The “Empire” of social media

Devie Rahmawati
Permanent Lecturer, Communications
Vocation Program, University of Indonesia

IO – In 1909, a French banker of Jewish descendant called Albert Kahn documented photos of people from 50 countries all over the world, the final work in an album that records the colorful world of humanity in their outer forms: from the dirty clothing of a poor farmer in Gaeltacht, the messed-up uniform worn by a drafted military man from Bulgaria, the nakedness of a soldier in Dahomey, the flowers adorning a maharajah in India, the draperies of priestesses in Indo-China, and the dirt-stained clothing of an odd and quiet cowboy from the Wild West.

This documentary project generates a theory of self-identity: “We are what we wear” (Ferguson 2011:197). Unfortunately, Kahn’s lovingly created documentation is no longer relevant in the 21st century, as people in various areas around the globe wear the same things in general: the same jeans, shirts, and sneakers (Ferguson 2011: 197). This is the paradox of modern human living, wherein globalization has generated an open economic system that allows each individual to freely determine their attitudes, ideologies, and taste…only for humanity to homogenize themselves (Ferguson 2011:198).

Homogenization is not always about material things such as food and clothing, but also about non-material things related to taste such as music, soap opera, paintings, illustrations, films, novels, and poetry (Smiers 2009:5). The particularization of one human from another due to geographical limits, tribal groups or races has blurred. All humans living on Earth are now citizens of the world.

The relationship between humans and the world is now direct: it is no longer mediated by bigger organizations such as countries (O’Byrne 2003:52). Relations between humans carry a long history of a stiff hierarchy of power, wherein there are always elites that control the tops of relationship chains. This relation has now entered a new stage: according to Tapscott & William (2007), even though hierarchy is not fully gone, but major changes in global technology, demographics, and economy has accelerated the creation of new community-based, collaborative, and independently-regulated relations, ones that depart from the control and hierarchy model.

Habermas’ classic concept of public space, which is “spaces that are regulated with mechanisms for achieving consensus and dominated by educated elites”, has shifted, along the movement of globalization, which becomes more connected with each other. The global world becomes so unified – connections, information exchange, interactions, and communication mixes occur everywhere.

The development of communication technology, especially the internet, has generated a new public space located within cyber-media. Even though the communication process in this space continues to use writing, it is actually an extension of non-linear non-verbal communication that allows individuals to communicate directly, instantly, and without third-party liaisons (Fidler 2003: 57). Cyber-media currently allows individuals to become anyone by removing the original and actual (physical and psychological) identity of the individual. This is expressed beautifully by Peter Steiner in his cartoon of two dogs communicating through a computer, wherein one of the dogs said that even though he is a dog in real life, but nobody on the internet knows his true identity as a real dog (Fidler 2003: 182).

The emancipatory practices of modern communication media are deemed to be able to build up the confidence of enslaved individuals so that they become empowered, to change the characteristic of power from authoritarian into egalitarian, and to free public communication patterns from being closed into democratic ones (Hardt 1992:xxxi). The positive impacts of this cyber communication model are celebrated loudly by individuals from all parts of the globe, including Indonesia. This is obvious from the fact that Indonesia has 143 million internet users (APJII, 2017) and is the 4th biggest Facebook user in the world.

However, it is the very emancipative and democratic characteristic of the internet – especially social media – that has turned it into a new power domain: the empire of modern communication media. An “empire” is by definition differentiated from a national system, as empires in general encourage the integration of social, political, and economic aspects in order to achieve harmony among their diverse citizens. This process of achieving harmony may use methods such as enforcement, among others (Yavuz 2011:17).

I say that a new media empire has been built, because the internet, especially social media, has significant economic, political, and socio-cultural power. Even though the ubiquitous interaction and information appear to be wild, I hypothesize that there are still informal information “emperors” and “empresses” who serve as references and models for social media empire citizens.

