Imagine a world in which everyone has the right to speak, act and think as they want without restraint. The ultimate democracy. No filtration, no control, no authority to deny opinion. Welcome to the World (Wide Web).
All content disseminated through the media was once subject to comprehensive filtration by “gatekeepers” (including publishers, mainstream media and government censors). Only information considered well informed and appropriate was allowed into public circulation. While many non-democratic countries such as China maintain strict filtering laws today, the transition to a digital media environment and the rise of the internet in many western cultures has wrenched the door of censorship off its hinges, allowing the free flow of content and expression. But what are the implications of this new media landscape – a world without gatekeepers, without regulation?
The positive repercussions are numerous. A free media environment empowers users, allowing open discussion of opinions. Clay Shirky explains in How Cellphones, Twitter, Facebook Can Make History that this freedom of expression has led to the rise of active, engaged consumers (or prosumers) and a dialogic landscape “where audiences can talk back and to each other”. For example, during the 2011 American presidential campaign, Barak Obama created the website mybo.com as a public forum for discussion of his policies, encouraging citizens to collaborate and converse in an open environment. Participants were given a voice to actively contribute to the campaign. Political empowerment is just one major advantage of a world without gatekeepers.
However, lack of regulation can also have negative consequences. For example, Duncan Gere describes in his article in Wired UK how an image of battle tanks and soldiers in camouflage was circulated on Twitter during the London Riots of 2011, causing the public to claim that the army was assembling in the suburb of Bank. This picture turned out to be from the Egyptian protests earlier in the year. Twitter became a “swirling maelstrom of fear, uncertainty and doubt, punctuated by moments of absolute nonsense”. As can be seen, when there is no implicit filter and no cost of entry in a free environment, the value of the message can diminish and result in the spread of misinformation. But without filters or gatekeepers, how do we judge the credibility of these sources? The internet is increasingly becoming a tangled web of multiple truths. So who do we believe?
A paradox has been created. While we all desire free expression and total transparency of the media, we also require a certain level of filtration to decipher the vast amount of available content. We must seriously consider whether we need to maintain gatekeepers and, if so, in what capacity.
Picture One Sourced from: http://www.blueglass.com/blog/people-power/
Picture Two sourced from: http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/m/misinformation.asp