by Auksé Balčytienė, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania.
Just a couple of decades ago, researchers from media studies and political science spoke optimistically about the positive effects of the new digital environment on democracy. Among the most obvious examples were listed the events of the Arab Spring and the new affordances of connectivity and plurality of the digital environment to provide a space for silenced or simply unheard voices in the official media.
In recent years, such optimistic rhetoric is heard less and less. There is a lot of talk about the growing dominance and the increasing political-economic power of global platforms (Siapera, 2022; Helberger, 2020), the manipulation of user data, etc. In addition to the fact that various regulatory and self-regulatory approaches are being sought to curb the corporate influence of global platforms, several social outcomes of intensified datafication and algorithmization require special attention. Recent studies focus on the adverse effects of the web, particularly as regards the potential impact of digital infrastructures on accelerating the circulation of opinionated and malicious content, supporting group clusterization, and algorithmic promotions of radical and populist polarization (Allcott et al. 2020; Bail et al. 2018). As popularly conceived, instigations to conflict, radical expressions, manipulative narratives, and bluntly fake expressions polarize societies, which undermines democratic cohesion and contributes to the rise of anti-elitist populism.
In our chapter “Accelerating News Media Use and MIL Environment Amidst COVID-19 in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania” published in the Routledge Handbook of Media Education Futures Post-Pandemic (ed. Yonty Friesem et al., 2022), we aim to suggest the following idea: For democracy to function in highly dynamic and fluid information environments, citizenship ideals need to be strategically integrated into the new communications ecology. To tackle such an urgent need, we formulate several questions: How media in the three Baltic countries survive digital transformations, encounter pandemic challenges, and seek to fulfill its professional functions? How ‘Baltic resilience’ is explained?
A new communications ecology perspective requires the study of emerging communications environments from a specific angle, i.e. by integrating several strands into one analysis. Among these strands, three aspects are of primary significance: structural characteristics of media functioning (i.e. political and economic context for journalism/media to support its workings), content plurality (analysis of how socially inclusive is the media), and audience reception characteristics (who uses what types of news and how does that affect citizenship).
We also emphasize in our text that we now need to talk about complex information and communication settings that are not just about classical news media with professional journalistic principles, responsibilities, and accountability (Balčytienė and Wadbring, 2017). In a newly evolving and digitally sustained communications ecosystem, the exchange of information takes place on the principle of ‘circulation’ and ‘shareability’ (Jenkins et al., 2017), which means that new centers of opinion power (Helberger, 2020) are emerging and determining what is significant and important to individuals and groups of people. As a result of intensified and highly accelerated user engagement through ‘circulation’ and content sharing, all aspects of moral and professional control of information relevance and public agenda setting are lost in a changed communications logic. Also, the societal status and moral authority of the dominant social institutions, such as of media, education, or politics, are inclined to change. In the midst of a variety of opinions, the formal authority of institutions turns out to be questionable.
Likewise, if communication logic is changed, the ideal of how ‘informed citizenship’ (Balčytienė, 2017) is achieved also needs to be re-thought. Citizenship is changing towards much more individualized and emotionally charged experiences. Instead of adhering to long-term civic commitments, duties, and loyalties, people tend to use media to engage and follow their immediate wants and passions. Contemporary societies are becoming much more polarized and differentiated along with people’s interests, and knowledge gaps between citizens have arisen (Balčytienė and Juraitė, 2019), which endangers informed (and, hence, rationalized) democratic processes and participation.
We will only repeat the findings of other studies that contemporary societies are moving into a new phase of ‘interest’ politics, where each group is fighting for its own importance. As a result, the informational space turns into an arena of information confusion, populist confrontations, and (mis)information, which puts the ideal of informed citizenship and public good in question.
To deal with new realities and contexts and information confusion, access to reliable and accurate information is critical, as well as multiple publics’ capabilities to discern information and self-protect against disinformation.
Media education is of particular significance in raising public awareness and the understanding of what is behind the so-called ‘free flow of information’, that is, what kind of strategies and interests are backed, and how these may affect public perceptions and decisions regarding the dissemination of information.
As we argue in our paper, media and information literacy based on democratic values of participation and critical thinking become crucial to increase public resilience and critical mindset against harmful content; improve media quality, and promote professional journalism, and democratic culture.
The Baltic States are a good context for studying social transformations. As a three-decade history of Baltic transformations reveals, to sustain the democratization process, it is very important to develop a strong and resilient media. To resolve today’s multiple problems, it is very important to have not only a strong political will, media, and education system, but also a responsive civil society.
With examples from the three Baltic countries, we suggest that a more inclusive MIL policy addressing the needs of different groups of society (women, people with disabilities, children and adolescents, elders, minority groups, etc.) but also tackling emerging needs of many professionals (business people, civil servants) is in heightened demand not only to combat disinformation and misinformation campaigns, but also to promote democratic and civic values, which are at stake at a time of pandemic and geo-political challenges.
In our chapter, we lean on the resilience of both the political and media system. But we also reveal some risks, among which are economic downsides, lack of strategic social inclusiveness, and challenges brought by platformization. Though evident aspects of ‘Baltic resilience’ can be identified, but to counter manyfold ‘inforuptions’ (disinformation, manipulations) in the Baltic region, there are necessary steps in policy that require the urgent and focused attention of multiple stakeholders (government, businesses, public sector) to address infrastructural and public’s individual capacities. To support policymaking and implementation, innovative collaborations are needed. One example is the Baltic Research Foundation for Digital Resilience (DIGIRES), which was created in 2021 as a horizontal initiative for expertise sharing among MIL stakeholders (media authorities, IT business, academics, fact-checkers, media educators, librarians, teachers).
Auksé Balčytienė, Professor, Researcher and Media Critic, Department of Public Communication, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania
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Balčytienė, A., and Wadbring, I. (2017). News Literacy: Reinventing the Ideals of Journalism and Citizenry in the 21st Century. In Citizens in A Mediated World: A Nordic-Baltic Perspective on Media and Information Literacy, edited by Wadbring, I. and Pekkala, L., 31–45. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
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