Can the collocation “digital media” be surprising? To be sure, many of readers will have a vivid mental picture of it, as they hear this phrase, and it is certain to correspond to reality. Both a website of a government paper and an individual Messenger channel dedicated to the life of a village or a small town will be referred to digital mass media. Most people have an idea what digital media are but nobody knows for sure how to define them. When we say ‘nobody’, we mean none of absolutely all the representatives of the human society, from college students to officials of presidential administrations. If we compile most of the definitions made, we can state the notion of digital media as something high-tech, high-speed and as accessible as possible. In the world of things, this means a stable internet-connection, a tablet computer and an interactive web-based platform providing information. Yet, this definition can be hardly named in-depth. It is superficial, and this is the reason why there are so many ambiguities around digital media. On the one hand, everyone wants to have uninterrupted access to information; and indeed, limited access to it hampers the economy. On the other hand, there is information which, due to its content, may be considered undesirable for viewing. A source of information may be presented both as a ‘journal’ and a closed platform with illegal content. Hence, another problem arises, content censorship. Due to too broad interpretation of the definition, both arbitrary ‘pornography’ and investigative journalism may fall under this definition.
A blocking trend
We know from school days that mass media are the fourth estate. The press changes as the new laws appear or the approach to execution of the law changes. In Eastern Europe and in the CIS countries, the evolution of the independent press has been fast. It happened so historically that the actual freedom of speech became contemporaneous with the massive penetration of the internet into the countries of the former Soviet Union. Let us cautiously presume that in the absolute majorities of these countries, if not in all of them, the representatives of the apparatchiks who gave up their communist ideas in favor of power and prosperity remained the true rulers. While different transformation processes were simmering, the internet space was left to itself without any serious control exercised. Court-ordered website blocking is a recent trend. It became part of the information field exactly when digital media grew into full-fledged media. Before we start discussing the philosophy of digital media, let us talk about the philosophy of ideology.
We often hear jokes about journalism that it is one of the two oldest professions, the joke directly implies that, besides objective presentation of information, a journalist may be involved in lobbying the interests of certain groups or persons. Let us be honest: all mass media may do that, both government-owned and private.
It is not possible to equate mass media and ideology. Yet, it is silly to deny the relation that exists between these two phenomena. The power of ideology is manifested only in opposition. In the case of the opposition between the USSR and the USA, it was open and was not denied by any of the parties. Yet, there were different times for that. The Soviet idea was really a progressive doctrine in the mid-1920s, and it was a matter of serious concerns with the ruling elites all over the globe. However, what inspired the European artists to assume Slavic names in those times became a subject of crisis at the early 1960s. The Berlin Wall, which became a symbol of separation of the two worlds, was a kind of a hint of the fact that the Soviet world ideologically became defensive after the prolonged massive attack. Did we start the talk with the digital mass media? Well, all the attempts to take control over the digital world indicate the defensive of the rhetoric based on the principle “It is easier to fence the territory than to attack the enemy”. This is when the low-orbit ion gun of censorship comes into play.
A ban for distortions
It makes no sense to argue that censorship is an evil. However, in the context of digital media, there can be censorship a priori. For example, if a “conditional news” has been made public and is being cited, all the efforts to conceal it will only result in panic. It is better to ignore the unwanted information. It is even better to create several fake news on its basis (we just add the prefix ‘post’ to the word ‘truth’ to get ‘post-truth’). Having this in mind, we can make a conclusion that the mass media of the nearest future will be evaluated not only by the promptness of appearance of information but also by the hypothetical fact-checking index. It may sound hackneyed but it is important for a reader to understand that he/she receives operative and truthful information, not just a piece of fake news fitting somebody’s system of views. In fact, the problems of distortion of information and its unreliability constitute one of the major arguments in favor of maximum press control. It is this argument that is most often exploited by opinion leaders who aim both at censorship of information and at complete freedom of its distribution. Naturally, the entire media space of Eastern Europe cannot be treated as something homogeneous. Rather, each country has now gained its own model of information treatment. It has to be admitted, though, that the absolute majority of the post-Soviet elite has hostile feelings towards uncontrolled media, as they have no experience of interacting with them.
Its Majesty the Regulator
Blocking more often affects not mass media but websites, and the percentage of blocked mass media is extremely low. Normally, law regulation is the main reason for blocking a website, in the case when it violates either a law on advertising or the anti-trust law. We are not surprised that a website selling drugs or counterfeit goods becomes blocked. At the same time, each fact of blocking an information website should become a newsworthy event and a precedent. The causes of noise are old: there is no clear definition what should be referred to mass media and what shouldn’t. Therefore, the mechanism of blocking may either not work at all or be interpreted absolutely arbitrarily.
