over those who do not conform to the establishments’ narrative. Such intimidation is feared to incite self-censorship on particular topics by those who face harsh penalties, depriving new media of the ability to champion freedom of expression and instigate revolutionary change (Kelly et al., 2016). The spread of fake news is a perturbing disturbance to online freedoms at any level of society, but when it is endorsed by governing bodies, it reiterates a culture of oppression and control which juxtapose the notion of freedom. The capacity of new media to proposition more freedom in this way, will seemingly always be limited to issues of internet penetration, and the autocratic inclination of a nation’s ruling elite (Tkacheva et al., 2013).

In a debate about the provision of freedom through new media, it is hard to ignore the research and evidence. Since 2010, think tank, Freedom House, conduct an annual investigation entitled ‘Freedom on the Net’, assessing internet freedom in a participating 65 countries, which overall includes 87% of the world’s internet consumers. Whilst the report details specific developments and obstructions to internet freedom, the overarching conclusion is that internet users have experienced overall depreciation in their rights and freedoms for a tenth successive year, with China being the worst for declining internet freedom for six years in a row (Shahbaz and Funk, 2020). Some arguments call for international governance in internet freedom to ensure the same standard of fair regulation is met globally (Joyce, 2015). However, it does beg the question of whether we would be truly free under an unelected governing body. Besides, the premise of a global governing entity would create whole new issues around the subjectivity and contested nature of what internet freedom is, who is entitled to it, and what constitutes a threat to such freedom (Carr, 2013). In Freedom House’s report, Shahbaz and Funk (2020) express the notable value for freedom, interaction and growth in having access to an “open, free, and global” internet and an unobstructed online platform. However, the internet is not so much “free” as it becomes controlled and regulated, and it is disputably not “global” as still internet penetration has not reached every corner of the earth, through geographical difficulties, funding gaps and exclusion of poorer nations, such as East Africa, from policy discourse due to the perpetuation of economically structured global hierarchies (Musalagani, 2013). The ranking system propagated by Freedom House on internet freedom levels, along with discernible disparities in worldwide internet penetration, indicates that some nations are ‘freer’ than others, notwithstanding empirical evidence that overall internet freedom continues on a global decline.

In conclusion, the short answer to this question would be that in sum of the arguments highlighted, new media gives us less freedom. New media cannot be said to emphatically provide more freedom, as inequality of access to new media is an impediment to freedom in and of itself. Furthermore, through surveillance, censorship, state oppression and fake news culture, it appears that the capabilities for more freedom that new media does instigate, are averted through exploitation of these same features. However, as the internet evolves, and new media with it, technologies are being developed to safeguard users’ privacy, data, and ultimately online freedom. But, although the tech-savvy dissidents push for ways to bypass curbs on freedom, bigger issues need to be addressed before we can categorically praise new media for its facility of more freedom for its users.

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Does New Media Give us More or Less Freedom? (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-new-media-give-us-more-or-less-freedom/
“Does New Media Give us More or Less Freedom?” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/does-new-media-give-us-more-or-less-freedom/
Does New Media Give us More or Less Freedom? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-new-media-give-us-more-or-less-freedom/> [Accessed 19 Jul. 2024].
Does New Media Give us More or Less Freedom? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2024 Jul 19]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-new-media-give-us-more-or-less-freedom/
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