The New York Times Picks Up on Semiotic Democracy in the Campaign

Over at the New York Times, Brian Stelter reports that the Internet is allowing users to displace “the professional filter[s]” of news e.g. the New York Times and Fox News. And in particular, Internet users are not “just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks.”

Although the article makes no reference to it, Stetler is describing semiotic democracy, a term which has been used to describe how the Internet disburses the power to participate in and add on to culture. Whereas in the past, semiotic power—the power to give meaning to symbols—was concentrated with a small set of power brokers (the government, newspaper editorial boards, large non-profit organizations, etc), the Internet allows individual users to determine what stories are important enough to be made available, circulated, and commented on for public consumption.

Stetler begins by pointing out that while Barack Obama’s speech in response to President Bush’s final State of the Union Address garnered little attention at traditional media outlets, footage spread through social networks and blogs [and presumably emails] to with the result of 1.3 million downloads on YouTube.

Stetler remains focused on Obama for the rest of the article, but given the timing, he might have included some coverage on the circulation of Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ short film “Fitna” as evidence of the potential hurdles “consumers” could face. Because of the Wilder’s film’s controversial subject matter—it interweaves quotes from the Koran with images of “Islamist” violence, threats of violence, and attacks on liberalism to support its warning that the “Islamization” of Europe is a threat to its liberal democracies—Dutch broadcasters refused to air it. After Network Solutions suspended the website Wilder’s intended to use to release the film, it was initially available at LiveLeak (for consumption, linking, and e-mailing), where it was the top film posted on Thursday.

But on Friday, users who clicked on links to the film’s entry on LiveLeaks were directed to “The Removal of ‘Fitna’: the official LiveLeak statement”. It tells viewers:

“Following threats to our staff of a very serious nature, and some ill-informed reports from certain corners of the British media that could directly lead to the harm of some of our staff, has been left with no other choice but to remove Fitna from our servers.

“This is a sad day for freedom of speech on the net but we have to place the safety and well being of our staff above all else….We stood for what we believe in, the ability to be heard, but in the end the price was too high.”

The film is still available on YouTube (although it is divided into two parts), but Wilder’s experience suggests that a self-satisfactory conclusion that the mainstream media will no longer be the gatekeepers to the news shouldn’t end the discussion. User policies at websites like YouTube and LiveLeaks, as well as their vigilant defense of free expression will undoubtedly play a role in determining who and how the news will be filtered, and thus how consumers interact with the news.

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One Response to “The New York Times Picks Up on Semiotic Democracy in the Campaign”

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