Prof. Imhof, University of Zurich, notices a lack of professional reconsideration in online media.
In dialogue with the participants we discuss the power o the new media.

Facebook, Twitter & Co. – the power of (new) media

Dialogue forum held on 1 March 2012

Social media are gaining influence. They are turning the Internet into a platform that independently defines its own topics and drives developments. Information transfer is no longer the sole objective. How strong is the influence of Web campaigns, tweets and blogs really? Must the traditional media fear the possibility of sinking into insignificance?

These were the issues addressed on the third evening of the 2012 series of dialogue forums "Power and influence: Who controls the world's destiny?" by Sonja Schünemann, New Media editor at the ZDF, Dr. Bernd Graff, Editor Feuilleton of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Prof. Kurt Imhof, Professor of Sociology at the University of Zurich.

In a democracy, the media have an important mission to fulfil: they keep a close watch over the people in power, uncover social and political injustices and are recognised with good reason as the 'Fourth Estate', the fourth force wielding political influence in a country. However, with the onset of the Internet, the significance of the classic media has apparently decreased. Print, radio and television are losing ground to new communication channels such as tweets (short digital messages, also from private persons), blogs (online forums) and Internet videos. "For journalists, the world of today has changed completely," commented Bernd Graff, analysing the situation of his profession. Whereas, in earlier times, it was the classic media that decided which news was to be made public, information nowadays flows automatically to people via Internet. "This ought to prompt journalism to reconsider its situation much more deeply than it does," complains the cultural editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. It should, he says, set itself apart by providing exclusive news content, for instance, or by its journalistic qualification of events within the larger scale of things.

Organising revolutions on the Internet
The power of the new media became evident at the beginning of 2011 as the unfolding unrests in the Arabic world also broke through into platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. However, for Kurt Imhof, the theory that social media advance the cause of democracy is a myth: "In my opinion we can forget that." The new media are primarily egocentric interfaces that are mostly used for private purposes. In the run-up to upheavals, revolutions or rebellions, these services could be used for agitation purposes. The formation of an opinion also is possible to a limited extent. However, it is difficult to make the broad masses of users aware of specific subjects and create a publicity focussed on the topics that are important for democracy. That is because the classic journalistic role of placing things within a context is missing here. "There is no click democracy; it cannot be organised with "Like" buttons."

Furthermore there has never before in history been such a centred mass medium as the social media. "The Vietnam demonstrations in 1968 in California could not have been organised over Facebook; the service would have been purged immediately with the help of emergency legislation," contends the media scientist. Social media, therefore, are probably the worst medium possible for pursuing revolutionary ambitions. "If the situation really does come to a head, it is a highly fragile medium," Imhof argues. The Internet or the radio masts for mobile data transfer can easily be shut off by those in power. "In such a situation, flyers, the printing machine or the classical copying machine are much more reliable."

The network community is not homogeneous

Sonja Schünemann made it clear that there is no such thing as 'the' one and only network community that is always pursuing the same interests. "In Germany, 35% percent of the people with an internet connection regularly use private networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Google+. It is utopian to believe that this 35% are always of the same opinion." What unifies the people on the Internet is not so much the common cultural context than the feeling of being able to freely define this context and its contents. To be able to say whatever one wishes whenever one wishes and make this accessible to everyone is, in the eyes of the ZDF New Media Editor, the most important element.

Anyone making a hue and a cry without a valid reason is also quickly exposed in the Internet. In contrast, anyone who is well networked and knows how to make use of the new platforms can spread messages inexpensively and efficiently. In the same way as a snowball system or chain letters, many people can be reached very quickly. During the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Facebook and emails lent people courage, motivated them incredibly and accelerated the protests, even though only every 20th Egyptian had Internet access. Still, over and beyond the psychological aspects, its influence is overestimated, according to the media specialist. "Facebook was a driving element during the revolutions in the Arabic world, but it was by no means a Facebook revolution," comments Schünemann.

Business model of the classic media threatened
Imhof made it clear that the new media not only offer opportunities but are also fraught with risks. As the news pages in the Internet are usually fed by the same agencies, this leads to a uniformity of opinions expressed. Conflicts in political media coverage occur with less frequency, people are faced with fewer different perspectives. The professor criticises that "this convergence has grown, and gives cause for concern."

In addition to this, more and more advertising is drifting away from the classic media into the Internet. The greater the threat posed by this to the business model of the traditional media, the readier it is to revert to soft subjects such as lifestyle or society reporting. News coverage is also giving scandals and political populism higher priority because it is the only way of reaching enough readers. "This form of reduction to a forced uniformity is detrimental for our democracy," Imhof warns. A democratic society that takes pride in itself must take pains to ensure that professional journalism survives.

Where this all will lead to and how the new and traditional media will position themselves in the future is unsure. It must not be forgotten that the Internet as a communication tool for the masses is not even two decades old. Social media have been around for a shorter time still. One thing is sure, however: the influence of the classic media is currently waning, and if they do not change themselves, they will sooner or later disappear.

The next dialogue forum on 17 April 2012 will be addressing the topic of "Changing economies – Do we need economic growth?"