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Home > Manufacturing Consent > The Media, Framing, and the Internet: Dominant Ideologies Persist
Framing, and the Internet:
Harrington, February 1998
In this essay I wish to deal with a number of topics, which will further our understanding of the relationship between the mass media, specifically television and the Internet, and the issue of framing, and hence ideological representation. I wish to argue that ‘dominant ideologies’ persist in modern media. I will put forward a complex argument, by the end of which it should be clear that the Internet is a tool of the ‘ruling’ elites of society, which is used as a means of cultural control.
We will not be so short sighted, as to argue that this control is constant or omnipresent, but that in only certain cases alternative views can be found, however these are few and far between. Initially we will look at television, and then draw from this material to re-examine the Internet, and see that it is not as many have presumed it to be the perfect democratising tool, but a tool that represents ideologically the leading elites of our world. In many ways the Internet wishes to create the perfect subjects of a modern westernised world, that of the perfect, passive consumer. But before we get in to the thick of things, let us examine framing…
Let us now begin with the question: what exactly is meant when someone speaks of a media frame? Charlotte Ryan in Prime Time Activism, where she is specifically dealing with main stream news, says a frame can be described in the following way: ‘how news stories are made i.e. how pieces of information are selected and organised to produce stories that make sense to their writers and audiences we call this process framing’. (Ryan, C. 1991, pg.53) She goes on to further develop this definition:
In this we can see that the process of framing is quite complicated and also that it is a matter of frame competition - not some arbitrary choice at the whim of some executive. The inevitability of a frame being presented must also be understood. In the course of this essay it should be made clear that in the majority of cases the frame that wins this competition is usually one which falls into line with the common dominant ideologies. Information we receive everyday, at every hour from every media source has inherent frames.
This is all very well, but if we can’t identify media frames there is little point in saying that they exist at all. William Gamson points to how elusive frames can be when one is trying to find or elucidate which frame persists in a medium.
In making the world look ‘natural’ some values must come to bear on that which is being described. Some ideology will be presented, and in that presentation the values of the reported or the owner of the medium are more likely to be expressed than those outside the institution. (This area will be developed later)
However, frames are even more elusive in the fact that it may be only representational, that is, at a level that is intangible, in so much that speech acts can be heard and interpreted, so too can the physical presentation of the message. For example who is reading the news? Why dose the studio look like it dose? Why are the majority of news readers white? But, even at the level of the camera, this level that is taken for granted in the presentation of all messages on the TV and Internet. Where is the lens aimed? Where from? Who comes out looking ‘good/ clean’? And ‘bad/ dirty’? Trowler emphasises the importance of looking at ideological representations in the media even at this seemingly superficial level.
Trowler goes on to describe how ‘without the need for commentary’ (Ibid.) the frame presented is one that is siding with the law, without comment one is unsure as to who is ‘right’ or who is ‘wrong’ (although no situation would ever be so clear cut and simple) so adhering to the view that is presented is obviously the easiest option, for negotiating with the text or deconstructing the image and reconstructing it to some inherent referential truth would take effort. (Of course I could not argue that one single truth exists but in construction of a truth viewers must make sense of what they see, and in doing this it must be reflexive, unless they have the capacity or means to negotiate the ‘truth’ of what they see in another manner.) In Trowler's description, context is essential, it gives the meaning, situation is the key to understanding. But the context itself is or has been manipulated to conform to a set of beliefs or codes.
Most certainly then:
Moving from this, we must use a model to identify frames. A useful model is Robert Entman's, (From McCullagh, C. 1996/7, Lecture Series.)
In this section our main concern is to check whether the main frame presented by the media is one that would be consistent with the views of the elites in society.
Ciaran McCullagh has argued that the key aspect of the media is their power of representation. They present to the audience events, issues, they are, as we have seen selective, but is this selectivity systematic? Theorists have argued from many perspectives including those of the views that:
I wish to concentrate on the issues of the ‘powerful dominate’ and that of gender representations, also ideological hegemony. Later in this essay we will examine more closely the Internet and the representation of gender therein. We will first look to the empirical research of others in relation to television, and then into the world of interactive media such as the ‘net’ (the Internet).