As we have stated at the start, modern humans tend to have a homogenous culture. In the cyber-media context, modern humans currently consume and produce the same things, generate the same results, using the same means. For example, when several individuals achieve popularity or become stars by producing videos that are distributed through social media, other individuals in various parts of the world will imitate them. When several international stars document some of their private affairs and distribute this documentation through social media, many people from around the world will imitate this. When we look at social media spaces, such as Facebook, it will be easy for us to see the same patterns from the display of images or how personal profiles are written. I see that mass communication development in cyber-media is undergoing a time test – there is a revolution from Gutenberg’s era to Google’s (Elmore 2010:29).

“Mass communication” is defined as “communication to the general public using various channels”. It is characterized as a controlled and limited process (West & Turner 2008:42). Nowadays, the challenge faced by many countries is that there are simply too many occurrences and too much information outside of State control, even in the most powerful of countries (Nye 2011:113).

The open characteristic of the social media allows any individual anywhere to publish and broadcast anything to the public. As we have stated above, written communication in cyber-media is actually an extension of verbal communication (Ong 2013:268). This production of meaning through information emphasizes packaging over content, and blurs the reality with the imagination (Ballard in Danesi 2002:249).

Unfortunately, mass communication, which generally contains “gatekeepers” that filter out messages to the public, actually ignores the process of evaluating the information to be publicized. Most of the time, various “wild” (unverified, unconfirmed, or otherwise untrue) sources of information in social media is re-reported by communicators in mass communication. This proves that individual agents are able to intervene into the power structure (Giddens 2010:23). If “mass communication” used to mean a structure that can control information flow before the public consumes it, now information agents can affect existing structures, or even create new structures, merely by imitating and publishing the same information.

I suspect that this condition occurs because the controllers of mass communication information simply adjust themselves to the cultural need of the modern public, which is constantly hungry for spectacle (sensational information) to enjoy and respond to. Mass communicators then simply produce bad quality information and distribute it as spectacle (Debord 2006:26). This kind of bad quality spectacle or information mostly originates from social media, which has become a new public space that contains a multitude of data.

As they are pressured by speed demands, mass communicators tend not to evaluate their information. This causes all sorts of poor-quality information from social media to be distributed extremely widely via mass communication. I am concerned that there is no mutuality between social media practices and the objective structure of mass communication, as the process of absorption without selection among mass communicators will continue to occur. This will result in a massive loss to the public, who end up taking in false and non-credible information.

I suspect that the reluctance of mass communicators to select and filter their information is because they are reproducing data quoted from the elites of social media. I define “social media elites” as individuals with large numbers of social media followers, i.e. much above the average number of individual social media users in general. This turns the individual into a “public figure” in the social media milieu. Social media elites are generally also public figures in the real world, such as actors, actresses, singers, officials, political figures, observers, etc. Fame in the virtual world tends to extend to the real world, and vice versa.

By using their real-world social capital, real world public figure communities generally extend their reach into social media. Still, some social media public figures maintain the anonymity of their real-life identities, despite the large numbers of their social media followers. No matter the type, these social media elites all attempt to obtain and sustain public attention by producing symbolic intelligence in the form of words, images, and videos (content). The signs produced by these social media will then dominate social media space because they are legitimized by the leagues of followers.

Such large follower support tends to generate a halo effect on mass communicators (Mulyana 2011: 234). This further encourages other mass communicators to indiscriminately imitate, reproduce, adapt, and re-distribute information from social media elites. Due to this mass legitimization, mass communicators tend to conclude that the information supported by such a large number of individuals is reliable and relevant, and must thus be imitated and reproduced. This causes a massive amount of information homogenization from limited sources in the social media to be distributed to the general public.

With the occurrence of the Ratna Sarumpaet hoax case, I hope that this shock would stimulate the Indonesian mass communicators will to improve the quality of their own public information by performing a thorough evaluation of their information, so that the information that they forward to the public becomes credible, reliable, and valid, worthy of general public consumption.