Enter the 'Third Estate': Facing the digital avalanche in mass communication

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(Image by Anonymous9000 via Flickr, CC 2.0)

Is Australia coping with the massive structural adjustments occurring in the media and their possible impacts upon our society? In the first of a three-part series, media editor Dr Lee Duffield says journalists and policy-makers are becoming more aware of the changes and how they should respond — and the multitude of small-scale media-makers in the general public are also becoming more aware of their options.

Enter the 'Third Estate'

AT LEAST the main points in the media shake-up are broadly known and agreed on in the early part of 2018, with digital technology driving it.

Mainstream media organisations have lost their revenue base from advertising to new communications empires – predominantly American – and several are therefore going out of business or dramatically scaling down. That central body of mainstream media services has also been partly dislodged and added to in the marketplace by a plethora of new media that are actually making new markets. So media outlets are more prolific and ubiquitous than ever. They may have mass following, but are individually smaller business operations than the now-diminished traditional corporate media — and more people are being exposed to mass media in some form or other than ever before in history. As a massive new feature, many more people also have the opportunity to talk back and be involved in making media that they and others can use.


Old worries about media bias, manipulation and social control have been displaced by new ones, also about bias, manipulation and social control. In proliferating, multi-polar new media – leaving aside more nefarious publishing such as gambling, pornography and criminal activity on the “dark web” – main models include: journalistic extensions of corporate communication departments (in many kinds of companies), new stand-alone mastheads such as Independent Australia, off-shoot services of mainstream media, massive unredacted offerings (as on YouTube) and individuals’ social media ventures. The anxiety about so many actors is lack of accountability and a thriving presence of misinformation, loose opinion and lies. 

Well-established human traits of making things up, dealing in rumour, trashing the reputations of others, only paying attention to what you agree with and pretending to believe nonsense are magnified by it all being traded back and forth through the many new kinds of mass media. The outstanding example is the prevalence of “fake news” in the 2016 United States presidential election campaign – Kremlin-led or otherwise – and the emergence of a President able to communicate much unsubstantiated or untruthful information direct to millions of voters.

Enter the idea of the “Third Estate” and the social responsibility of journalism. As this is understood, free debate including use of media is the lifeblood of democratic and civilised government. Traditionally, journalists have been the mediators who could aid understanding by unveiling information and, in other respects, keeping themselves out of the story. A little less traditionally, they might make revelations and do some advocacy, but always on the basis of maximum possible transparency, facts, accuracy and accountability on their own part.

It is a theory always tarnished and compromised by the behaviour of media out to promote a political line and attempt to join in some social or cultural engineering. Modern examples are the use of America’s Fox News for marshalling adherents on the extreme right, and the Russian international television service RT running edgy commentaries in defence of any extreme act by the government back in Moscow.

The usual answer is that wherever there is any freedom and pluralism in mass media, audience members have their own psychological defences and are able to filter and use information that is published.

As well the journalist profession, though received with a lot of public cynicism, generally manages to hold out for a fair version of truth — establishing facts as the foundation of a story. Dependable services, from health warnings to bushfire reports to election results are delivered routinely for a cheap price.

How might we go on those two points once the mass of mass media gets totally massive and super difficult to keep tabs on and if journalists, as professional mediators, trained in disinterestedness in their way of operating, are driven by poverty out of the field?


Leaving aside the technologies powering such activity to concentrate on people, we have the stirrings of a process where media-induced change in social, cultural or economic interests is getting addressed by people in three groupings:

  1. audience members as participants;
  2. journalists; and
  3. those in the policy field, in this case political leaders.

Private users are prominent in social media and, as a best example, the Facebook explosion over the last decade is indicative of the level of support for it and the way it can serve felt needs. The most used figure, of 2.2 billion monthly active users, is hardly contested anywhere and represents well over a quarter of the people in the world.


The point is, people have a will to broadcast their concerns, and no matter at what level of global import or “tabloid” fascination they may operate, it’s a right and has its own value to the players. Their participation is a constant variable to build-in when asking whether mass media is going to continue playing any important “Third Estate” role, and how that might work out.

To make a suggestion, it might work out that, as the users get more conditioned to it and more expert, the better the communication may become for the traffic in fact and opinion. If citizens have journalistic skills they should get more proficient and be more aware of how the communication game works. With people optimising their social media skills, it will mean communicating better for getting heard and understood — good for democracy.


But it may be touch and go whether consumers being adept with their medium will be able to save the situation if the carriers go bad and, with the amassing of data, refinement of it, and commercial drives, begin to seriously intrude and manipulate — beyond the wildest dreams of the worst rogue governments and their compliant newspaper editors.

To date, resistance on the part of “the Four” – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google – to paying taxes, or the “we-mean-it” demands of stiff regulators like the European Union, or their confused status and policies on their carriage of “fake news”, or their side-stepping of criticism, or their unresolved position on aggregation, copyright and the intellectual property of others, indicate a shaky grasp of the ideas of community and responsibility to publics. You see distended companies that are extractive and not attached to social goals. It presents as a neoliberal – not to say anarchical – mercantile culture, somewhat opaque to cooperation with democratic government and its laws. In such interactions – such as with the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism – they tend to keep a strict focus on the financial viability, for themselves, of any initiative.  

Facebook’s being linked to Cambridge Analytica, a company hoovering up personal information for analysis and tracking, useful for psychological profiling and building stereotypes, is the latest case of disquietude over such businesses. It shows how manipulation by media – where “old” mass media were always accused, but never actually proven guilty – might be plausibly done. It could well get to influencing beliefs and affecting how you vote.

We have had a foretaste of it with cashed-up electoral lobbying and propaganda by the gambling industry in Tasmania and South Australia, and on a socially destructive scale by the firearms industry in the United States. The recipe: get big data, expertly processed and reduced to purpose, add the dynamic of a biological stimulant – betting, gun bravado, vanity, drugs – and the weak and psychologically vulnerable at least might be made malleable for some time.


Plenty of people see all this and don’t like it, so there are responses. In face of all the change, journalists are an exposed group who understandably have insights and are able to organise limited action.

Early 2018 sees the building up of a political response to what is acknowledged as a crisis for mass media and, ultimately, society. Two parliamentary enquiries have brought together the evidence and proposals for change, coinciding with relevant legislation, not trouble free, proposed for the months ahead.

Developments will be reported on, together with a recap on proposals for the survival, or not of “social responsibility”, “Third Estate” or “public interest” media, in the second article.

Read Part Two: A stand for journalistic freedom HERE.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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