There are many theorists who support the view that in most cases the media present news and events in a manner that not only agrees with the views of the powerful, but actually supports their domination.
These theorists believe that the maintenance of order is the key idea to be examined in the media. Micheal Foucault (1979 and 1980) has shown how in earlier times violence and the threat of physical force was used to maintain order.
So the argument is that the dominated are encouraged to see the world as the powerful do, using the various media in this manner is obviously an excellent and efficient means of control. In our subjugation we don’t see that our values are in fact not our own, but we are continuously receiving the messages of the powerful and sublimating them to our conscious every time we consume a media product. (see: Barthes, R. 1972. Althusser, L. 1971. Gramsci, A. 1971. Hall, S. 1981. Bignall, J. 1997.) Ernesto Laclau allows for the fact that the media world-wide would find it hard to be so collectively manipulative, but that it can still maintain order by ‘leading’ rather than ‘ruling’ (Storey, J. 1998, pg.189)
James Lull (1995, pg.11) explains how most are resigned to seeing the world as the ‘leaders’ do.
This includes how people make sense of their society including its levels of violence, racial composition and gender roles, even their vocational expectations and political alternatives (Gerbner, G. and Gross, L. 1976).
They say that ‘TV is an agency of the established order and as such, serve primarily to extend and maintain rather than alter, , or weaken conventional conceptions and behaviours…its chief cultural function is to spread and stabilise social patterns’ (Ibid. pg.175). For Hall this is manifest in the media’s ability to ‘ideologically represent’ (Hall, S. 1985 in Lull, J. 1995) and for him the media is very successful at doing this. Paul Trowler draws up a lengthy model of the ‘how and why?’ the media present the frames that they do, he calls this model the ‘Manipulative Model’ (1988, pgs. 31-39) we will take a quick overview of just some of the issues he explores in this model. In the making of the news:
All of the factors set out above ensure that ‘the effect on the audience is to generate attitudes which are both uncritical and supportive of the status quo’ (Ibid.).
Stuart Hall has greatly expanded upon this model, in terms of it being a part of what Louis Althusser calls ‘The State Ideological Apparatuses’ (1971), Hall greatly simplifies Althusser’s model, or rather explains it with reference to the media and its role in subjugation. His thesis also takes into consideration Antonio Gramsci’s idea of ‘ideological hegemony’ (1971)
Hall states that hegemony is the ‘…dominance and subordination in the field of relations structured by power’ (in Lull, J. 1995, pg.31). With respect to the aforementioned theorists, Hall says that ‘The mass media are tools of ruling elites used to perpetuate their power, wealth and status [by popularising] their own philosophy’ (in Boggs, C. 1976, pg.39). In effect the media conform to the ideals of hegemonic control by perpetuating the very system under which it operates so, media hegemony means:
Many others have argued in a similar manner, Philip Elliot says much the same thing that ‘The most potent effect of the mass media is how they subtly influence their audience to perceive social roles and routine personal activities’ (in Lull, J. 1995, pg.33).
All the above theorists would agree that an elite group in society, more often than not, those who are in positions of political leadership, or involved in cultural production or commodification, and even those elites involved in ‘leading’ i.e. as we have seen, those with the power to point out to us that certain things should be carried out in certain ways.
For example politicians show us what is acceptable in society, transgressions are punishable. Those involved in the production of the media tell us how to live: essentially how to consume. Those in product manufacture only manufacture what we are supposed to consume; there are of course niche products outside mainstream consumption.
What are deemed part of culture are mass produced for us to digest unquestioningly- music such as All Saints, Boyzone, products such as Levi’s jeans and Vero Moda, the lists and types are endless, all things contrary to the elite guide to life is assimilated and the associated subversive message - for example Che Guvera as an icon readily used in fliers advertising for night clubs in the city of Cork- is made redundant.
Lastly we can see that there are those in society – celebrities, stars, the rich and famous- who guide or lead people in lifestyle and living. All these various groups shorten the distance between the powerful and us and as many have argued, hence we learn to see the world as the powerful do. Also as we have seen the media are the most effective device of the powerful to keep society in check. Later we will examine how the Internet is just an additional means of elites to keep perpetuating this control.
