Media, communication and struggles over transparency

Issues of transparency are not new, but have been magnified in the information society—often because of the scale and scope of information available—and because news media are increasingly part of the story, not merely, the storytellers.

The roles played by leading newspapers worldwide—the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, O Globo, El Pais and others—in reviewing and publishing stories based on disclosures by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s NSA files have thrust them into the debate about how much transparency society needs. Arguments over information they published and whether disclosures serves public purposes have been animated. These debates highlight differences in views about transparency in security matters, but they also are forcing society to address more fundamental issues about transparency involving many other issues.

Transparency debates are not just a struggle over information and secrecy, but about the bases of human interaction and experience. Transparency is a philosophical and ideological concept based on the view that disclosure is good for society. From a philosophical standpoint, however, transparency is not good in itself—like serenity, beauty, or truth—because for thing to be good in itself it cannot produce harm. Transparency, however, can produce negative consequences by harming dignity and modesty, creating surveillance and means for coercion, endangering public safety, fuelling violence and conflict, and exposing proprietary information in ways that harm economic development.

Transparency does have functional value for achieving desirable outcomes, such as understanding the environment, exposing corruption and abuse of power, promoting trust, facilitating democratic decision making, and making price evaluations in markets.  Information must be available or effective choices cannot be made. But it is not exposure merely for the sake of exposure, so it must be balanced with concepts of privacy, solitude, and security—which lead to debates about when and how transparency is practiced.

The debates taking place today are part of a highly visible struggle over transparency in information age. Digital platforms and all media are playing central roles in debates about the proper extent of transparency involving government, business, banking, and our personal lives. Media themselves are also gathering and using data from their users for their private gain, just as are other companies.

Some of the debates are occurring because of the differing norms and mores of the material and digital world. The norms of the material world tend to involve structure, authority, control, hierarchy, and formality; whereas the norms of immaterial world involve amorphous arrangements, collaboration, empowerment, egalitarianism, and informality. These differing norms and the struggles over the norms have significant implications for government, business, and personal life. They are part of a fundamental struggle over the political economy of information and data.

Wikileaks, Anonymous, and other actors are active participants in the struggle and battling powerful commercial and governmental forces that wish to impose the norms of the material world into the digital, non-material world. It is not surprising they have brought major media into their campaigns, nor should not be surprising that they have fallen afoul of state power. Activists with libertarian and anarchistic tendencies have historically generated backlashes from the state and elites because threats to power typically result in the exercise of power—a very Machiavellian response.

The debates over transparency, the use of information and data, and who should be transparent about what will grow more heated in the coming years. Media and media businesses will play important parts in the debates, not merely as conveyors of information about others, but also about the extent to which they will become more transparent on their own.

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