The use of the computer, internet, mobile phones and other communication modes appears to be increasing dramatically. This has implications for the empowerment of citizens, their participation in decisions affecting their local communities, and the democratic process in Guyana. The internet with its features of speed, low cost, and interactivity also seems to be driving the current media environment.
With the current political situation facing the country, and general elections anytime soon, communications consultant Royston King believes that this new media, “the internet in particular”, has the capacity to facilitate greater democracy in societies.
King, who holds a Masters Degree in Corporate Communication, is adamant that democracy involves free speech, free press, equality and liberty. Political debates, discussions, and the ensuing feature of public opinion are also a few of the essential functions of democracy.
“Political communication scholars have been calling attention to the increasingly significant role of the media as the arena for such discussions in an age of mass publics and mass politics. However, some contend that the recent developments in information/communication technology may be causing the fragmentation of the mass audience. As a consequence, the notion of political deliberation could become very problematic.”
He asserted that the role of the media in the political process and their effect on democracy, has divided political commentators into two camps ‘utopias’ and ‘dystopias’.
“On the one hand, the dystopias charge the media with promoting negativity and conflicts, whitewashing serious political issues, taking up time and eroding long held societal beliefs and values, while on the other hand, utopias have concluded that journalists play a vital role in scrutinizing politicians, making politics and political issues more accessible to ordinary citizens and increasing political education and participation in society.”
However, this division goes beyond the education participation in society; beyond the newspapers, radio and television on the relationship between technology and democracy. “In fact, with the emergence of new media the two camps have shifted their arguments to the nature of cyberspace politics,” King opines.
Again, dystopias see the emerging dangers and negative effects caused by the technological revolution such as social isolation, and loss of personal contact, and the difficulty to build public trust so necessary for community development. However, the utopias highlight the unprecedented access to alternative and unedited sources of information and the equally unprecedented existence of a forum through which all participants can share their own views – however insignificant or eccentric those may be.
King says both camps raise very valid views about the differences of the internet and mobile phone from established communication avenues such as newspapers, radio and television. It could be argued that the internet did not follow a sequential step in the evolution and development of communication/informational technologies.
“However, both camps overlook serious practical problems that inhibit the spreading of new information and communication technologies to the general population. These include information technology knowledge, skills, economic and cultural problems and the level of development of societies. Thus, they limit the influence these may have on the decision making process.”
“Many scholars have argued however that technology is a product of society. Its use and usefulness is determined by society and therefore it is shaped by society. Others argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between technology and society; and these arguments led to very sharp contentions about the role of new media in democracy.”
Many scholars have argued that the current intensity in electronic communication is not a paradigm shift. They argue that cyberspace is simply mirroring the age-old patterns of people within societies. However, the problem with this argument of reinforcement is that it seems to underestimate the contribution of technology to development.
“In other words, it presents a picture of inflexibility, in which technology is merely used to facilitate preexisting patterns of political behaviour and by doing so, it is guilty of the same error committed by those who see technology as the holy grail of the political communication and participation.”
King pointed out that political communicator, Bimber (1998) has articulated a new position, which he described as ‘accelerated pluralism’. He said that the internet will act as an agent of change for issue politics.
In contemporary times more people are disengaging from interest-based politics and engaging with issue-based politics. Non-governmental organizations and groups dealing with issues of the environment, human rights, appear to be on the increase in different societies. New technologies accelerate the operations of these bodies, thus pushing pluralism at a greater speed than if it were to depend upon the traditional media. “Therefore, the interaction of internet and political culture lend to greater involvement of people in the decision making process. This then can lead to change because more people have a chance to become involved.”
While it could be said that the country is still at the other end of normal contemporary global technological advances there are some indications that political groups and other organizations have been making use of the internet. Recent reports speak of the increased use of social media ¯ Facebook and Twitter being a case in point. No doubt other parties will make optimum use of this information technology. Moreover, the situation is constantly changing, and more emphasis is being placed on information technology in government development programmes and projects.
“Clearly then, Guyana may not be on the same communication technology stage as many of its Caribbean neighbours it is likely to get there sooner or later. But sooner because of the numerous assistance programmes it has been receiving from donor countries,” King posits.
Many of these include the use of computer, the internet and World Wide Web, and the appropriate training and skills. Even after such programmes have been concluded, millions of dollars worth of communication equipment, software, and training are left with the local government ministries, organizations, groups and agencies, and this helps to improve Guyana’s lot in information communication technology, in an indirect way.
The internet with its features of speed, low cost, and interactivity will facilitate a level playing field for the dissemination of information. Small parties can communicate their ideas, plans and goals with citizens in spite of their limited resources; creating a level playing field. They will be able to do this outside the boundaries of traditional media editorial judgment, which is usually based on the interest of the particular newspaper, television channel or radio.
“In other words, they will be able to go directly to the audience without any concern of traditional gatekeepers of information in the society. Technology gives a greater opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
“If citizens have a sense of participation in the way their local communities and society is governed then they would want to take ownership and responsibility for the success of process because it affects their wellbeing. “This then changes the dynamics for the democratic process and the way our local communities and the wider society develop,” King concludes.
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