“What if our children see this?”
Consider an example. Belarus has the reputation of being an authoritarian state. In the Belorussian information space, there are media independent from the government, too. Despite the African-level position of Belarus in the Press Freedom Index ranking, it is possible to buy an oppositional newspaper next to the government-owned press in a street newsstand. Despite the blocking cases that occur from time to time, it is possible to open practically any resource without using the VPN. However, the time when most oppositional mass media were sponsored by donors are in the past. Therefore, if a mass media wants to work in Belarus, it has to use a business model tied to the current laws of the country. Therefore, if the conditional '‘authority’ does not like a publication, a court order is likely to be issued on the published material, to be followed by a warning or access restriction, confirmed by a court order. To be certain, no one is going to work with the mass media on which ‘state sanctions’ have been imposed.
In this context, there is an interesting example of the Belorussian online journal KYKY. The case of the Belorussian city media is interesting for the fact that its journalists got into trouble in two countries: Russia and Belarus.
— Roskomnadzor (the federal executive body responsible for control and supervision in the field of media, including electronic media and mass communications) expressed dissatisfaction with an article about shoplifters written in 2014. In Russian, the article dedicated to shop thieves was considered to have violated the law, and the organization demanded that the article should be deleted. We found a way out of the situation, having translated the text into the Belorussian language, and deleted the original material. The Belorussian Ministry of Information became indignant with the publication of the column by the business owner Alexander Knyrovich. His material was devoted to celebrations of the Victory Day commemorating the Second World War. – The CEO Alexandra Romanova shares the history of the website warfare.
“The warfare finished when the website was suspended for five days and then, after deleting four articles (three about the Second World War and one about the Orthodox Church), the access to the website was allowed”.
The precedent with KYKY.ORG first demonstrated the ability of the Belorussian state immediately to switch off a resource for a large part of the audience. It is curious that not the government officials but blogger Vyacheslav Dianov draw the attention of the people to the publication. Website blocking followed by a court hearing are the effects of this act. This does not mean, though, that the control agencies leave everything that is happening in the mass media unnoticed.
A vaccine for hype
The human mind is organized in such a way that, if something is happening somewhere, a passerby will inevitably turn into a rubberneck relishing the spectacle. The Net acts exactly according to the same rules: if a user sees that an article has several dozens of comments already, it must be read, together with the discussion. As we look through a journal, we can see that “the opinions of the authors may not coincide with the opinion of the editorial board”. This protective charm, though, is not sufficient for those who make comments. In Belarus, an original, though predictable, solution of the problem has been offered: it is suggested that the comment makers should indicate their ID details as they get registered. In order to understand the significance of this state act, it should be mentioned that anonymous interviews are common for Belarus. “Anonymous” are those materials in which the interviewee conceals his/her appearance and name. That means, in case of an inquiry about the personality of the interviewee, there will always be a possibility to say that the text is the journalist’s invention.
One anonymous interview next to a dozen of materials with verified sources of information is not perceived as something extraordinary. However, the reverse statistics would question both the authenticity of the information presented and the very concept of “anonymous interviews”. Even if what the anonymous interviewee says is true, the trust for it will be lost, anyway. However, it is not possible to state the same about a comment maker. A comment maker is always perceived as someone live and living. It is quite probable that we will soon face the situation when both the author of the article and the comment maker will be equally responsible for the published text. All this leads to the situation that in the nearest future the digital media may face either all-out totalitarianism and clarity or serious transformations.
The fourth weapon
If media are blocked, that means, they cause fears. Fear suggests destructive actions that may follow. As a result, a situation occurs what digital media are presented not as the fourth estate but as a tool for “destabilizing the situation”. What does it predict? At best, that may indicate the pending clarity in defining the digital media, to be followed by transformation of this process. So far, we can assume that the digital media in Eastern Europe may completely change already in the nearest future.
Andrey Dichenko, born in 1988 in Kaliningrad, is a Belorussian Russian-writing author and journalist. He graduated from the history department of the Belorussian State Pedagogical University named after Maxim Tank. He is the author of the books “Plates and Failures”, “You Me”, "Sunny Man”. The author’s texts are part of the curriculum of the Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA, the course of Eastern European literature. He worked as the editor of Ya magazine (Belarus), as the deputy editor-in-chief of Znamya Yunosti newspaper, as a journalist of Bolshoy magazine (Belarus) and in other Belorussian mass media.
To have and to be