The state of global mass communication today can be identified through a discussion of key concepts at play. Those concepts are: globalization, media concentration or conglomeration, electronic colonialism, and consumerism.
Many of these terms, such as globalization, struggle to have one widely accepted meaning. The challenges facing a standard in defining many of the international mass communications terms is often no more than a matter of point of view. For example, “globalization theories draw on a variety of different and sometimes contradictory perspectives” (Grugel & Hout qtd. in Kumar, 2003, p. 90). Still, common themes emerge allowing us to arrive at working definitions for the purpose of this essay.
The dark side of global mass communication
Robert Chrisman writes that globalization can be defined as a form of imperialism in which consumption and consumer values are extended, imposed upon the oppressed to fully assure identification with metropolitan values and to create the world in its own economic cultural image (Chrisman, 2008, p. 14).
Chrisman’s definition points to a strong economic tie in defining globalization while putting emphasis on consumption, imposition and culture. Specifically, Chrisman’s definition alludes to globalization working towards a form of global uniformity, most often Chrisman argues, a uniformity, which takes on the image of the dominant ideology.
Ron Anderson argues that globalization is more of a mantra and that globalization can “describe any form of the observed contemporary tendency for the movement of labour capital and investment, ideas, communications and technology, people and culture” (2010, p. 8).
Globalization defined then is strongly tied to the movement of resources (raw goods, information, technology, capital, culture etc. across borders. We’ll discuss later the implications of globalization in the state of international mass communications today.
Media concentration or conglomeration can be identified as the hyper-concentration of corporate holdings, including media properties (print, broadcast and digital) under giant corporate parents. In other words, the movement of media owned by many, to media owned by few and driven by corporate interests.
Electronic colonialism is a concept that can trace its roots to theory and “focuses on how global media [particularly digital and electronic] … influence how people look, think and act” (McPhail, 2010, p. 22). Additionally, it also implies a power of a dominant ideology over another.
Consumerism can be defined as the phenomenon that in many cases drives capitalism. The definition of a self or culture based on consumption.
These four terms, all share a common stakeholder, economics. Indeed, the flow of information is key to political, social and cultural power that eventually delivers a wealth of economic power to a dominant ideology.
State of Global Mass Communications Today
At the start of the new millennium, the world saw the merger of two media giants. Steven Case’s AOL, worth a whopping $163 billion, merged with Time Warner, led by Gerald Levin and worth an equally impressive $120 billion. The newly formed AOL Time Warner became the world’s largest media holding company boasting more than 292 separate companies within its control (Bagdikian, 2004, pgs. 30-32).
Just 20 years prior to the AOL-Time Warner merger, about 50 people owned a majority of the world’s media according to Ben Bagdikian, a world-renowned author on media concentration. By 2003, 5 companies controlled nearly all of the global media, those conglomerates are: Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann. The big 5 own not only media properties but also either own directly or influence heavily a variety of corporate interests. (2003, pgs. 27-50)
“What is happening in communications is the same story of run amuck corporate cannibalism terrorizing most of American business” (Cohen, 1997, p. 39).
The early 2000s saw companies dominated by western ideology gobble up enormous media and communication capacity, a notion that decades prior had global organizations alarmed.
During the decades of the Cold War, the flow of information arose as a key topic in global affairs. As Western, particularly American interests, fought for the hearts and minds of countries at risk of falling to Soviet control the impact of international mass communication power and information took center stage.
A pronounced concern over the future of international mass communications began to emerge, one concerned with the equitable distribution of information versus dominance by a culture seeking economic, cultural and political influence.
In 1946, the United Nations formed a specialized agency known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization or UNESCO. UNESCO would host, for the next several decades, key conferences and debates on the topics of information and international mass communication (McPhail, 1981, pgs. 59-64).
UNESCO was arguably the most prominent organization involved in the concept of a New World Information Communication Order (NWICO) that sought a “more just and equitable balance in the flow and content of information” (McPhail, 1981, p 14). Long before the mergers of today, organizations across the world worried about the flow of information controlled by the few, affecting the many.
The state of international mass communications then, is in many ways the same as then if only accelerated more today by technological advances. Those who own information and its flow maintain economic, political and cultural control and this is facilitated through conglomeration, globalization, electronic colonialism and consumerism.
The first decade of the new millennium would be filled with mergers and acquisitions that paint a picture of international mass communication systems owned and operated by just a few corporate giants who possess primarily a western cultural identity.
The media is trusted with serving as gatekeepers of information. By 2003 corporate interests dominated the world’s media, interests that are driven by profit.
Media corporations have always possessed the power to affect politics. That is not new in history. But the five dominant corporations: Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom and Bertelsmann, have the power that media in the past history did not, power created by new technology and the near uniformity of their political goals (Bagdikian, 2004, p.11).
