Covid-19: Is the medium the message?

Media message

The Covid-19 outbreak, on an unprecedented global level, has further embedded media – as news institutions, as information providers, as spaces for socialisation and as technologies of power – in people’s lives in ways never witnessed before.

With information vying with misinformation in the virtual “war against the virus”, news media corporations have reported a monumental rise in traffic as people concerned about their lives turn to mainstream media, often seen as representing the official viewpoint, for continuous coverage of the virus, updates on quarantine and lockdown support and counter-programming.

Digital media platforms and smartphones have also seen increased traffic, becoming, by necessity, the virtual spaces for all types of interactions, from work, to conducting business, to all forms of socialisation (including virtual dinner parties) as all forms of interpersonal socialisation have been prohibited.

Media have also become more entrenched in the very fabric of government and governmentality, with leaders across the globe using technologies of power to monitor people’s interactions and movements and ensuring their compliance through digital surveillance measures put in place to ‘combat’ the global coronavirus pandemic. China, where the outbreak began, has reportedly used the most extensive population surveillance capabilities – data analysis, facial recognition, phone tracking, apps and even drones, to monitor the disease through domestic surveillance.

South Korea and Singapore, too, have adopted these technologies, provoking comments in the Western world about cultural differences that serve to normalise discourses that what happens in Asia, or the non-West, is always different to what happens in the West. India, the so-called largest democracy in the world, complemented digital surveillance with lockdowns on the ground and Israel, often talked about as the only Middle Eastern country with Western-style democracy, announced it was using “digital means”, including geo-locating phones, to monitor the population, neglecting to disclose that these technologies, designed for supposedly counter-terrorist activities, had been in use against the entrapped Palestinian population for decades.

But what to make of ubiquitous media and its entrenchment in everything we do? How can we address it without falling into generalisations and neglecting to continue asking key questions concerning media power?

In the 1960s, communication scholar Marshall McLuhan proposed in his seminal work “Understanding Media” that media was an extension of social lives, coining the catchy term “the medium is the message”. Quite simply, this means that the ways we send and receive information are more important than the message itself. For McLuhan, watching television, then the mass medium par excellence, changed the way we looked at the world, but it was also a provocation for scholars and others to think about the fact that it was impossible to understand social, political and cultural lives and their transformations without a knowledge of the workings of media. Rather problematically, he also proposed that the character of a medium — not the information it carries — is its potency or effect, a trend in media effect theory that presupposes media power as uni-directional rather than diffuse.

While McLuhan seemed to be more interested in the implications of the technological extensions of media rather than the endless debates about whether media are good or bad – a persistent theme in debates about media since the field of media studies began as a separate scientific field of knowledge – McLuhan, despite being seen as technologically deterministic and, as such, as denying human agency, did implicitly warn of what the extension of media into our very existence means for societies.

In a post-Covid world, media and communications scholars will no doubt be competing to make sense of the excessive mediation around the virus and its effects, and will no doubt produce studies after studies on different aspects of the coverage of the crisis if only because, whether we like it or not, technologies will continue to be as ubiquitous as during this moment of global crisis, if not more. While admittedly, students of media need to be wary of the rather un-nuanced technological determinism that underpin simplistic and uncritical understandings of McLuhan’s message, who gets to use technologies and under which conditions, who circulates messages and what intentions they have remain serious questions to be asked by critical media scholarship.

At the same, students of media need to also be aware of the ways in which large tech (media) companies in the US and China will also exploit how the crisis is mediated and by whom, who tends to speak and for whom, in order to become even more powerful, and more entrenched. Perhaps more importantly for those of us concerned with the study of the Global South, we need to keep asking the same questions we did before and focus on how mediated global crises and practices of mediation continue to entrench and institutionalise difference.

  • Dr Dina Matar is Reader in Arab Media and Political Communication, and Head of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit https://www.soas.ac.uk/coronavirus/

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