Share your thoughts on activism, new media and technology
Everything is about power relations

Everything is about power relations

I am currently working on some future blog posts, where I seek to explore the complexity, duality and contradictions regarding new media politics, data journalism, and connectivity for development. Just a few steps into the analysis, it becomes evident how everything has to do with different relations of power in all these three fields:

Online activism, social change and new media politics

In Nigeria’s WhatsApp Politics, Nic Cheeseman, Jonathan Fisher, Idayat Hassan, and Jamie Hitchen studied the Nigerian elections of 2019, and found it very clear that WhatsApp was operating as a liberation technology that strengthened democracy and simultaneously contributed to political turmoil that challenged it: ”These are not mutually exclusive outcomes, but rather two sides of the same coin.”

Obviously you cannot say that all technologies are good or that all of them are bad. However, that doesn’t mean that they are neutral or objective. There is always someone creating the technology, someone owning it, someone distributing it, and someone using it. And all these people are embedded in several power relations and power structures that affect the struggle between the state and the people – and the democracy.

Data journalism and big data

Data journalism comes with both opportunities and challenges. One opportunity is to strengthen democracy, since data journalism contributes to shared knowledge and informed citizens. Eli Pariser writes in The Filter Bubble that democracy relies on this, that informed citizens with shared knowledge are needed in order to be able to act together to solve our collective problems.

Data journalism has a key role here, but its conceivable success is dependent on the context of any specific country. How much data is being made available, how trained are the journalists in handling the huge amounts of data, and can media companies afford to prioritize data journalism training and practicing?

And here is where the global power relations enter the arena. If data journalists in the Global south lack training and money, and rely on western donors, we have something that looks a lot like a recolonization. What are the consequences of such interventions in the Global south, both in local journalism and society at large, when journalistic ideals of the Global north is being implemented?

There is also the discussion of objective data and if such data really exist? Someone always has the power to choose and present different data. Or as Hassel Fallas writes in his chapter in Data Journalism in the Global South: ”The challenge of investigative journalism in the era of big data is the same as always: keep an eye on the exercise of power and its consequences on people.”

Connectivity and development

There is a global strive for increased connectivity, but even though this will foster development for some, it comes at a cost, the colonization of data and the dependency on powerful global platform capitalists. In international development there are many informatization strategies, because of the belief that the use of new ICTs will foster socioeconomic development in the Global south. However, new media and ICTs have different roles and impacts in specific development and social change contexts, depending on societal, cultural and ethical aspects.

Technological tools confirm socially and culturally held stereotypes and injustices, both locally and globally. Algorithms are used to optimize website experiences, most often through lists of the ”most popular” purchases or searches, or through behavior-based personalization. Both are problematic. Firstly, to display the behavior of the majority as the most important and most true, silences and erases the minorities, which naturalizes the unequal power structures. Secondly, is behavior-based personalization not just Father Capitalist using people as nothing but raw data, taking our data to increase his profit, a form of digital colonization and digital slavery?

Finally, a Cartesian meme

I could not help but to make another meme, this time about how basic power relations are to us human beings. René Descartes is one of the greatest celebrities from the Enlightenment, the era that formed the power relations still highly topical today. His rationalist philosophy is one of the cores of the age of reason, the Enlightenment, which put Europeans in the centre of civilization and all human achievements. In Postcolonialism, Decoloniality and Development, Cheryl McEwan writes that the Enlightenment firmly planted ”the idea of the West as superior and more advanced along a singular path to progress and modernity”.

Central to the Enlightenment philosophy is the need to construct “the Other” in order to be able to define “the Self”. Such binary oppositions have shaped western knowledge since then, and still establishes the normal, normative good in contrast to the abnormal, deviant bad. These binaries are obviously both including and excluding by its very nature. If we belong to the good norm, we are included, otherwise we are excluded. Or as Achille Mbembe puts it in Necropolitics: ”In order to get together, it is necessary to divide, and each time that we say ’we’, we must exclude someone at any price”.

Do you agree? Please, share your thoughts here.


  1. Lorenzo

    Nice and interesting read Victor. Unfortunately it seems to be an endless loop we can’t break free from. Perhaps it’s the quintessence of development: there must be something/someone less developed than something/someone else in order for development to exist.
    Hence, the binary system you rightly brought in: Other/Self, Developed/Developing, North/South, Us/Them and so on..

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lorenzo! Yes, it sure is a loop, but we must be able to break free from it. Do we for example need an Other in order for our Self to exist? Why cannot the Self just be one version of many Selfs coexisting with each other? Why must we categorize and rank everything?
    We did once create this patriarchal culture, so I believe it is possible (though not at all easy), to uncreate it.

    In Designs for the Pluriverse, Arturo Escobar defines the patriarchal culture as “actions and emotions that value competition, war, hierarchies, power, growth, domination of others, appropriation of resources”. Then he compares it to the historical matristic cultures with “conversations highlighting inclusion, participation, collaboration, understanding, respect, sacredness and cyclic renovation of life”. I think we need to return to these matristic cultures, but in a contemporary context.

    Power relations as a phenomenon is certainly fixed, but we have the power to change them.

    1. Stana

      Hello there,
      I’m a little late to join a conversation (chuckle) – nevertheless, this is a great post, Viktor. And, echoing Lorenzo, this dichotomy is quintessential to the very idea of ‘development.’ If we go back to how the Three Worlds theory was born, we go back to what you call the ‘power relations.’ In order to justify its own ‘existence’ (read: interests) the chief Western hegemon at the time – the US, came up with the ‘brilliant idea of the ‘development aid’ for the war-ravaged Europe. The rest is history. In the decades that followed, the scholars were all too happy to join in, willfully ignoring the fact that “theories and methods that [they] use are closely connected to their own position within the global system” (Adamson, 2020. Pushing the Boundaries: Can We “Decolonize” Security Studies?). And so on, ad infinitum.

