Photo courtesy of rest of world

World audiences remain riveted to phone, computer and television screens, shocked as we all are by the bloody carnality of the war in Palestine, the graphic horror gripping attention by its lurid crudities. The media visuals, being constant and so true and very real, keep the global public convulsed in distaste and angry revolt as great powers ignore the continuous massacres and continuous, wholesale devastation of the urban and natural environment.

This 24 hour reportage by the world’s mass media and, even more effectively by the digital social media is, ironically, the best “celebration” of World Press Freedom Day that the human community could possibly have – if regrettably.

The UN designated May 3 as the day to mark the significance of the press, which encompasses all forms of information media, following several international UNESCO consultations in the 1990s. The UN website says May 3 is the moment to, “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”

Interestingly, today the emergent world system of information production and sharing is closer than ever before in meeting humanity’s need for an informed management of society and environment. In fact the latest information technology is enabling much more than mere sharing of information.

Today’s complex social communications system and industry that facilitates and sustains it goes far beyond: it enables, as never before, actual human organising, active real time deliberations and collective action to address society’s needs and challenges.

How has that happened?

It is the result of the innovation of new technologies that are showing impacts on humanity not seen since the advent of human usage of fire about 1.5 million years ago.

This is the advent of digital data and communications technology and the establishment of a market-based information production, storage and sharing industry. It is an industry that emerged with the invention of the microprocessor, the digitisation of data, the high speed processing and transmission technology and a market-generated global architecture of digitised communications enabling the Internet and World Wide Web.

As we reflect on the state of the world’s press, we must note that actually what we have been used to calling the press all this time, is dying out. Most of the younger generations, certainly those born from the 1990s onward, are not familiar with the term and do not use it.

And they need not. The younger generations are the digital natives or, as they call themselves, they are Generation X, followed by Gen. Z with some of them are just happy to be called zoomers.

Whether we like it or not, we are now digital citizens but how are we functioning as citizens? In fact our concept of citizenry is transformed in the new public sphere of the internet.

The mass communication industry, the fourth estate, evolving through the past three centuries, created the wholly new phenomenon of mass produced information. It was print capitalism that began mass producing information content from lists of farm produce for city traders and consumers to Bibles and other creations of intellectual interest to information about socially important events (news).

Centralised industry  

This centralised industry of information mass production was soon the most powerful ideological institution that transcended religions, borders and social classes. In fact the mass media industry, created and run by the capitalist class, became a vital political tool of that class.

By its very nature as a centralised mass production system, mass media’s content was centrally created by the newspapers and later the radio and television industries. The nature of its technology enabled tightly controlled, centralised information production for standardisation of content to ensure credibility for consumption and systematic targeting of audience markets.

The available technology of the time, being massive, expensive, printing presses and later equally massive radio and television stations, necessitated that centralised production. The required scale of business investment guaranteed that only the demographically minor, capitalist class owned and operated the mass media.

Thus, the mass media comprised a few production units (owned by that rich minority) that mass produced information for dissemination to a mass market which comprised its information consuming audience. The output was unidirectional, with information and news going from the centralised content producers to the mass audiences. There was no technology available that facilitated a responding communication from audiences.

Knowledge was controlled by the capitalist class and its ancillary technocracies like academia and religious leaders. The state ensured the continuity of this system in the name of democracy and the freedom of expression.

Three key features characterised the fourth estate. Advertising was the life blood of the mass media industry, ensuring income and profit based on market competition between industry ventures. This income driven information production also coloured the very culture of information consumption and knowledge acquisition.

The market competition motivated the standardisation of information content in order to ensure credibility of information, i.e., the practical utility of content that is reliable and informs life activity. Thus, news accuracy and comprehensive coverage became hallmarks of the news mass media. In fact, this credibility dimension became mythologised and even fetishised in the most competitive capitalist media and in their larger, information consuming societies.

The accuracy of content and corroboration of that accuracy between bits of information by the similarity of the information came to be upheld as being the truth about that information. By the mid-20th century, the advanced capitalist societies predicated the success of liberal democratic culture with such tropes as providing of truth, ensuring an informed public (that is, informed in the same way about the same things) and the ability of that public and its political leaders to make rational decisions for the betterment of their society and nation.


Hence, the fourth estate came to be enthroned as a pillar of democracy – of liberal democracy or capitalist democracy, that is.

