It used to be said that the pen is mightier than the sword. It still is but today both have changed: wars are no longer fought with swords and writers no longer use pens. The message and the messenger have transformed, as has how news is gathered and delivered. The tools of the journalism trade have changed over time. But the power of information is still as potent as arms and ammunition: sharp as a bullet, deadly as a gun. It is neutral and can be a used as a tool or weapon – to inform, educate, enlighten and build – or to break down. It can be made to help or hinder, praise or abuse, highlight or downgrade, upgrade or downplay.
It all depends on the objective of the shooter and the target aimed at.
Journalists have always had the power and choice on whether to use information as ammunition. Each has access to communication channels including e-mail and Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Wi-Fi is everywhere. And the Internet remains borderless.
The proliferation of Information and Communication Technology has not been matched everywhere with the necessary upgrades in understandings of the varying misunderstandings in the media of what its role is or should be. Some are perennially driven by what they see as a natural (and therefore necessary) antagonism between The Press and Governments. Others see wider roles that expand beyond local horizons or national borders.
Information can be used as ammunition to attack or defend, to deter or to demonstrate an ability to respond. Those who feel unfairly targeted by the media find and use different ways and means to fire back. Messengers get shot – and also fire at each other.
Where narratives collide, information becomes both offensive and defensive ammunition. Readers and listeners, viewers and browsers are not always able to duck the crossfire, many suffering the collateral damage of traditional information warfare.
With national elections approaching in both Saint Lucia and the USA, information is the prime political ammunition being used by the parties and candidates. Slanted reports, selected topics, bare biases and other forms of propaganda are increasingly in full play across the media landscape.
Every platform on earth and every cloud in the sky are being used to try to influence voters. Words and photos, viral videos and posted messages are moving faster – and with more fury than ever.
But where information is used as ammunition, the results depend less on those firing; if those targeted don’t believe the message, the ammunition will have been wasted.
The mainstream US media aims all its ammunition at influencing who will be the next American President. But a Huffington Post poll last week showed that only 6% of Americans have enough confidence in the mainstream media. And another poll earlier this year revealed that only 4% trust the US Congress.
The press here would have us believe it can influence the results of General Elections in Saint Lucia. That is yet to be proven. But then, even if it can, is the local media able or ready? We will see.
But once again, with another election approaching, the media here is more tailing than leading, repeating without questioning, swallowing without chewing and generally going with the flow, instead of highlighting issues or setting the agendas for public debate.
Private antagonisms have overshadowed professional considerations, resulting in initiatives and opportunities for professional engagement either being ignored or spurned, at the expense of progress. Instead of collectively benefitting, those most in need of uplifting end up suffering from the downsides of collateral damage.
Now the election propaganda war is on. Information ammunition is being fired rapidly from side to side, up and down, across and in between, those to be informed caught in the crossfire. Damage assessments at the end of Election Day will show how effective the rapid media fire was as we learn the fatalities and injuries – how many dead, badly wounded and unhurt.
After the war count is over, the media will be called upon to turn swords into ploughshares, to holster our guns and replace our weapons with tools. But there will always be those licensed holders of media firearms who will defend to death their right to decide whether to use information as ammunition in their self-defined roles as cowboys or crooks, policemen or thieves, defenders of truth or assassins of character.
The issue facing the press in the use of information as ammunition is like that facing countries with nuclear arms or every individual firearm holder – it all depends on what you want to use your gun for!