Alternative Editorial: Who’s in control?

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK


What’s the relationship between Miss Peru and Xi Jinping – two people making headlines in the past month?

For anyone who missed this remarkable event, the Miss Peru annual beauty contest was turned on its head when the contestants chose to replace the traditional statement of their vital personal statistics with the stats on violence against women in each of their countries. The spectacle is shocking: one minute the women are parading themselves as commercialised objects of delight, the next, they become profoundly human – vulnerable, compassionate, courageous ambassadors of a new era. And in so doing they became part of a global tsunami of simple words and actions behind the #metoo response in support of women everywhere who have been sexually harassed.

A different world, you may think, from the spectacle of Xi Jinping standing in front of the cameras at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, proclaiming a new era of Chinese ideology. Yet the intention was not dissimilar – to tell a profound new story of global dynamics, arising from a statement of intent. Their pursuit of the Chinese Dream – a developing socialist society with a strong presence in the world – painted a picture of a complex, unfamiliar, superpower. Yet the image of row upon row of similarly attired officials, listening without ever being expected to be consulted, told a conformist story of its own: one that the self-proclaimed tolerant West will have to grapple with year on year.

Both were availing themselves of soft power – influence through attraction rather than force. Not so much the slow burn soft power that Joseph Nye described 20years ago when attributing America’s unassailable global dominance to Hollywood and the American Dream. More the quick fire soft power that comes from performance on social media, increasingly the weapon of choice at every level of society because of its immediacy and reach. 

Rather than hope for decent coverage by the mainstream news, anyone can now tell their own story, exactly as they feel it. It offers a sense of control over your message and as a corollary, over your reputation and popularity.

But from the other end of the spectrum, it looks somewhat different. Social media is overwhelming to receive - not just because of its plurality and the speed it comes at you, but also its underlying algorithms that target you with spooky precision. So there is only increasing distrust on the part of the recipient. 

Facebook recently closed down 170 Instagram accounts which it identified as robotically generating posts aimed at destabilising the US political sphere – something which “runs counter to Facebook’s mission of building community”.

Fake news only enjoyed a brief spell of unassailable power to manipulate, before it became the hot topic on social media: something to discuss as much as something to be in thrall to. The virtual public space is talking to itself as much as listens to others: it’s becoming self-conscious, even if only one bubble at a time.

Where then does that leave our desire to take back control? For those who have long bemoaned the irresponsibility of the 4th Estate, the unexamined agenda of the BBC or the use of advertising agencies to seduce voters – this is nothing new. You might be surprised to hear that teaching media studies at school used to be a proper attempt to introduce teenagers to the ways and means of propaganda. Teenagers would learn that celebrity is an invention of the news industry and has little to do with the artist’s talents. Today, they tend to teach vlogging.

Yet, with the mindfulness revolution – in schools, business and even Parliament - there is an increasingly common notion that we should all become capable of mastering our own minds. If at first that means noticing what triggers our emotions and letting unnecessary anxiety go, could it not also mean we become increasingly capable of designing our own mediascape? Professor Rhonda Magee based at the University of San Francisco, also credits mindfulness with helping us minimise social-identity-based bias.

Becoming more active curators of our media input and more creative with what we give our attention to is a means of shaping our personal space. But when networks of common intent do that in an agreed way, is that not a way of shaping the public space that until recently, was only in the gift of media barons?