1941, Orson Welles writes Citizen Kane, a movie that exposes the manipulation by newspapers on the public. 1976, Sidney Lumet directs Network, a film about the influence of television. A few decades later the internet era starts and finally there is the possibility of a counter information: a revolution against the propaganda of the ruling power, a blow struck to the establishment. Or so we are told. Would it change much if we replaced newspapers and TV, the targets of them two flicks, with the web?
Yes and no. We went from “it’s true, the newspaper wrote that”, to “it’s true, I heard it on TV” to “it’s true, I read it on the internet”. But the mechanism somehow changed. Traditional media (radio, press, television) deliver the news top-down. The internet, despite is becoming traditional too, overturned the perspective and guaranteed a more participated system of shared information, in respect of the fourth and fifth branch of the Government: free press and free citizenry, or freedom of expression. The web combines them, creating a sort of virtual space that we could call the “sixth branch”.
There is a downside, though. What it seems an idyllic vision, could hide a snare. For the first time, the freedom of expression is endangered by the excess of itself. Like they say in the criminal underworld, “if everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge”. The same, if everybody is talking, nobody is talking, everything is lost in the ether. If we want to be malicious, we could say that it’s a subtle strategy created by the so called establishment to feed the illusion of freedom. But that would slide into conspiracy theories.
Nevertheless, we have another aspect to consider. The discredit that the internet has, for the bunch of fake news, trolls and whatever connected to those phenomena. Of course, saying that everything you find out there is a fraud is as far from real as saying that everything is perfectly believable. In the web there’s a lot of garbage, sure, but also many interesting voices, not necessarily the online version of already successful printed magazines. Pointing the finger just on the negative sides portraits a partial and misleading picture.
The “sixth branch” hasn’t expressed it’s full potential yet, not only for the dead weight previously described, but also because it keeps a hierarchical system. Do we really think that an average Joe counts like a famous opinion leader? Having good ideas is not enough, you still have to possess the technological know-how to exploit this media as best as possible. So, nothing different from ambitious people using the TV to achieve visibility and fame. Not something that anyone is able to do.
We had other illusions with the “Arab Springs” or some other revolutions attempted, in Iran and Venezuela, for example. At the beginning it seemed that the internet and social media had the real opportunity to bring a real political and social change, in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia. Young people, students, women, the outcasts of the arena, were finally allowed to strongly express their disappointment against their corrupted administrations. We know how it ended, well-organized groups actually took the lead, with a disastrous outcome.
But we have to maintain a certain level of optimism, hoping that with some adjustments the “sixth branch” would really become this full expression of participated democracy with a new vision of an equal society.