However, one must acknowledge that sometimes ‘new news’ does make it onto the media agenda, we must take a quick look at how do new issues or new interpretations get into the mass media? How is the media agenda opened up? How is it influenced? Who has the power to make these changes?
If we look to the work of Ciaran McCullagh (1996/7 lecture Series) he offers many reasons how alternative or new views can get onto the news:
We cannot go further in developing each of these ideas, what we must however acknowledge is that even when issues do make it onto the mass media more often than not it has been found that the manner that the story is construed will not be so far outside the narrow focus of the dominant ideologies and that over time these conflicting views can be assimilated to fit the dominant ideology. The impact and scope of such new news is very much limited.
In this section we are going to see that the net is most effective as a means of cultural control, we will test to see if the Internet is democratic or not. Is Internet text framed? Is it unbiased? If it is framed, who’s views are presented? Are the views of the powerful in society presented? Is the net inherently gender biased or sexist?
Steve Barnett says that some theorists hold that the Internet ‘…is the perfect instrument for recreating in 21st century political life the kind of participative democracy which has not existed since...Ancient Greece.’ (1997, pg.194), and perhaps it will, but what these theorists are really referring to is not the democracy of Ancient Greece – because many Grecian city-states were under despotic rule - because it was not a single entity, but to Ancient Athenian democracy.
Is this the kind of democracy to which we aspire? I would doubt it, however, I believe that the Internet does operate somewhat closely to some of the criteria mentioned above, and it will be made quite clear which ones in the following…
In researching this essay I came across many texts which held it that the Internet was in fact the greatest invention of mankind since electricity. In particular American sociologists and cultural theorists get quite carried away with themselves when writing, and come out with statements such as the following:
It may be all these things, but for whom? Who is setting the agenda on which people such as myself can enter and become the ‘statesMAN, pundit…’ what if I am uneducated can I still be all these things? Jones would certainly argue that I can (see Watson, N 1996, pgs. 80-101 in Jones, G. ed., 1996). I would not.
The main concerns in these texts include issues of free speech and a defence of pornography on the net and ridiculing what they see as those with a moral agenda e.g. ‘the Internet is the latest and grossest violator of moral standards to appear. And it appears not on some sleazy back street, but right in the home of every American with a phone line and a computer.’ (Detweiler, 1996 in Jones, G. ed., 1996, pg. 21).
In the defence of pornography, these writers are sure that free speech for all is the only step forward to a true democracy. However I would argue that pornography on the net is generally a male preoccupation –see Appendix A, of this essay- which I believe shows conclusively that males are the ones setting the Internet agenda, and it is only a certain segment of society in the production of these pages, this will be developed later. So there are endless discussions on democracy but the main concerns are sex, and newer faster technologies.
Now let us put this idea to the test. In this section I will further develop what I have said earlier about Appendix A of this essay.
I wish to test the fact that if we use the net as a democratic tool, one must, without specialist knowledge be able to find information on any topic they desire, at least this is what most theorists would have us believe. Appendix A is the result of my searches.
The task was simple, I choose to look up issues of gender, if the net is democratic, one would presuppose that the amounts of information on both males and females would be equal, but to go further that just quantifying this, I wanted as far as was possible to comment qualitatively on the search results. In the search the first two of a possible six search engines were used, there was no selection on my part as to which two were used they -Lycos and Infoseek- just happened to be the first two that became available.
I simply typed in a search term, such as ‘female’ or ‘feminism’ and wrote down the top 10 search results as they came up on the screen, admittedly the results are, to say the least, alarming. The results in my mind go a long way in showing most certainly, how sexist and undemocratic the Internet is. Providers of these pages are generally males concerned with pornography.
If those mentioned are so concerned with ‘free speech’ on the net where are the voices of the feminists? Yes, we got the porn you called for but nothing else! Males in power have obviously ensured that there are no coherent feminist perspectives represented on the Internet. This is then an ideological manipulation, where counter ideologies are consciously forced out, or weakened by the manipulation of the space that is supposed to represent counter views to the dominant ones.
