Law in Contemporary Society

Who Controls Dissemination of Information?


The past two decades have borne witness to an increase in public access to mobile digital video recording and data sharing technology. We may be in the incipient stages of a substantial shift in the balance of power with respect to whether a small cadre of powerful individuals and institutions can control the flow and dissemination of information in society. Citizens of the connected electronic society may be able to exercise liberties in expression and press to a greater extent than members of prior generations, if the global mass media corporations, governments, and other potentially nefarious entities cannot stymie their emergent freedom of action.

Individuals Empowered

Two technological developments, among myriad others, have contributed to ushering in a potential change in how many people obtain visual data about events occurring far away. Cameras shrunk precipitously and started to be routinely attached to phones that a sizable proportion of people carry with them wherever they go. Blogs, social media websites, and other online portals arose that facilitated the propagation of information between individuals. These changes have made it cheap and easy for a wide swath of people in even moderate income societies to record and share media with an unlimited number of other people passing it through corporate or state filtering, editing, and censoring. There have been technological developments affecting the sharing of not just video, but all forms of media. I focus on video here because of its strong ability to quickly influence hearts and minds, regardless of its factual accuracy in depicting a situation.

Citizen-recorded videos of government abuses, spread rapidly through the internet, have informed the public about events corporate or state media may choose not to cover. (See video of the Agha-Soltan’s killing in Iran, which became a rallying point for regime opposition demonstrations, pr In the recent past, it was not quite as simple for a simple video record of state-sponsored abuse to reach a mass audience.

When Holliday recorded Rodney King’s 1991 beating, it was comparatively rare for a private citizen to have quick access to video recording equipment. Holliday's capture of police brutality on film was a rare and momentous event. Even after the events were on tape, the videographer had no direct means of sharing his video with the public. He had to sell the videotape to television networks in order to have it disseminated. Corporate media, not the actual filmmaker, had a high degree of control over how and when the public came to see the video.

These developments allowing information to travel more freely and directly between private actors do not necessarily mean that there will be massive social rearrangements. Neither the King or Agha-Soltan incidents sparked revolutionary change within the structures of power that led to the victimization of those depicted on video. However, the winds of change do not always blow so lightly. Just two years after the Agha-Soltan killing, viewers around the world were able to see primary source reports from the front lines of the Arab Spring demonstrations that toppled regimes across the Mideast. Of course, the massive demonstrations and rapid regime changes cannot be directly attributed to videos or even social media sharing generally - the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 proceeded rapidly without the modern internet. Nonetheless, the moderate claim that the public had access greater information about the 2011 revolutions as a result of citizen journalist file sharing, than private "free" media had sufficient permissions to report on and local state-run media was willing to provide, cannot be seriously contested.

Corporations and Governments Strike Back

The rise of individual citizen journalists may not look nearly as impressive when one considers the fact that roughly nine mass media companies dominate the private news market in much of the developed world - Disney, Comcast, Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, CBS Corporation, Sony, Bertelsmann, and Vivendi. Despite this daunting cabal of mass media titans who continue to consolidate their grip on old forms of media, consumers of information today have access to countless blogs and social media websites that the news corporations do not control. Although social media websites have breached personal privacy on a large scale and engaged in censorship on a smaller scale, they would most likely be loathe to aggressively censor and curtail access at the behest of corporate or state masters because it could severely alienate their user base. Far from attempting to attempting to countervail the rise of online citizen journalism, corporate media appears to be attempting to include it in their broadcasts. (See or

Governments may possess the power to shutter websites and curtail certain types of file sharing. Mubarak cutoff access to various social media platforms during the Egyptian revolution. The U.S. government seized Megavideo in the wake of copyright infringement claims. Despite these measures, members of the public desperate to share ideas and media have found effective alternatives via other online platforms. Although certain regimes could conceivably shutdown entire mobile data networks, the disastrous economic consequences of doing so for an extended period would likely persuade them to reverse course or lead to their downfall.

An implicit assumption of the claim that the balance of power over information dissemination is shifting is that private file sharers provide useful data to viewers. Cynics may assert that citizen journalists do not provide sufficiently accurate or sophisticated analytical commentary with their uploaded videos and blog posts to facilitate contextualization and also lack the requisite credibility and gravitas to inspire public belief. In short, raw videos or other independent reports allegedly may not provide informative or seemingly informative information. I would counter that even poorly conceived and contextualized can inspire massive social discussions that lead people to inform themselves. (See Kony 2012). Additionally, certain types of videos and other media may speak for themselves without requiring much supplementary analysis, e.g. uniformed authority figures abusing dissidents in a public square during a mass demonstration.

-- By KieranCoe - 16 July 2012

It frustrates me when networks like CNN report on what their viewers are tweeting as opposed to reporting on the news. When I want to see tweets, I go to Twitter. Man, that noise annoys me.

-- HarryKhanna - 20 Jul 2012


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r17 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:37 - IanSullivan
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