Alternative media and national identity
A discussion about the significant role of alternative media in the construction and preservation of national/cultural identities
It is obvious for some people that quite often the national media — or mainstream media — does not represent the majority of the population that they are addressing. In such cases, a significant part of the audience is subjected to a media system fuelled by commercial demands and political interests that don’t reflect their demands nor dialogue with their own reality. We can see that a tendency towards a cultural homogenisation is greater in this context whereas the media is responsible for the process of building a ‘national’ image. To this end, we can think of the term ‘national’ in two different but intertwined ways:
- a homogenised national identity which has been a product of construction;
- a multi-ethnical and heterogeneous community that transcends any institutional limitations, and that identifies themselves as a group because it shares one or more cultural elements of identification, as stated by Cees Hamelink in his book Global Communication.
On the other hand, in opposition to mainstream currents, alternative media presents different resolutions to national identities once it gives voice to dissident viewpoints which are usually marginalised in society. Sharing this perspective, I would like to discuss a little bit the ways in which alternative media plays an important role in appropriating and reshaping mainstream media discourse, by offering new ways of constructing and preserving national and cultural identities.
What is a national identity?
Before discussing about national identity let’s first define what a nation is. In basic lines, what defines a nation is its national and cultural identity.
“The state represents a sovereign political entity with the power and responsibility of administering the territory and subjects of a collectivity. The nation-state is a form of statehood that justifies its existence through claims to being a political roof of a culturally similar collectivity” — Das and Harindranath
Cees Hamelink defends the idea that we live in “nation-states”, a position that combines geo-political units with the idea of nations. Members of society build their perception of themselves as a nation by acknowledging their internal similarities and the differences in comparison to other groups.
However, apart from the cultural bond, a nation is also consolidated by a network of institutions such as the military, legal system, transport system, communications and economy, for example. All these institutions are characterised by political symbols, like a name, a currency, a flag and other visual and symbolic elements which enforce the similarities as a nation-state in distinction to all others. Ruben Pater explains this very well on his book “The Politics of Design”. For instance, many African countries use red, black and green in their flags whereas red is for the blood spilled during the fights for liberation, black for the African people and green for their national wealth. Remembering and uplifting their history, their common identity as a single continent is strengthened.
Communities appropriate cultural elements that act as markers of their identity as well as distinguishing them from other groups. However, a single nation-state may comprise of many ethnic groups, which means that political and ethnic boundaries are in constant negotiation, many times in favour of a single national identity. This brings about the idea of an identity tied by political matters, one that is rigged by historic and cultural imperatives — a model which Anthony D. Smith named the “dominant ethnie model”.
The essence of a nation is the psychological bond that joins a people, and differentiates it, in the subconscious mind of its members, from all non-members — Walker Connor
The short documentary called Mamondo: The DNA Journey presents the idea of ethnic identity in a very simple way, where people from different nationalities are invited to take part on a DNA test to reveal their ancestry traces. Before taking the test, there is an interview session where each person talks about their own cultural identity and how they feel towards other nationalities. By the end of the video, the tests are revealed and many of the interviewers actually come to realise that they share different levels of kinship with ethnic groups that they consider as inferior or enemies. This is a perfect example of the concept of identity formation presented by Hamelink, where the process of defining our own identity is always in contrast from the other whenever we divide the world into “Us” against “Them” and “Them” are not as good as “Us”.
The process of defining our own identity is always in contrast from the other when we divide the world into “Us” against “Them” and “Them” are not as good as “Us”.
Hence, a national identity can be considered as a congruence between ethnic identity and the state, where this identification is consolidated by strong links with the past interweaved with the power of changes in the present, as stated by Bhikhu Parekh on his paper entitled “Discourses on National Identity”.
As we can see in the above image, a national identity is composed by many different ethnic groups which are often distributed through different communities and even different nations. This means that a nation-state should be considered a multi-nation state instead of forcing a “national” unity through integration policies and strict rules on immigrations, for example.
The national media and the national identity
Considering how much of our knowledge of the world comes from mediated communication, this is likely to be a primary source of influence on our structures of identification — Das and Harindranath
This sentence summarizes well the conditions media imposes on our perception of the world and of our identity. According to the authors above, national media is considered the media that constructs a certain homogenised image of the nation, helping to build a ‘national’ culture and a ‘national’ community. This operation is carried out mostly by means of the education and the mass media systems although the media represent only one of the many institutions responsible for a national-building process.
