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Review: Communication Power

"Power is primarily exercised by the construction of meaning in the human mind through processes of communication enacted in global/local multimedia networks of mass communication." Manuel Castells, Communication Power, 2011.

In the introduction to this book Castells outlines his attempts as a young student to engage citizens in Barcelona by leaving poorly printed leaflets in cinemas. I can emphasise with this, as a radical young student, I used a Gestetner duplicating machine to produce inky leaflets that I would distribute eagerly. Like Castells I knew communication was important and his personal introduction inspired me to dive deeper and understand more.

Communication Power

The core question the book explores is “where does power lie in the global network society?” (p42)

Castells working hypothesis for the book was that "the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind. The way we feel and think determines the way we act, both individually and collectively."  His theory of power is relational and rooted in neuroscience and cognitive science to which he devotes a chapter of the book.

To Castells communication power is at the heart of the structure and dynamics of our current network society which is constructed around (but not determined by) digital communication networks. Castells sees networks not just as another source of power but as the core force determining power relations in global capitalism.

Power in the network society is "the relational capacity that enables a social actor to influence asymmetrically the decisions of other social actor(s) in ways that favour the empowered actor’s will, interests, and values."

Media Politics

The communication process mediates how power relationships are constructed and also how they are challenged. People make political decisions on the basis of information processed through the media. Thus Castells argues the politics of news media is the most significant form of media politics.

To Castells the media are not the Fourth Estate. "They are much more important: they are the space of power-making. The media constitute the space where power relationships are decided between competing political and social actors. Therefore, almost all actors and messages must go through the media in order to achieve their goals."

The essence of political campaigning is communication. In chapter 4 Castells covers what he terms informational politics, highlighting the professionalisation of political communication, voter targeting and data analysis. Castells is critical of opposition research as part of this process which seeks damaging material on opponents and reporting on scandals which can help undermine trust and confidence in politicians. He also notes that informational politics is expensive and is a way for corporate actors to gain influence.

The book was written after Obama's first Presidential election victory and Castells argues the level of citizen participation, the use of the internet and enthusiasm shown in the Obama primary campaign “signaled a revival of the American democracy” (p364). It would be interesting to discuss what he thinks now after the election of Trump and the use of digital networks in the 2016 campaigns.

Mass Self-Communication

The concept of mass self-communication is central to the book. Castells argues the internet provides mass communication potential for individuals because it can potentially reach a large or global audience. For example uploading a video on You Tube, posting a Tweet or a Facebook post, publishing a blog or simply sending a message to a large e-mail list or these days posting to messaging groups. It is also self-communication because the user generates the message or content.

It is worth noting that allowing the creation of content by users on platforms such as YouTube or Facebook is also part of an online business model, it effectively adds to the value of the platform. These digital spaces heavily track user activity and sell access to the users, and sometimes user data. The business model of the internet is effectively surveillance capitalism. These platforms run constant psychological experiments without a user's knowledge or consent to work out how they will respond to messages. The user has no choice in participation since even not clicking informs the profile building.

Despite these issues Castells fundamentally believes mass self-communication enhances the opportunities for social change. He provides a number of case studies of how counter power struggles have used the internet. A number of studies have also shown how groups can mobilise their supporters through new digital networks.

I have some personal questions about the limitations of mass self-communication. There is no question that there is potential for self-communication, for example you are reading my views on this blog. However, while there is potential for mass communication, in practice there are many barriers.

There is a huge diversity of content published everyday so gaining attention is incredibly difficult. I reviewed a random sample of one million articles from the BuzzSumo database of articles, in essence a database of articles shared at least once on social media. The median number of shares of these articles was just four.

Transforming the potential into mass communication is a challenge. Many of the self-communication messages that gain mass attention is due to existing mass communication nodes such as newspapers and TV directing attention to the messages. Algorithms developed by platforms such as Facebook or Google control the ability of your message to be seen by audiences in a news feed or a search. The logic of their business model is that you have to pay to gain attention from large audiences, this imposes limitations on what you can do without significant financial resources. So while self-communication messages do have the potential to be mass communication, it is also important to note the many barriers that also exist.

The Globalised Network Society

Castells covers in depth how globalization and the network society have reshaped the exercise of power of the nation state. Networks do not operate just in state boundaries and global networks now organise the core activities that shape and control human life across the world. While human experience remains primarily local, the social structure is determined by global networks, the most dominant of which is the global financial system.

The sovereignty of nation states is being eroded by global networks and in response these states engage in relationships of cooperation, competition, and power with other states. They form networks of states, some sharing sovereignty, such as the European Union. They also build networks of international institutions and supranational organisations to deal with global issues, from the United Nations to the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the International Criminal Court.

Some of the most powerful nation states (for example, the United States or China) also view the global governance networks as an opportunity to advance their own interests in competition with other states. They may also seek to act unilaterally, putting their national interest first, without concern for the stable governance of the world at large. Witness Trump's recent actions on trade and climate change.

Castells believes that as the globalisation process proceeds, the more the contradictions it will generate, such as identity crises, economic crises and security crises. These may lead to a revival of nationalism and to attempts to restore the primacy of sovereignty.

Power in Networks

I struggled conceptually at times with the concepts of networks, switching and power types. Castells identifies four types of power in networks, the similarity of the names also confused me at times. The four types are:
  1. Networking power, the power over who and what is included in the network. Castells argues that the role of gatekeepers is reduced by mass self-communication opportunities. 
  2. Network power, the power of the standards set out in the structure and management of networks. 
  3. Networked power, the power of some nodes over other nodes inside the network. This includes the agenda-setting, editorial and decision making power of what he calls the programmers that own or operate the networks. 
  4. Network-making power, the capacity to set-up and programme networks. For Castells this the “paramount form of power in the network society” (p47).
Castells argues the dynamics of domination and the resistance to domination both rely on network formation and network strategies. Thus counterpower relies on reprogramming networks or switching networks of resistance and social change.

Liberation or control?

The book focuses heavily on the potential of networks to support new social movements and less on their use for security and surveillance by the state. It was interesting to read and contrast Castells view with that of Zeynep Tufekci in her recent article How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump.  In the article she says "Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands. " She seeks to understand how digital networks have gone from being hailed as tools of freedom and change, to supporting rising authoritarianism. She argues that while dissenters can more easily circumvent censorship "the public sphere they can now reach is often too noisy and confusing for them to have an impact."

Digital networks have the potential for liberation but also for the opposite. The the power of digital networks can be used to monitor, censor and control communication. There does appear to be an underlying dichotomy around the potential role of digital networks in furthering counter power movements and in strengthening the control of dominant actors over channels of communication.