The pandemic not only created a feeling of oppressive insecurity in all of us, it also made it clear to us how much more and more we are getting lost in the digital thicket. A thicket overflowing with promises, dystopian threats, cynical survival strategies, and open discrimination fueled by populist finger-pointing. Crude conspiracy theories haunt the web like undead messages, the difference between right and wrong can hardly be excluded any more, because half-truths as the most perfidious form of lies infest the media landscape and appear with that persuasive power that gives lies plausibility only on the basis of their partial truth content.
Journalism, which in the last century could still claim to be the fourth power in the state as a corrective, seems to be crumbling. Millions of users have obviously successfully taken its place, people for whom such things as media ethics and social responsibility do not exist. They now dabble as columnists and feature writers, they write angry to inflammatory "editorials" without being able to do anything with these terms, and as a rule they also see themselves in possession of the actual truth. A "truth," however, that they have been told by a foreign-dominated journalism of free newspapers or riot channels, and, what is even worse, by the ruling politicians themselves.
The power of images, sounds and words serves not only art and commerce, but above all politics to evoke collective emotions. In this context, the impact of images is much stronger than that of language, because they directly address emotions even before the mind can engage with visual representation. Pictures can hardly be verbalized, the description of their content is a faint reflection of their actual message, which is fully revealed only to the optical perception. As an example of what images can do, consider the photo of a drowned child on a Mediterranean beach, whose widespread publication in 2015 highlighted the immense misery of refugees and thus caused an outcry in Europe that generated widespread willingness to help. For weeks beforehand, newspapers, social media and television had reported on it, without even coming close to touching people in the way that this single image managed to do. The fact that it was a still photograph was of particular importance in our world, which is all about the moving image. The ephemeral nature of film was juxtaposed with an icon whose static quality burned itself into the memory.
Politicians, especially their media advisors, are well aware of the power of images and use them manipulatively wherever possible. Photos are not selected for truthfulness, but only for purpose; they are often post-processed and post-staged, foreground, center and background are carefully posed, sharpness and blurriness are precisely set. Politics websites are full of such artifacts.
Messages are carefully scrutinized and tested for their broad impact before they are proclaimed. The act of proclamation is particularly celebrated and ritualized; it becomes a high mass in which staging and message flow together to form a "big picture''.
Not only proven populists use these means, but also in "flawless" democracies politicians build such barriers between themselves and the people to whom they are accountable. The misnomer of "message control" describes very aptly the relationship of this politics to truth! As a contemporary witness, one remembers with nostalgia the press meetings after the Council of Ministers in the 1970s, where Bruno Kreisky grumpily mingled with the journalists to face even the most unpleasant questions.
Digitization is in the process of changing our world, much faster than printing was able to do in the 15th and 16th centuries. The concept of "gainful employment," for example, is becoming increasingly questionable in an economic environment in which the digital tide is destroying jobs without creating corresponding substitutes. Social shifts are occurring, the most obvious effect of which is the emergence of a digital proletariat made up of older unemployed people on the one hand and hybrid and fragmentary to precariously employed young people on the other, who have hardly any chance of sustainable social security. The gap in inequality is widening.
The ongoing process of growing inequality holds tremendous social explosives and, like the environment and pandemics, is one of the most burning challenges facing politics.
But what does all this mean for democracy? On the one hand, digitization is having a devastating effect on the cohesion of society; on the other, it is opening up unimagined potential for self-determination and co-determination, for justice and humanization of the world. Mobilization via social networks could flood all areas of society with democratic awareness. But why does this hardly ever happen.
Democracy, as the last century has clearly shown us, cannot be taken for granted. Once destroyed, it takes generations to restore it. It cannot be decreed, but must be lived out of conviction and fought for again and again. Totalitarian mentalities continue to lurk everywhere, with their notorious alternation of fear and promise. As the pandemic has taught us, fear is an excellent disciplinary tool for denying people their rights. It is a bondage that prevents people from engaging in political activity, just as the energy-sapping struggle for existence of the aforementioned digital proletariat prevents it from engaging in political activity for its rights. Could it be that there is no method behind this? Fear and self-exploitation as a deliberate brake on democracy?