The move of economic organisation towards a capitalistic system promoted a change towards industrialisation which helped the inclusion of people into a common political system the same way the education system became responsible for enculturating groups from periphery into mainstream ideas. This is why we can only recognise the general patterns established by the national media after examining carefully the less apparent ideologies, disguised under the establishment of binary concepts such as “normal” and “abnormal” or “good” and “bad”. This is why heterosexuality is considered a “normal” sexuality if compared to homosexuality, making it easier to preserve certain social manifestations of power in many societies.
This is what Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony theory refers to: an ideological domination based on a consensus-building movement, where the power is guaranteed by the cultural “hegemony” that the dominant classes exert over the dominated ones.
Stuart Hall has also developed several works concerning the participation of the media as an instrument for perpetuating the dominant cultural ideology whereas this aspect is really common on post-colonial states because they suffered much greater imposition of cultural standards as a result of the colonisation process. This is why the dependency paradigm was brought up initially in Latin America in regards to the global political and economic structures that conditioned the development in the region, where the affirmation of their own cultural identity were utilised as a struggle against foreign domination.
As we can see, establishing the homogenising tendency in the media does not mean that all audiences are homogenised. There are still sections of people who challenge this “national culture” by making alternative and “peripheral” use of the media in order to articulate new possibilities of resistance.
What is the alternative media, then?
Alternative media would be those which supplement or challenge the mainstream with alternative structures, styles, content or use — P. M. Lewis
The alternative and mainstream media are somehow intimate related and they do not represent opposed categories, like most people would picture. There is even a vicious cycle between the two types of media that we should not overlook. At certain times and places, mainstream media — which should never be conceived as unchanging monolithic institutions — can and have been used to promote alternative and dissenting opinions, or themselves may be used as an alternative. This implies that what represents an alternative media now may become a mainstream media later and vice versa, depending on the context.
Alternative media is also highly associated with social and political change, usually by the means of innovative artistic practice. Alternative media, then, covers a range of practices but generally comprising “small, alternative, non-mainstream, radical, grassroots or community media…. That is often based on citizen participation”, affirm Fenton and Downey.
Throughout history, there have been political and artistic movements that thought “ahead of their time”, the so-called avant-garde movements. These movements marked the Modernist period for elaborating creations considered as revolutionary where artists, poets, writers, designers and performers contributed in different ways to create alternatives based on rejection of tradition aesthetic and institutional domination.
It is noteworthy that many of these movements were also elitist and in a way contributed to an ideological maintenance. Nevertheless, through alternative means of mainstream communication they were still concerned in developing their political subjectivities and giving voice to dissident views. That is why modernist movements have a major impact on thinking alternative means of communication as a political tool.
It is the use which is made of media and the institutional context within which they operate which determines whether or not we want to make the distinction alternative/mainstream — P. M. Lewis
Over this period up to the present day, many people continue to manifest themselves, struggling against a prevailing order and claiming for social development through different means and resources.
So, in what ways alternative media affects the existing distribution of power?
The role of alternative media in the construction and preservation of national/cultural identities is fuelled by giving access to dissident voices and empowering different ethnic groups and minorities on a self-identification process against normative and hegemonic structures. Therefore, alternative media has always been identified as participatory communication, which aims for a social transformation that promotes a radical confrontation to the existing distribution of power.
#1: By giving voices to dissenting points of view
The occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli military in 1960s culminated in the Intifada, a non-violent protest movement that attracted the world’s attention to the Middle East, yet through a superficial and uninformed coverage by international television. However, 40 years later, people and media groups openly recognise that Intifada was indeed a nonviolent movement and it is still a model for other grassroots resistance movements nowadays.
Daoud Kuttab, a palestinian journalist, explains that Al Quds Television Productions (ATP) decided to produce a footage “from behind the barricades” that would result in both an educational tool and a unique film in form of testimony of how it is like to live in the occupied territories. The film was shot throughout six months by four selected students that had been trained in a three-week video course and lived in different occupied territories. The result was a fifty-five minute footage called Palestinian Diaries that has been shown worldwide and raised consciousness on the brutality of the military state of Israel in the region.
“Palestinians living in the occupied territories have commented that for the first time they have seen the pain of their everyday lives on the screen — thanks to S-VHS cameras and community-based production techniques” — Daoud Kuttab
P.M. Lewis affirmed that Kuttab’s study of alternative media is focused “in the struggles to give voice to cultural, social and political viewpoints which are usually ignored or marginalised by mainstream media”, an aspect very important in the preservation of cultural identities. Like mentioned before, the national media are not in accordance with the multitude of ethnic groups and different cultural identities. Hereof, alternative media helps preserving and building the multi-nation characteristic by opening up space for expression and opinions. This scenario suggests that alternative media would fit in a democratic media system which should empower people by allowing them to explore their own interests.
