Sociologist from Malta

Monday, December 04, 2017

When civil society hits the news - Michael Briguglio

Officialdom is losing status: it no longer holds a monopoly over the news cycle. Media is produced from above, below and across physical and digital space.
This offers a tremendous opportunity for civil society, according to Alex Pigman, Brussels correspondent for Agence France Presse (AFP). The seasoned journalist explained this during a lecture held last week in Brussels.
Pitman said that in a world of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, breaking news stories are what drive the news cycle. This increases the speed of news production and consumption. Twitter in particular is designed to capture the attention of journalists, especially though its live hashtag feeds.
At the same time, many news stories on key events are written in advance, with different items being predictable. Civil society can and should take note of this when pre-writing items for news consumption.
But civil society should understand what and when key news items appear, and how to make the most of it. Activism is not only about holding banners and marching in the streets. It is also about finding opportunities hidden in text.
Stories can be found in legislative proposals, policy processes, key events and informal networks.
In turn, stories from such sources are given to the press, which is itself caught up in the vortex of hyper-news production. Snackable news nuggets can also be disseminated widely in the social media and to the press, as the production of news becomes ever more dispersed.
For example, when the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade agreement was negotiated between the European Union and the United States, NGOs discovered policy proposals that were controversial within a European context. These had mostly to do with labour and environmental standards. Facts were exposed to the press and the public. Consequently, the EU had to change its policy-making method.
The Panama Papers issue is another case in point. This time, it was a consortium of journalists which discovered a wealth of information about illegal tax dodging, money laundering and corruption. In countries such as Iceland to Pakistan, this brought about resignations and removals of key politically-exposed persons. In Joseph Muscat’s Malta, such persons were held tightly within the oligarchy.
Nevertheless, the pressure does not seem to be ready to stop, as the Pandora’s box releases more information. The press, whistle-blowers and civil society are producing and disseminating news despite the attempts of oligarchs to close the lid.
News are likely to remain dominant when they gain momentum. For example, the more a message is campaign-like, the more it may seduce the attention of journalists. Obama, Trump, Sanders and Macron are all worthy examples in this regard.
They were part of online ‘retweet’ and ‘likes’ phenomena. Stories were told, emotions were generated, and hey presto, news items were created. ‘Yes we can’, ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Feel the Bern’, and ‘En Marche’ were key words in this regard. Joseph Muscat did this successfully through Tagħna Lkoll and L-Aqwa Żmien.
Global NGOs like Greenpeace, Oxfam, WWF, Amnesty and International Red Cross know this method well, and they capture the news cycle through a repertoire of both online and offline activism.  Think of the civil society activism in the run up of the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2016. Or the sensitisation of the public regarding the migration tragedy in the Mediterranean cemetery. Or the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
Such NGOs often understand the news cycle, and time their actions and statements accordingly. In the words of Pigman, “it’s all set-pieces, predictable, stage-managed”. And there is also a dark side to this: cyber-attacks, fake news, false profiles and trolling.
Media opportunities are crying loud for civil society usage in Malta. In some cases, NGOs did manage to capture the news cycle and time their actions in a strategic manner. An obvious example is that of the LGBTIQ movement which timed its proposals with the 2013 general election, thus becoming a key ally of Labour.
Can good governance provide such an opportunity for civil society in the upcoming election? Labour’s 2017 victory might not bode well. Yet, the opportunities are there. And civil society is in no mood to stop its activism.

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