However, from early stages of the evolution of the mass media, there have been critical schools of thought that chose to look at the phenomenon as being a component of the social system that engendered it. The Frankfurth School of Social Studies in the 1930s onward dissected mass media, mass production industry and mass society in critical analysis.

Truth was not accepted as a divine given but rather as the collected presentation of facts by individual news producers – journalists and telecasters – gathered in specific conditions that did not remain static. Analytical approaches to mass media progressed from mass communication studies to cultural studies and the post-electronic information sciences of today.

The mystique of the fourth estate cracked as it came to be superseded by both technical innovation but more so by the variations of the contexts in which the mass media had to function. The moment the world, in the post-colonial era, became so diverse in context and audience interests, that the fourth estate could no longer ensure an across the board standardisation of content.

Credibility of information became dependent on the multiplicity of contexts and the facts available to different media actors to be obtained in accordance with conditions within these contexts. Local journalists, for example, obtained certain information not accessible to foreign correspondents for many reasons ranging from language and translation variations to political safety and trust by sources that are under threat.

 The worst lessons of the perfidious side of the fourth estate were learned during the two Gulf Wars when much of the world had watch the world’s dominance power bloc, the Western alliance, wage most destructive war that relied on falsified information of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The world was aware that Iraq did not have a stockpile of WMD but the big news media seemed to endorse the claims of Western governments about WMD.

The same news agencies went on to report the awful consequences – devastating war that also disrupted the world economy affecting the bulk of the world population that was quite uninvolved in the conflict.

But that was some three decades ago. That stunning exposé of the weaknesses of the fourth estate was fortunately soon matched by the emergence of the estate’s successor media system.

Fifth estate   

Today, the digital revolution has brought in the vast digitised information production, storage and dissemination system that has been named the fifth estate.

The World Wide Web not only derives from the vast variations and diversities of the contexts in which the web is sited but also enables via its global connectivity the dissemination of the information obtained from one context to all parts of the world. And the rapid sharing of information between contexts enables that corroboration essential to ascertain accuracy and credibility.

It is a credibility that is not a fetishised, single truth but one which derives its strength from the accurate or verifiable variations withing each context. Africa no longer means just starving children; rather, the world knows very well the real difference between starvation due to long term chronic poverty and starvation due to sudden disruption of supplies and/or deliberate blockade during war.

Children continue to lack food in parts of India and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Amazon River basin due to endemic economic discrimination. At the same time, children are dying of starvation every day in war torn Gaza.

This instant availability of varied information and the critical comparison of context also enables the critical understanding of systemic impacts and the behaviour of power wielders in each context. The inter-relation of context-based interests and needs – refugees, humanitarian aid – enables an easier understanding of the dimensions of socio-economic systems and their political sustenance by social actors (elites in power).

This impressive array of knowledge and wide perspectives has become feasible only because of the fifth estate that is replacing the fourth.

But most significant feature of online communications is not the information aspect. It is the amazing possibilities of real time interactions of people, whole conferences, enabled by the online platforms.


The platforms bring together literally billions of people in common knowledge, And based on that common knowledge, those same people interact collectively and simultaneously to agree on action, to transact business and to collectively implement common goals.

The online capacities need no longer be listed. They are now part of everyday life. But their political implications are critical. Online social communications have literally thrown the centralised mass media out of the window at least partially.

Political perspectives are built on lateral, horizontal communications among people free of the mass media industry. The fourth estate has its limits because those parallel forces in society, especially government, can suppress those few TV studios or presses as has been done in this country under certain regimes when TV studios were bombed and critical journalists were murdered.

But when information is obtained by numerous, not immediately identified citizens and shared online as something happens, such repression does not work. More significantly, neither can that instant mobilisation of opinion into citizens’ action be easily stopped by governments unless they shut down a whole region of the internet, thereby affecting other economic and social life.

Only the internet server corporates can attempt to control internet content by mean of their internal systems.

Why don’t the digital giants try to suppress anti-government or even insurgent activity online? Because that is what provides big tech with its constituency and support base. They do not have the vulnerability of the old mass media.

The internet server giants have yet to exercise their power because it is their users that give them a power that is independent of the government and political parties. Which is why political parties dislike the digital giants.

Hence the paradox of the most public friendly knowledge facilitating and social organising system that is created and run by what is potentially the most centralised facilitating system the world has ever seen.

The fifth estate is yet in its infancy. How this paradox is resolved can be seen in the future. We must pray that stray algorithms do not trigger an Armageddon before that.