#2: By appropriating and redefining mainstream media
Alternative media are most commonly everyday media and technologies that are appropriated and turned to new purposes. One example is the community radios in Latin America, which emphasised participation and displaced the one-way information system to a two-way, didactic and community-based system, as stated by Servaes and Thomas. The authors affirm on their publication Media and Development: Alternate Perspectives that “the one-sided use of radio as either an educational tool or a propaganda medium soon gave way to the realisation that radio must be considered as part of the communication process as a whole, and thus much more multi-faceted”. In the case of pirate radio stations, listening to them meant taking part in a resistance movement, a revolution.
In this transformation, the medium of radio itself passed from being, from the point of view of the Algerians, a symbol of colonial repression to becoming the voice of an emerging nation — Servaes and Thomas
In Brazil, Mídia Ninja became one of the most important alternative media groups in internet after their coverage of Jornadas de Junho, when hundreds of thousands of citizens took the streets to protest against corruption and excessive government spending on the 2014 World Cup, among other reasons. Mídia Ninja then became the biggest alternative source for information and political engagement because for the first time news were being reported “from below”, from the streets, where traditional media has never been before. Mídia Ninja and many other groups make heavy use of networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, sensibilizing big audiences already connected to the web and familiar with the tools. This redefinition of mainstream media is important because increases access and distribution of the alternative content where the learning curve is probably smaller, thus a bigger audience is affected. Nevertheless, Facebook’s hyper-personalised news feed and other filter bubbles in social media may set people apart instead of bringing them together. In this sense, the democratic character of social media have been questioned especially after speculations on how Facebook influenced Donald Trump’s remarkable rise to the presidency and, most recently, the presidential elections in Brazil.
The spread of fake news on WhastApp, owned by Facebook, was determinant to elect the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro for Brazil’s presidency. For the first time in a presidential race in Brazil, television propaganda has not influenced polls as much as in previous elections. Moreover, these WhatsApp campaigns were proven to be illegal. Private enterprises paid up to R$ 12 million to purchase “massive shooting packages” targeting user base from the candidate and third-party agencies, sending messages mainly reporting false content about Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s opponent, and the Worker’s party. The sum of money spent on this massive attack was not declared by the companies and therefore framed as campaign donation — which strictly violates the electoral legislation in the country.
Spoon-feeding us information that reinforces our existing opinions, damages our ability as humans to think rationally, and to consider an opposing point of view — Parmy Olson (Forbes)
Thus, being critical to the medium is a fundamental process when you are challenging a mainstream order.
#3: By preserving the cultural identification of sectional groups
Alternative media embrace dissident viewpoints which are usually marginalised by the national media. Apart from multi-ethnic groups, this type of media are usually representative of other groups seeking for self- identification and empowerment such as black people, LGBTQQ community, feminists, etc.
Another remarkable example on the Brazilian Youtube is the channel called Canal das Bee, originated in 2012 aiming the LGBTQ audience with political content, humor and entertainment. Nowadays, the channel have grown so much to the point they are considered a national reference on the political debate of LGBTQQ rights on the internet — as stated by Guaraldi on a Folha de S. Paulo article — whereas the organisation also offers professional psychological support for victims of homophobia and transphobia.
Põe na Roda is another Youtube channel which recently launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to manage a shelter for LGBTQQ victims of violence and eviction from their homes. These are clear examples of how alternative media should support sectional groups and assist the representation of their interests, providing an open debate on how to promote solutions. In summary, alternative media promote a social change when the needs of the community which it serves is attended, advocating and enhancing their own expression and active participation in society.
The media can only be as democratic, free and pluralistic as the society within which they exist.
Satellites, radio and the Internet have all been considered established mainstream media throughout their existence, however their use by community and for community made them alternative at specific circumstances. Hence, media are used for mainstream as well as alternative purposes and the difference is in the interests of whoever operates them. Alternative media see themselves as “democratic media organisations”, yet they need a structure to maintain themselves where roles of authority are still important. In this regard, John Hochheimer writes that “the media can only be as democratic, free and pluralistic as the society within which they exist”. These alternative organisations can still be differentiated from bureaucratic organisations in terms of representative participatory structure along the dimensions of authority, rules, social control, social relations, recruitment and advancement, incentive structure, social stratification and differentiation.
In conclusion, the media represent a battlefield between both hegemony and resistance models where no format suit all situations. Nonetheless, keep in mind that alternative media should always be a centre for the community to speak up, and this is only possible by providing enough means and information for them to make democratic decisions.