Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Early mass communication inquiries into media society can be traced back to the propaganda theory in the 1920s. Through his study of propaganda between the two World Wars, Harold Lasswell (1927) tried to identify the impact mass media had on an individual’s mind. His investigation included news reports, advertisements, as well as teaching under the light of propaganda. As quoted in Severin & Tankard (2001), Lasswell stated that “[p]ropaganda in the broadest sense is the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations. These representations may take spoken, written, pictorial or musical form”. In effect, Lasswell believed that ordinary people were vulnerable to external influences; their attitudes and opinions came not from personal experience but from the stories they heard. He concluded that “power to control delivery of propaganda through the mass media would be placed in the hands of a new elite, a scientific technocracy that would be pledged to using its knowledge for good rather than evil” (Baran & Davis, 2009).

Comment Icon0 Acknowledging the persuasive power of propaganda, Lasswell stated three functions of mass media: a) surveillance of the environment; b) the correlation of the parts of society in responding to the environment; and c) the transmission of the social heritage from one generation to the next (Severin & Tankard, 2001). His propaganda theory became the source for copious amounts of research on the relationships between media and society. By the early 1950s, Harold Innis (1951) had warned that mechanization of mass communication had been responsible for monopolies of knowledge. Specifically, he observed that communication technologies such as the press, radio and television addressed the world rather than the individual, and would centralize power of the state over space and time. Alarmed at the prospect of centralized control through the powerful media technology, Innis pointed out that the nature of media innovation would “cause exploitation of the peripheries to serve the privileged elite at the center” (Baran and Davis, 2009).

Comment Icon0 Amazed by modern technology’s provision of both political and social power, Marshall McLuhan (1964, 1967) took a contrasting perspective to Innis, favoring how “electronic technology is instant, multiple-centered, and favoring the integral and the organic” (Innis, 1951). McLuhan was interested in how electronic media could extend our physical capacities, rearrange our perception of the world, and give rise to new structures of feelings and expression. He foresaw that we were more likely to be an active audience because electronic media would construct a kind of organic interdependence among all social members. Optimistic about the social changes brought about by electronic over conventional mass media, McLuhan (1964) took on a technologically deterministic perspective towards the impact of media. Through McLuhan’s enthusiasm, his vision of the “global village” has since inspired intellectuals to further explore the relationship between electronic media and society.

Comment Icon0 One such enlightened intellectual was Manuel Castells (1996), who also believed that social change was technologically deterministic since “computers, communication systems, and genetic decoding and programming are all amplifiers and extensions of the human mind”. The nature of digital technology was characterized by instant response, simultaneous communication, and massive participation through computer connection (Castells, 1996). It would be the universality of digital language and the networking of the communication system, which create the technological conditions for horizontal, global communication. Although Castells believed that the technical logic of information system was the core of societal progress, he admitted that cultural context as well as social action would still interact with information and communication technology (ICT) system.

Comment Icon0 As with intellectuals enamored by the democratizing potential of the Internet, Castells once stated that “[o]nce privatized, the Internet did not have any actual overseeing authority” (1996). The Internet was believed to have the power to “open the way to the real and final victory of freedom of the press and diversification of opinion” in society (Becker, Hedebro, & Paldan, 1986). New York Times columnist and renowned author Thomas Friedman proclaimed that “the days when governments can isolate and control their people from understanding what life is like beyond their borders are over” because technology was beyond the control of political authorities (2000). Heather Hudson (1997) regarded satellite beaming into Asia as having “served as ‘electronic Trojan horses’, introducing both new services and new operators that governments were reluctant to condone”. In his exploration of Internet in Asia, Jason Abbott discovered that “[s]uch conclusions seem to support arguments about the positive democratic effect of the Internet even in essentially illiberal regimes” (2001). The Internet poses a great challenge to authoritarian governments, as Henry Perrit explained how “[n]o longer can totalitarian regimes ensure themselves a safe environment by controlling the newspapers, radio and television stations because the World Wide Web remains beyond their control and manipulation” (1998).

Comment Icon0 Throughout Western civilization’s media history, this sense of optimism towards the democratic change the Internet would bring to authoritarian regimes has been reiterated many times over. Citing the Chinese government’s efforts in filtering the Internet, the U.S. embassy in Beijing reported how “Internet policy-maker recognized that it was impossible to block all objectionable Internet sites” (Romich, 1999). Not far from earlier President Clinton’s sentiments, then President Bush even went so far as to say: “Imagine if the Internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread” (Kalathil & Boas, 2003). These were the early beliefs of how the Internet technology would function beyond a singular authority’s control. However, if this were clearly the case, why would authoritarian regimes around the world still engage in such regulatory practice?

Chapter 3.1 – Overview of Internet Use Studies

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