Battles About the Production of Meaning and Political Narratives
Por Guillermo J. García
Think Tank project: Valdai Discussion Club & Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). Programme: Global Democracy and International Governance
In order to obtain victories in the Semiosis War, the best way to gain in "the productions of meaning" is to be open, responsive and accurate for all the actors involved in the communications process, especially the governments, writes Guillermo J. García, Communications Secretary of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and CARI
Nowadays there is a sort of Semiosis War taking place in an apparent anarchical way inside the news digital ecosystem whether at national or global scale. For explanatory purposes, this paper is focused on the national scales.
This "battle" about the production and reproduction of meaning is not new in the social sciences communications field, but now is quite easier to detect semantic prints than it used to be, because the digital media ecosystem has matured enough to comprehend the communications process as a unique theoretical construct.
That comprehensive frame contains all social media platforms as well as traditional news outlets (including radio and TV) that operate in the Web.
In other words, it is an anachronism in 2020 to analyze the digital ecosystem in separate units, because each type of media outlet or platform performs an interdependence multiway feedback influence loop in the communications spaghetti bowl.
So, inside all that complex arena there are actors pushing to produce meanings to be reproduced by other actors. All this process could be considered as the "soup" of the formation of Public Opinion, at least in the digital ecosystem. A path before the building of Agenda Setting in the Political Arena.
Nevertheless, all the communications process has two weakness points, that attend against the health and transparency of the production and reproduction of meaning, that also debilitate the ideal of free competition and anarchical piece of information offers, that precedes the semiosis result.
On the one hand, "the convergence of social media, algorithmic news curation, bots, artificial intelligence, and big data analysis, were creating echo chambers that reinforced our biases, were removing indicia of trustworthiness, and were generally overwhelming our capacity to make sense". (1)
And on the other hand, the context of a draining news business model that the traditional watchdog journalism has been suffering since the inception of the Web 1.0 last century. All of this has made an underpaid media crew, with less time and resources to investigate and pursuit their own agendas.
At this point it is appropriate to look back and remember that this apparently anarchical dispute inside each information ecosystem about the production and reproductions of meaning has a "big boss" inside: who runs the State, has more tools to produce and reproduce meanings. To put it short, the National Government States, are the main source on constructing and deconstructing meaning in their societies.
Additionally, that situation brings more sense to the process of "governing with the news" (2) that Political Communications scholar Timothy Cook described as the inseparable symbiotic relations between politicians and journalists; professional news outlets are more dependent than ever from "government officials for daily information handouts" (3) as the native digital media tends to accuse their older brothers born after Internet showed up.
Therefore, as a former spokesperson of the Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry, let me add some humor here: I am a bit jealous of my colleagues today, because reporters are less harsh and inquisitors than they used to be, but not all of them, of course. And as I tried to highlight it is a structural issue and not about professional capabilities. Seriously. But in all seriousness, this situation is a negative gap for republican democracies around the world.
Still about hearts and minds
All in all, we can say that to impulse a Government narrative it is still the struggle to conquer the hearts and minds of the people, and especially the gatekeepers of the complex digital information ecosystem, described above. However, it is still, as the seminal study of the journalist and diplomatic Walter Lippmann defined it, "the pictures in our heads". (4)
How does all this description connect with the narratives of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, or the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, for instance, in this pandemic world? Or even that of Anders Tegnell, the Swedish epidemiologist responsible for fighting Covid-19. I do not have all the answers, but I am wary that there are some links between them.
Because I am a realist, and to analyze Donald Trump I will need much more time and space, and also, I am not sure if someone could ever come to a complete understanding of his unique character. I have to pass it.
As for Vladimir Putin, Russian experts at the Valdai Club have more knowledge accumulated in almost two decades, but I, on my part, only have to share that my 15-year-old son, Alejandro (Sasha) has a screensaver of a picture of President Putin doing judo. And when I asked him if he has it because he admires him or what, he said "no, his photo makes me not to be distracted when I enter school classes". That is my small inductive prove of the Russian President narrative, in this case giving a sense of I do not know what, but I think it is a good thing to my boy. Thanks Mr. President to help me in my parental duties.
For professional and practical reasons, I will glance at the remaining examples: Brazil and Sweden. Both have decided to fight the pandemic with a herd immunity policy, not always publicly admitted, and to soften up the economic aftermath of Covid-19.
Both countries even before the Covid-19, have increased the circulation of the traditional Media (5) inside the digital ecosystem. In the Brazilian example, it is doable to say that it was a systemic response of the professional journalists against the fake news, most of them about the followers of "captain Bolsonaro" during the last campaign that put him as the current resident of Alvorada Palace, where the Brazilian Presidents live during their term at office. Since then, Mr. Bolsonaro has a problematic relationship with the main gatekeepers of the digital information ecosystem, the journalists and other media influencers on the rest of the ecosystem.
On the contrary, even though there is an increasing negative sentiment shown in the media against the coronavirus policy in Sweden, Tegnell and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have improved their popularity. So, in Sweden although there are strong debates about it, the axis Media-Government is not so passionate, and polarizing compared to Brazil.
Another difference could be able to infer, about this good cohabitation is that the Swedish State subsides a great number of press despite their bias.
Summing up, given an intensive reciprocal bond between public officers and the media, the first step should be to persuade, not to impose a political narrative. So, during the pandemic with the same policy, the populist and authoritarian discourse of Bolsonaro has not been entirely successful in contrast with the Swedish affable democratic approach.
What is clear is that to obtain victories in the Semiosis War, the best way to gain in "the productions of meaning" is to be open, responsive and accurate for all the actors involved in the communications process, especially the governments.
(1) Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda. Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
(2) Timothy Cook, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
(3) W. Lance Bennet, News. The Politics of Illusion (The University of Chicago Press, London 2016).
(4) Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Wading River, Long Island 1921 USA, E-book July 2014 Start Publishing).
(5) Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019.De libre uso con mención de la fuente