The Media Cold War

PRINCETON – An information war has erupted around the world. The battle lines are drawn between those governments that regard the free flow of information, and the ability to access it, as a matter of fundamental human rights, and those that regard official control of information as a fundamental sovereign prerogative. The contest is being waged institutionally in organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and daily in countries like Syria.

The sociologist Philip N. Howard recently used the term “new cold war” to describe “battles between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship.” Because broadcasting requires significant funding, it is more centralized – and thus much more susceptible to state control. Social media, by contrast, transforms anyone with a mobile phone into a potential roving monitor of government deeds or misdeeds, and are hard to shut down without shutting down the entire Internet. Surveying struggles between broadcast and social media in Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, Howard concludes that, notwithstanding their different media cultures, all three governments strongly back state-controlled broadcasting.

These intra-media struggles are interesting and important. The way that information circulates does reflect, as Howard argues, a conception of how a society/polity should be organized.

But an even deeper difference concerns the fundamental issue of who owns information in the first place. In January 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the United States “stand[s] for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to information and ideas.” She linked that stance not only to the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but also to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that all people have the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Many governments’ determination to “erect electronic barriers” to block their citizens’ efforts to access the full resources of the Internet, she said, means that “a new information curtain is descending across our world.”