In this paper I outline the transformative power of new media technologies in Latin American contexts as tools for social change, comparing examples of youth digital activism from both Costa Rican and Panamanian contexts. Focusing on two types of Social Media, both Social Networks and Mobile Communication are examined as tools for Central American youth activists. In my conclusion I summarize the effects of national media policies, the situation of the digital divide and its effect on media democracy. The powerful nature of Citizen Media illustrates how overcoming the digital divide can produce democratic access to the media and societies’ larger institutions for social change.
As media technology accelerates, new opportunities for public discourse emerge, altering the ways that we define media and power. When new media intersects with popular culture it in turn transforms societies’ hegemonic landscapes, as the power of who can speak, both when and where, is altered and multiplied (Luis Serna, 2007). Gramsci (1929-1935) defines hegemony as the way in which power is played out in society, which consists of both coercion, and consent, allowing the dominant society to control the masses through cultural persuasion. Through the media industry, hegemony is maintained, thus justifying the acts of those in power and concretizing the consent of the masses. dian marino (1998) adds to our conception of hegemony by defining it as a “rainforest of shifting relations,” a power structure which can change with every day and every new action.
With the advance of new media technology a range of new methods of communication have unfolded, providing the average citizen with a myriad of options for publishing and distributing independent work (Langlois & Dubois, 2005). This signals an increase in the biodiversity of the media ecosystem, as the media is flooded by an ocean of pluralisms; new stories being added every day, multiplying and reshaping our conceptions of truth (Halleck, 2002: Langlois & Dubois, 2005 ). New technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones are changing how we conceptualize hegemonic media landscapes. These technologies manifest themselves differently according to the hegemonic structure of the country, and the economic power it has to invest and develop new communication networks in these new technologies. While the personal computer has swept across much of North America, Central and Southern American countries have been slower to adapt, having instead adopted cheaper alternatives such as cellular phones and public Internet Cafes.
At the forefront of this new media revolution are youth, the first adapters of technology (Corriero, 2004). Often times, communications technologies end up being used in new ways which companies never dreamt possible, and in many cases it is societies’ youth who are experimenting and creating new systems and ways of organizing. While youth are marginalized in mainstream society, the Internet and cell phones act as a private domain for youth to communicate and organize free of parents’ supervision . As the Internet is a central node for global youth culture, transnational movements emerge out of this online discourse. A series of tools have surfaced allowing people to communicate across borders right from their very living room. These new developments have created a new paradigm shift; dissolving the power of major media networks, record labels are dropping profits, people are turning on to YouTube and turning off their TV (Sanchéz, 2008), and instead of learning about world issues through news papers youth are instead reading blogs written by people their age who is directly experiencing the situation.
Largely embraced by civil society and the NGO sector, these new types of media democracy have been joined under the term Citizen Media; media which is decentralized, user friendly, and easily sharable for the average citizen. Citizen Media include such new developments as blogs, vlogs, podcasts, SMS messaging, participatory video, digital storytelling, and social networks. Unlike traditional media, Citizen Media is not normally produced by journalists, yet there are many cases of mainstream media, politicians, and corporations are copying these forms of communication and adapting them to serve mainstream interest. While some object to the term Citizen Media as it refers to “citizen” as a member of a nation-state, the terminology still remains widely used and accepted. Yet with the new movement towards fostering Global Citizenship, it can be posited that these new media tools help to further stretch our definitions of what it means to be a citizen, as they cut across borders and amplify transnational discourse. While Citizen Media is a widely accepted umbrella term in the NGO social marketing world, Social Media is more popular across industries, as it more generally captures the nature of these media tools as media for social interaction.
While these types of changes are having a concentrated effect among those with disposable incomes to invest in these technologies, low-income populations around the world are now also experiencing increased access in the form of Internet Cafes and cellular phone networks equipped with Internet capabilities. Multilingual online content is increasing exponentially as cultures from all over the world are tapping in to these new forms of cultural discourse. Media access is arguable stronger than ever before, with cellular coverage reaching 90% of the planet by 2010. New media communications technology melts borders, and as anthropologist Jan Chipchase says “bends space and time.” This creates a Pangaea effect, uniting world cultures and embodying notions of Global Citizenship and a global knowledge commons.