But there are other factors one can argue on why the Internet is not democratic, and also a tool of the powerful in society. Stated simply these factors include the following:
- Cost: P.C. (Personal Computer) machines are very expensive, not everyone can afford to have not only a P.C., but also, a modem and a subscription to an Internet server. Also due to the volume of information a good quality printer is considered an essential by most. Jonathan Bignell makes a valid and interesting point when he says:
Bignell is describing the consumer who has time, is educated, and has money, he argued these are the people who can afford to use the net. Others have argued that new systems like ‘Netproducts Netstation’ will make the Internet available to all, retailing at just over £300 in England, but this system just turns your TV into a glorified ‘playstation’, (Jenkins, C. 1998, pg.136) but the problem is that it turns a new medium into an old form i.e. of television.
The ability to reply to texts is limited by the fact that the keyboard is on the TV remote control and as many of us know buttons on remotes soon become redundant when the use of certain keys is simply an ‘additional feature’, so in effect the net becomes little more that a picturesque tellytext. Many of the cheaper machines allow reading but not replying. Therefore these machines become read only machines, no interactions are possible.
- Specialist Knowledge: The major problem in the net is that if you don’t know where you are going you probably wont get there. Katie Argyle writes about being bored with the net and the amounts of totally useless information thereon (1997). One has to be attentive and persistent in order to find what they may be looking for or a closely related topic.
- Advertising and Consumption: Essentially the net is a place where people come to consume, it is a most effective tool at selling. If the net is democratic why is approximately 50% of space advertising? Mainly large companies who can afford to advertise on the net, the elite power companies so to speak, pay large marketing companies for ad’s. Ad’s are there of course to divert your attention away from what you want to know about, to some product or another with the false promises of ‘press here you may win…’ or ‘press now to enter the draw…’ even ‘Join Bank Of Boston today…the worlds bank…’ For me this is what the net can be reduced to an ‘Argos catalogue’ of products and services.
- Technological information: One must have a basic knowledge of computers in order to ‘get around’ on the net. If one wishes to make a web page, one must have a capability in a computer language, and be able to pay to have their page on the net with various servers, it is found that the vast majority of people with the skills necessary to do this are White Male Americans. Their views one would imagine would generally coincide with those of the dominant groups in society seeing as it is to these groups they belong. Hence the results cited in Appendix A. (see: Bignell, J. 1997, Dietrich, D. 1997, Street, J. 1997)
- Sources of information: One has to be able use information they receive, otherwise it is useless.
- Unrepresentational: As can be seen from the study of the net (Appendix A) issues are not represented by the actual subject of the search titles, in other words you don’t usually get the information you want, and in many cases the subject matter that one gets is a pejorative resentment of the topic at hand.
- Surveillance: The Internet increases the ‘potential for social control and surveillance’ (Gandy, 1989, Spears and Lea, 1994, in McQuail, D, 1997, pg.24). Computer hacking is no longer a fine art, but something anyone would be capable of with, again, a background training in computers. Personal computer machines can be quite easily ‘bugged’ these days, and many firms keep two separate networks, one a closed system the other open for communication with the outside, to safeguard information on bank accounts, private communications, customer details etc.
- Misogynism: The net is obviously sexist, my own empirical research shows just how biased it is.
There are fundamental flaws in the design of the net. If one looks back to why the net was created at all, and couple this with how it is used what we see is that the thing was not designed for developing democracy at all, in fact the opposite, and that the net is just a new technology which is formulated in an old way. In this, we know that it presents to us users, the ideological representations of the powerful, and basically treats us as consumers.
Bignell argues that ‘the patterns of technology use seem to be similar to existing ones, rather than the technology creating new forms of independent media producer (rather than consumer) and new forms of control over texts and meanings’ (Bignell, J. 1997, pg.208).
Similarly Doris Graber says that ‘Despite an explosion of politically orientated Home Pages on the World Wide Web…little has been added that is genuinely new that enriches the information supply beyond…the far smaller circle of the ‘old’ media’ (Graber, D.A. 1997, pg.33).