      I am not sure the problem is the ‘patriarchal’ culture, as such, which, whether we like it or not, has ruled the world since its recorded history (5,000 years at the least), even making all kinds of progress (despite the media claims), and whether the matriarchal culture, as its opposite, in the likes of the Amazons would solve the problem we have here (remember what they did to their men!). From my perspective, and ‘hate’ me for this, Marx was right, it was/is about the control of capital and by extension, the power. All these elements, including the useful ‘development’ ideology, are only tools in the hands of those controlling the capital. Or as they say, ‘follow the money,’ and you’ll get the answers you seek.

      1. Thanks for your great comment, Stana! And I definitely don’t hate you for citing Marx! 🙂 I totally agree that they are only tools in the hands of those controlling the capital. I have been reading and writing a lot about the world’s new superpowers, the platform capitalists.

        I was “bubbling” with questions after reading Filter Bubbles by Eli Pariser. What happens when society no longer relies on journalists as intermediaries or curators of information? When friends, non-professional human curators and software code curators now decide what we should watch, read and see? Are the curating activities of both friends and software code merely creating an illusion of increased power to the people? Who holds the power when these activities are taking place on websites that are owned by major platform capitalists?

        The power may have started to move from governments and journalists towards citizens, but has it perhaps been abruptly intercepted by platform capitalists?

  3. Pingback: Employee activism to fight platform capitalists? - Decolonline

  4. Mercy

    Insightful read. Lots to think about. Although technology is not neutral, I think how people use a specific technology determines what the technology becomes to them. So, it is not WhatsApp that operates as a liberation or a hate-mongering technology for example, but the people using it for their agenda that make it so. With communication technology, I think the main drivers of how they are used is emotion and intellect.

    1. Viktor Lovén

      Thank you for your comment, Mercy!
      I totally agree that it is not the technology per se that is the problem. It is easy to call for more regulations when a technology is used in a bad manner, but… Should they even be reformed or regulated?
      The problem with reforming WhatsApp is that when reducing its destructive potential, there is simultaneously an undermining of its emancipatory power (Cheeseman et al). This can easily be translated into other technologies. The problem with regulating technology is that the good and bad aspects are interconnected. Since the problem is not the actual technology, but how people use it, the solution cannot be to reform the actual technology, but to reform the society.
      The good and bad effects experienced through a certain new media online technology device is in fact a social problem. I have a wonderful quote from Elisabeth Chin that I will probably use in a future post:
      ”Technology does not, and never has, all on its own, solved social problems. We are stuck with the same old problems with fancier technology to address them.”

      Finally, about your interesting thoughts on the main drivers of how technology is used: Do you mind elaborating on that? I am curious of why you think so and if you perhaps have found any readings relating to that?

  5. Mercy

    I agree with you that technology cannot on its own solve social problems and that it is mindsets that need to transform. I came to my point of view while reviewing ways in which Martin Luther and Tim Jenkin used technology to further their cause. It’s in my group 6 blog post on Activism: seeing opportunity in technology and networks part 1 and 2. Perhaps you might find the text I used in my review helpful.

    1. Thanks, the text was really interesting! And both your posts, part 1 and 2, are really great. I like how you drew two separate eras together. It then becomes clear how history is repeating itself. I’m thinking of the modernization-diffusion paradigm of development that, since the middle of the 20th century, have celebrated many new technologies as silver bullets to solve socio-economic development. Contemporary ICT and connectivity discourses contain not only similar celebrations, but also a similar silence regarding complex global power structures and exploitative international interconnections.

  6. Pingback: Decolonizing development - a dog chasing its tail? - Decolonline

  7. I share your notion that there are good and bad technologies, adding even some really ugly ones to the list (like spy software used by authoritarian states to hunt down investigative journalists), which means that there are always opportunities and challenges when it comes to digital development. Furthermore, when analysing the power relations and structures that interconnects the owners, distributors, and users of these technologies with an international scope, it becomes clear that there are new postcolonial dependencies emerging, as most technology owners come from the Global North and the users live in the Global South. However, all consumers in our globalised capitalist world have the power to say “NO” to buy and use new technology, no matter where you come from. Becoming aware of this power and, thus, becoming more independent and emancipated with regard to technological developments is therefore one of the biggest challenges for consumers (the people) and their protective entity (the state) in many countries of the Global South.

    1. Thank you, Daniel, for your interesting thoughts. And yes, there are truly new postcolonial dependencies emerging. You point out the users’ dependency on the owners, but since you mentioned journalists, I would also like to raise the issue of data journalism in the context of postcolonial dependencies:

      Many data journalists in the Global South lack training and money, and rely on western donors, which gives us a form of recolonization. What are the consequences of such interventions in the Global South, both in local journalism and in society at large, when journalistic ideals of the Global North is being implemented? Since they operate in such different environments, the ideals obviously have different priorities in the Global North and the Global South. A free press, for example, is believed to produce nothing but positive social outcomes. However, it depends on the existing political and social structures in the particular country when the free press is introduced. It could instead result in racist and derogatory content. We must realize that implementing data journalism, as with anything else, may also result in negative outcomes.

      Let me end by quoting Hassel Fallas in Data Journalism in the Global South (2019, p.324): ”The challenge of investigative journalism in the era of big data is the same as always: keep an eye on the exercise of power and its consequences on people”.

Comments are closed.