If journalism, as the fourth pillar of the state, is to become an effective control mechanism over the rulers again, it must become a source of social responsibility. Democracy, for all its complexity, is nothing other than the responsibility of all for all. This is where dependency comes into play. More and more media find themselves under political and economic domination; their closeness to politics and business leads to self-censorship, sometimes even to "court reporting". Many journalists proudly flaunt their "friendship" with the powerful, as the numerous "publishing parties" and the tabloid reports afterwards clearly reveal. But journalism that has not learned to keep its distance from the people it is supposed to report on objectively quickly loses its credibility because it becomes the willing mouthpiece of the powerful.
If then only what seems politically convenient appears in public, and this is done by media that are "bought" by special funding and advertisements, democracy begins to crumble. This also includes the deliberate distraction of people from burning issues by a booming media entertainment industry.
Those who reject any form of regulation like to praise the Internet with its low-threshold access as the biotope of contemporary democratic communication. However, the global brute economy, which like the military was also at the cradle of this phenomenon that can no longer be ignored, has long since taken over dominance, and along with it, compliant politics. While economic profit is concealed behind the ubiquitous availability and convenient service of every kind, political websites lie to an extent that the beams bend. The decisive factor is no longer the argument, but only the ranking in the number of followers. The seemingly easy entry of citizens into the digital discussion process creates the illusion of perfect democratization, while opinion clusters are created with the manipulative hand of Internet-trained spin doctors. The power of images, sounds and words is intended to evoke deliberate feelings about life and attitudes that do not question the established patterns of society. In this sense, ethical regulations in the digital age are an absolute necessity if democracy is not to be abolished through petrification and the resulting erosion. Democracy, like all living things, requires constant change, because change is the only constant in life.
The fourth pillar in the age of advancing digitalization must be characterized by lighthouses that are above any form of dependency. In a media landscape riddled with fake news, credibility becomes the highest good. In my view, the public status of media, which is repeatedly called into question by special interests, is the only guarantee of reflecting society in all its diversity. This means that it is no longer only possible to see and hear what is suspected to be a commercial or political calculation, very often camouflaged, but the fascinating breadth of realities of life and attitudes, the knowledge and acceptance of which, with all its nuances, is what makes respectful coexistence possible in the first place.
If ORF is now to take its place in the digital concert, it must not be legally denied access to social media, especially as a public service medium. In addition, it must be provided with the appropriate financial strength to fulfill its mission. At present, it would therefore be necessary for the public sector to refund the funds that are lacking due to fee exemptions.
The urgent need for independence from party-political desires, which is not currently the case, is fundamentally linked to the authority to charge fees. An ORF financed by the state budget would inevitably fall into the fatal dependency of those in power and degenerate into "state broadcasting. At the same time, it is important to staff the management bodies with proven experts in order to prevent proximity to political parties as far as possible. A public media company should belong to all citizens of the state and thus become an essential identification factor, both internally and externally!
The decisive term, however, is social responsibility. If anything distinguishes serious journalism from the tabloids and the millions of dilettante "journalists" on the Net, it is this attitude. A leading public service medium, such as ORF, must develop into a recognized moral authority in the digital world.
It could demonstrate how democracy and human rights can be reconciled with the all-pervasive digitalization. Its most important asset is credibility in the sense of the greatest possible truthfulness. This also includes internal economic and journalistic transparency.
ORF has to counteract the blatant dumbing down of people, which has become the business model of so many commercial media companies, with high-quality and exciting content that corresponds to current realities of life in terms of presentation and interpretation. At the same time, it is also important to spark imagination for alternative models of society in order to banish the rampant fears of the future.
The lack of basic trust, the ever-growing insecurity have turned so many back on themselves, who have built their digital islands and battle positions. Democracy fatigue is becoming a serious problem in the process. The fear of existential chaos and the longing for security and freedom at the same time unites all people. Digitization represents an upheaval of civilization, the extent of which cannot be foreseen, and which is therefore becoming a source of fear for many. Politics and the economy are becoming increasingly volatile, familiar basic patterns are eroding and new ones have not yet been found. In addition, there is the increasingly clear realization that we will generally drive our civilization and our biosphere to the wall if we continue in this way.
Sigmund Freud says: The voice of reason is silent and therefore rarely heard. Public media could become such voices of reason and use digitization in particular to ensure that they are perceived with the same degree of intensity. They can make a decisive contribution to restoring the basic trust that is so crucial for a humanistic society by permanently anchoring respect for fundamental values and strengthening democracy in their content. Morally sour? Not at all, if passion, vision, courage and truthfulness are involved! The ORF could become such a lighthouse, if only it wants to...