Again just like television the viewer or net user is ‘an end point in a huge network, and in this sense is like the TV viewer who is an individual receiver of TV broadcasts which are also being watched by a multitude of other individuals all separated from each other’ (Bignell, J. 1997 pg.209).
Bignell continues to describe how companies are in fact hailing the Internet as the best way of advertising that has come on line since TV. So more and more emphasis is upon an audience of consumers not actively seeking out information but passively swimming through the net, for ‘surfing’ connotes speed, there is nothing fast about sifting through the information and ad’s on the net. The new medium of the Internet has been appropriated by the Elites of society – in fact, it never left their hands only cult popular culture and over zealous sociologists would have us believe the contrary - to fit the style of the old media which they as we have seen use so well.
There has been no amazing change in the production and consumption of information since the net has been popularised. In so much as newspapers have become indicators of how to consume, so too has the net. The big bright ‘cookies’ (advertisements) occupy every page on the net, texts seem secondary to these in much the same vein glossy ad’s in newspapers are the main focus, embellishing the space around the black writing on the white news sheet. Information is presented in the old style, just reiterating the old ways of thinking doing and being. The ‘Elite’ model persists.
The next time you ‘log on’ notice how we the ‘users’ are encouraged to consume virtual information in a similar manner to that of print media.
We see ‘serious news’ versus ‘popular news’, ‘free’ information versus information one must subscribe to, niche or special interest news versus mass information, all of this midst the spectrum of advertising. Nothing has changed, we are encouraged not to actively interact at all, but consume and wade through…We in fact become, what I would call ‘netted’ where the user is believed to be interacting as a consumer on consumer related topics, and is finding out only how to consume and be passive rather than negotiate with information, and carry out the revolutions that one would believe are happening.
The failing premise, that those who believe that the net can bring about social change, fall upon is brought to light by Richard Sclove:
He makes it quite clear that we must ask the questions: why the net? Where did it come from? By whom? The net began as an American war machine a means of the various army groupings to communicate, Sclove wants us to understand then that
In effect the technology was developed to promote dominant ideologies when the nets use as a war machine became redundant due to ‘hacking’. One can imagine the American government selling the idea to large corporations, ‘its like having a second TV except they can order direct, and pay as they buy and you can advertise with interactive tools’. Some subversive material gets put in mainly as jokes of some sort, by those with the knowledge and capabilities to do so.
In this case the existence of the net interpolates the subject of the consumer, this subject is perhaps the perfect subject of the dominant groups in ‘late modernity’ because they are interpolated as perfect consumers, consuming unquestioningly, and conforming to the dominant ideologies, through their cultural practices.
As Denis McQuail points out the ‘Audience as a market is reinforced and extended, especially in the sense of a market for…hardware. The audience consists of buyers of technology as much as receivers of messages…good for cash flow and advertising…willing to pay high prices…’ (1997, pg.131). The framing of the product itself is one, which encourages consumption, and thus has a stabilising effect on society as the acceptance of new technologies grow. These products encourage cultural control by promoting the values of the elites, as Hall has described (page 9, this essay).
For technology to have a democratising force, Sclove argues that it must empower people (1995), it is obvious that the net for the average user does not empower but dissuade. Althusser, as we have seen would argue that the net is part of the ISA’s i.e. part of the Ideological State Apparatuses. It is a physical representation of dominant ideology, a tool for subjugation, most of the material on which is framed extraneously or physically as being part of the dominant ideology.
Frames exist in the way material is presented, i.e. feminism as a joke, or presenting, in dedicated feminist space, articles that do their utmost to support machismo, and male domination. Issues are set forth in a manner that renders the user senseless, and this desensitisation disarms the participant, who will in turn, in most cases, become overwhelmed, fed up, or disillusioned with the up-hill battle.
Frames most certainly exist and as we have seen the dominant ideology is usually the presented frame, we have looked at this phenomenon, firstly with respect to the medium of television, and then the Internet. We have seen that the net is a physical manifestation of elite ideology, but also the material thereon, which operates as a means of cultural control, however we acknowledge that in a few cases as with all media, alternative voices can be found/ heard.