The term “Fifth Estate” explains our collective ability to share information, to create communities, and to organize social movements through online networks. The term originated in an attempt to distinguish the actions and interests of networked societies from those of the mass media, known as the Fourth Estate—a term coined by Scottish philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century to describe the press. By acting as a watchdog on other "estates" of the time—clergy, nobility, and secular authorities—the emerging profession that would become known as journalism had elevated itself to the others' level.
Today, self-organizing communities seek ways to participate in social and political forums beyond existing institutions of the first four estates. Although perhaps most often understood as an outgrowth from, and perhaps in contrast to, the press, the Fifth Estate has a broader definition than journalism done by people outside the institutions of journalism. It’s about community formation and collective organization in every field of endeavor—law, medicine, social movements, knitting circles. Journalism and the Fifth Estate are not in opposition; as we saw in both the WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations (and less well-known instances, too), they interact in interesting and diverse ways, and are frequently mutually entangled.
It’s about community formation and collective organization in every field of endeavor.
What is the role, function, purpose and methodology of the Fifth Estate? As the head of an organization that reports on socially engaged bloggers and citizen media around the world, I have some thoughts, based on my time working with many groups using online tools to create and share information and knowledge.
The Fifth Estate has been hugely influential in recent years, spurring events that will go down in history. Many of these have led to reactions and corrections, and crackdowns and reversals. There is also much debate over whether the Fifth Estate is something to be lauded or feared: on the one hand, it facilitated political uprisings, as in Tunisia and Egypt; on the other hand, those uprisings have led to vigorous and vicious reactions from state power, as in Egypt and Syria. These debates, I find, entirely miss the point.
From the restive flow of information through our connected, networked world, there has emerged a persistent unease. This unease lives in political and social institutions, and in mass media outlets that interpret and often echo their viewpoint. It can be described succinctly as a fear that the institutions that guide and order our world will falter in the face of unruly and unexpected nodes of collective action.
The unease has manifested in prominent events over the past few years. This season, it is most visible in the Tea Party's success in driving a U.S. government shutdown; in the slouch of Syria's war toward regional conflict; in the Egyptian military's overthrow of an elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government and crackdown on ensuing protest; and in the revelations about the scale of NSA surveillance, based on Edward Snowden's leaks. Each of these, it can be argued, are reactions to uprisings of varying shape and degree that began in, or were aided by, the Fifth Estate.
The institutions that hold up the established social order—authorities in government and sympathetic mass media—present us with a vision of events like the Occupy movement or the Arab uprisings as individual or collective protest spinning out of control, with cascading consequences. In each case, we are presented with a version in which crowds stand in opposition to institutions, and threaten them. We know the crowds are real, and that they are facilitated by the use of many-to-many networks of communication: the Internet and data-rich cellular networks. Debates over the desirability of the events spurred by the Fifth Estate has been transferred, then, to debates over whether networked societies and the Internet itself have inherently positive or negative characteristics.
This framing, it seems to me, is deeply flawed. Networked society is a web of electronic communications that undergirds and connects us in a complex media ecology. It is a space for dialogue for all aspects of human engagement and is not functionally separate from the physical world. Just as in the real world, events that occur in this online ecology have many shades of meaning, and it can take us some time to understand their consequences.
When networked individuals and communities adapt journalistic practices, for instance, there have been consequences which many agree have been both good, such as revelations of U.S. military malfeasance and dishonesty, and bad, such as allegations that an innocent man was one of the Boston bombers. Both of these were the result of networked individuals acting according to a different set of norms than those of the Fourth Estate. People will debate the value and consequences of other events, such as the Snowden leaks, for decades.
A prominent theorist of the Fifth Estate, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute, uses the term to define a "network of networks," organized by interests that "move across, undermine, and go beyond the boundaries of existing institutions." These interests, Dutton is careful to explain, are neither inherently good or bad. Rather they are the result of complex interactions between many actors and ideas. Networked societies don't only stand in opposition to other estates; they permeate them, as well as give shape to our more informal communications structures.
Networked societies don't only stand in opposition to other estates; they permeate them, as well as give shape to our more informal communications structures.
This is important because, within the Fifth Estate, informal, seemingly spontaneous networks of people are able to cohere around ideas and to oppose authorities in other estates. The ability to move quickly toward collective action with the assistance of digital networks has been described by the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci as a mechanism for overcoming the problem of "pluralistic ignorance," a barrier to collective action whereby people with common interest are unable to recognize their allies, often due to censorship and other intentional restrictions on information access.
Our ability to use the Internet to share ideas, to generate a steady flow of symbols and memes, as with the Occupy movement, and to assemble communities around them is the core of the Fifth Estate phenomenon. Hence the steady flow of protests, movements and memes that challenge existing hierarchies of power and order.
We miss the origins of collective action and protest coming out of the Fifth Estate because we aren't looking in the right place. In trying to understand networked collective action, it helps to look to the conceptual edges of our world, away from debates about and between the institutions that are so often the focus of our journalism and policy analysis. For instance, Hillary Clinton stated that her State Department, in its analysis of the 2009 Iranian elections, didn't even conceive of mass protest as a possible outcome. That's because the State Department wasn't following Iranian social media conversations in the run-up to the elections, and hadn't understood the degree to which Iranian voters hoped for reform and the depth of their disappointment in a fraudulent election.
Likewise, it took the New York Times some five weeks from the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010 and resulting protests to mention Bouazizi’s name in the paper. (Disclosure: The editor of this article is a contracted writer for the Times.) The Times entirely missed the fact that 20 days prior to Boazizi's, on November 28, 2010, the Tunisian digital activist group nawaat.org had published Tunileaks, which was the bulk of the Wikileaks State Department cables on Tunisia, detailing for the first time the extent of President Ben Ali's corruption. These events contributed to Tunisia's revolution, which in turn spread to uprisings throughout the Middle East and beyond, to Spain, Israel, and New York.
The outcomes of Fifth Estate activity can look chaotic. To understand the motives of participants, it helps to look through their eyes. In a 2012 study comparing the coverage of the Egyptian revolution by Global Voices the Twitter feed of New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristof; and Times news coverage, the researchers Summer Harlow and Thomas Johnson concluded that the Times coverage delegitimized the protest movement, "emphasizing the spectacle, quoting official sources, and de-valuing protesters as reporters maintained an impartial role." In contrast, Global Voices coverage "legitimiz[ed] protesters and serv[ed] as commentators/analysts, even actors, in the unfolding events."
The effects of networked society are playing out across the world. Crowds are not just threatening, amorphous mobs. They are aware, connected, self-monitoring, and constantly evolving communities seeking expression, rights, and new paths to power. Their effects are complex, and can be both positive and negative.
The Fifth Estate is not to be feared, coddled, praised, or banned. It is to be considered. Because it’s here, it’s powerful, and it’s not going away.
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