Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Four Ways to Think about Democracy and Media

Posted on | April 18, 2010 | No Comments

I was lucky to have a great mentor during my graduate school days who provided a strong intellectual foundation for further study and research. Majid Tehranian, a professor of the political economy of communications at the University of Hawaii was the chair of my Masters thesis committee and also assisted me by serving on my PhD committee. Although he did his PhD at Harvard on OPEC issues, he turned his focus towards communications and information technologies during the 1980s and later towards peace studies.

Professor Tehranian (everyone called him “Majid”) was working on a book called Technologies of Power: Information Machines and Democratic Prospects during my graduate days and I even had the pleasure of doing the index for it – the old fashioned way (by hand).

As a framework to develop our understanding of communication and media issues related to concepts of democracy and development, he laid out four different ways people were writing and theorizing about them. He used a recognizable color scheme to distinguish their different polarities: Blue – Liberal Democracy, Red – Communist Democracy, Green-Ecological Democracy and Black – Counter-Democratic tendencies. These areas are contentious, dynamic, and open to a lot of debate, but they served effectively as intellectual “hangers” on which struggling graduate students could organize and “hang” their knowledge.

When our Department of Digital Communications and Media Studies at NYU decided to put on an event exploring engagement and the media, I decided to review the book and use it for my presentation as a way of starting a conversation about democracy and possibilities presented by social media.

Notes from my presentation for the ENGAGED MEDIA Colloquium at NYU on April 17, 2010

FOUR Ways of Thinking about Democracy and Social Media
Anthony J. Pennings, PhD
Dept of Digital Communications and Media Studies
New York University

Blue Democracy

  • Liberal capitalism
  • Views democracy in terms of the expansion of individual liberty through the processes of pluralization of the economy, society and polity
  • Representative government
  • Fears bureaucratization and tyranny of the majority
  • Citizens stay informed through the Fourth Estate – the objective mass media – so that they can vote effectively and apply make their voices known to their representatives
  • Key Words
    pluralism, markets, free enterprise, balance of power, liberty, separation of powers, property rights, division of labor, interest groups, freedom of speech, assembly, and association; Fourth Estate; modernization, two-party system, privacy, ego, high accumulation

    Red Democracy

  • Communist democracy
  • Views democracy in terms of the mobilization of collective will in the service of equality
  • Origins stem from the critique of capitalism and its social implications
  • Fears the tyranny of the minority
  • Media is the instrument of the government to facilitate class struggle

  • Key Words
    mobilization, collective will, labor, class struggle, modernization, State, progress, alter-ego, intelligentsia, lumpen-proletariat, Marxism, single-channel flows, censorship, party control, critical, equality,

    Green Democracy

  • Ecological or communitarian democracy
  • Views democracy in terms of local, non-violent, grassroots involvement in the relationship between people, and with the environment
  • Fears the destruction of the natural environment
  • Community, small media,
    Direct democracy, MMP parliamentary system
  • Key Words
    grassroots participation, direct democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom, nonviolence, super-ego, decentralization, community-based economics, gender equality, fraternity, networking flows, diversity, think globally, act locally, future focus, sustainability, environment

    Black* Counter-Democracy

  • Fascist dictatorship
  • Views democracy as a threat to the rightful order and/or identity
  • Generally involves: radical change, myths of ethnic or national renewal, and a conception of crisis
  • Tactics involve radical transformation, violent coups, putsch
  • Media flows are monolithic and ritualized, including theatrical propaganda
  • Key Words
    racial and/or ideological purity, social transformation, corporatist, purification, ethic renewal, genetic traits, militarism, conspiracies, heroic past, political repression, “survival of the fittest”, anti-modernization, rebirth through power, acts of sabotage, marginalized social classes, ethnocentrism, marginals, fascist, totalitarian, order, identity, coups, putsch, pseudo-science, reactionary, authoritarian, monolithic media flows

    These are dynamic times and the stakes are high: globalization, climate change, dwindling resources (oil, water, fish, etc.), national debt. Yet, we have this extraordinary technological convergence. Mass media is our base, but what we call “social media” is giving us an unprecedented ability to converse, cooperate, collaborate, and engage. The challenge for the next few decades, and perhaps more immediately than you think, is to configure a democratic system that understands the strengths and weaknesses of the social media infrastructure and its communicative possibilities.

    * The color Black is, unfortunately, linked to Fascist tendencies, as well as more positive and progressive ethnic movements.




    Anthony J. Pennings, PhD is a visiting professor at Hannam University in South Korea. He recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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