As previously defined, globalization can be described as the movement of resources (raw goods, information, technology, capital, culture etc.) across borders and in many cases quickly, in regards to information and communication, instantly. For the sake of international mass communications, globalization is concerned with the transfer of information, technology and culture most often.
The “deregulation of telecommunications systems and computerization have been called the parents of globalization” (Hacthen & Scotton, 2007, p. 2). Not shockingly, media is often hyped as playing a key role in globalization. It’s not surprising that “communication technologies have shaped current processes of cultural globalization” (Bielsa, 2008, p. 247).
With so many of the world’s communications systems and media outlets controlled by western cultures, the developing world is often subjected to the ideologies dominant in those western cultures, chief among them, consumerism which we will discuss in a moment.
The double edged-sword benefits of global mass communication?
One can argue that the capacity to communicate with someone across the globe instantly has many benefits that can be positive. “The free flow of information in our contemporary societies has greatly enhanced connectivity and facilitated globalization, but is has also brought with it the threat of cultural standardization” (Zayani, 2011, 48).
The standardization that Zayani suggests is accelerated through the phenomenon of electronic colonialism. “The global electronic network that has evolved over the last decade is forcing us to redefine our ideas of sovereignty” (Hachten & Scotton, 2007, pgs. 6-7). Electronic colonialism is rooted in theory that “focuses on how global media … influence how people look, think, and act” (McPhail, 2010, p 22).
McPhail has written on topics of international mass communications for years. Conglomeration and globalization are foundational pieces to electronic colonialism, which, he says, has “real potential to displace or alter previous cultural values, language, lifestyles or habits, activities, or family rituals” (McPhail, 2010, p. 23). The displaced values and cultural elements usually end up being replaced by those prevalent in the dominant ideology. In an earlier book he defines electronic colonialism as
The dependency relationship established by the importation of communication hardware, foreign-produced software, along with engineers, technicians, and related information protocols, that vicariously establish a set of foreign norms, values, and expectations which, in varying degrees, may alter the domestic cultures and socialization process (McPhail, 1981, p. 20).
Electronic colonialism is tied intimately to the information revolution, and just like revolutions before it, the industrial revolution for example, when power and control tips to the dominant culture, colonization occurs. In the world of international mass communications, colonization is the flow of information and media, something UNESCO set out to break up decades before the current state of affairs among international mass communication. The cultures often colonized under electronic colonialism fall to the dominant ideology. “Rather than fight, cultures often blend” (Hachten & Scotton, 2007, p. 2).
A prominent example of electronic colonialism falls into the realm of music television. Specifically, Music Television (MTV) has focused on youth across the world. MTV promotes mostly western music and pumps western influence into countries across the world, MTV is owned by Viacom, one of the big 5 (McPhail, 2010, pgs. 238-241).
Electronic colonialism is sometimes propagated subversively, and less direct than the broadcast example of MTV. Suggested by Golding and Harris, electronic colonialism is often imposed in the form of international aid from the developed world, to developing countries. “People in the third world should take a hard look at what so-called ‘aid’ has wrought in their countries.” (1997, 114) Golding and Harris argue that the 1980s and 1990s propelled western aid in developing countries ravaged by wars and disasters. That aid often included the establishment of western communications structures that benefited the growing concentration of media ownership. As with most colonialism, it’s about control of resources that leads to power. (1997)
What Golding and Harris describe, the flow of resources from the developed world to the developing world is tandem with world system theory, closely linked to dependency theory. The theory looks at three dimensions of nations and international communications: periphery, semi periphery and core with the core being dominated by the developed world where media concentration takes place and the other two categories made up of developing and less advanced countries.
According to the theory “Core nations exert control to their benefit and define the nature and extent of interactions with the other two zones” (McPhail, 2010, p. 24). We’ve seen this played out on today’s international mass communication stage by the U.S., engaged in two wars in the middle east, now rebuilding infrastructure providing technology, resources, capital etc.
All of these activities, media concentration, globalization and electronic colonialism play out on the international mass communication stage today bringing us back to the initial outcome of conglomeration: economic motivation. Those who own the media, impose ideology on weaker nations who fall victim to globalization and electronic colonialism. As a result cultures of developing countries that aren’t historically rooted in consumerism or driven by profit begin to adapt opening up new markets for companies in the developed world.
A perfect example of developing consumerism in remote parts of the world, opening up new markets exists in the far east, the country of India in particular has seen dramatic changes. Indian culture historically is not rooted in consumerism. Today, consumerism is reaching all time highs due to globalization, media influence and electronic colonialism (Ghosh, 2011, pgs. 153-172).
Through the four concepts outlined in this essay: globalization, media conglomeration, electronic colonialism, and consumerism, we can see a glimpse into the state of international mass communications today. A battle between the flow of information in a digital age that has untapped limitless potential, juxtaposed with the economic ambitions of corporations that advance a dominant ideology into new corners of the globe seeking economic, political and cultural power.
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