Dialogue as a Communication Right – A Draft

book project, Research

This is an English-language draft summary of my chapter for a book by a group of Finnish  scholars (Ala-Fossi, Alén-Savikko, Hildén,  Jääsaari, Karppinen, Lehtisaari, Nieminen) on operationalizing communication rights in the Finnish context. I am struggling with terminology: How to call the right to be heard by those in power in the time of multiple ways of communicating and communication?


While the word dialogue seldom appears in laws or in mission statements of media organizations, it is strongly rooted in democracy theorization in political science and as utilized in communication studies. We understand dialogical rights as citizens opportunities and activities to engage in dialogue. Dialogicality also entails the idea that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard.  The digital era has has lowered many barriers of direct public participation, specifically in three types of dialogical relationships:

  1. Direct dialogues between citizens,  the government and public administration, made possible with digitalization (often phrased as active inclusion, public engagement, and/or eParticipation);
  2. Dialogues with and via institutional, legacy media (often discussed as audience participation and interactivity); as well as
  3. Direct mediated dialogues between citizens, on digital platforms (peer-to-peer communication and other user generated content that can amount to civic engagement).

The Constitution of Finland secures freedom of expression but also stipulates that public authorities shall promote the opportunities for the individual to participate in societal activity and to influence the decisions that concern him or her. An example of a sector- and institution-specific legislation that supports these rights is, again, the Act on Yleisradio: it stipulates the public service broadcaster must support democracy and everyone’s opportunity to participate.

Digital dialogical opportunities between citizens and their government provide perhaps the most poignant case and the most optimistic reiteration of dialogical rights. They are also the most one-sided since those innovations have mainly been government-driven. This trend began in the 1990s with a multitude of national and supranational information society programmes. In these scenarios, concerns of social inclusion have been included although they have been primarily formulated to enhance economic competitiveness. This seems to be the case with the EU’s approach to eGovernment and eParticipation: Many initiatives and toolkits are created but at the core is effectiveness of the “digital single market”.

The foundations of digital dialogue between the public sector and the citizens were laid in Finland in 1997 when the government launched a “public engagement programme”, followed in the subsequent decade  by two other participation-focused programs in which digital technology played a central role. In 1999, an open access register on all  governmental initiatives was established, followed in 2000, by an inter-ministerial website to solicit citizens’ views. The site has since expanded into six different portals, developed by the Ministry of Finance under a program to enhance digital public services (2009-2015). In 2016, it was decided that electronic voting will be offered in addition to conventional voting. Currently, in 2017, one of the government’s five strategic priorities focuses entirely on “digitalization, experimentation and deregulation”.

Dialogical rights are realized in a very different way in the dialogue between media organizations and citizens. A basic effect of dialogue as accountability is monitored by an independent Council for Mass Media. It offers citizens the opportunity to file complaints requesting the investigation of a matter concerning breach of good professional practice or the freedom of speech and publication. In addition, individual media outlets often have their own direct channels and mechanisms for complaints. Digitalization has not drastically changed the news media landscape, in that popular legacy media dominate also online news. At the same time, digitalization, comment, and chat functions of legacy media outlets, in their own platforms as well as in common social media sites, have become standard practice. One special, and popular, service directly related to citizenship is different voting advice applications offered by different news organizations. However, these kinds of new services are not always without controversy. For instance, the net-based local and regional news services, as well as developing personalization services by the public service Yleisradio have been investigated as possible market distortions. A recent report found, however, that both are according to the remit of Yle in promoting democracy.

The most prolific digital dialogues can be said to occur between citizens — or so it may seem when observing social media activity and heated online debates. The reality in Finland is more moderate. Finns, traditionally avid newspaper readers, seem to be traditionalists in digital realm as well. They have not given up on old, legacy media organizations. Community media and citizen journalism have not gone mainstream in the country, even with plenty of digital opportunities. Also, voting activity has remained very steady in the past decade (around 70% in parliamentary and EU elections). Approximately three quarter of all Finns follow the media via the Internet, some 40 percent read blogs, but only six percent have their own blogs or web pages. Facebook is the main source of news for 35 percent of the Finns, but only one tenth uses social media for political participation, and only 15 percent takes part in memes, campaigns, and other participatory phenomena. Even when the government’s activities to enhance digital dialogues are  plentiful, the citizens’ responses have not been overly enthusiastic. While these portals exist civil servants hardly utilize them in decision-making; neither are civil society organizations keen on participating in them.  

Unfortunately, the kind of political participation that has become more common and visible is online hate speech. One key motor for this is the alt-news site MV-lehti that offers news with a heavy anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-legacy media slant and that fuels plenty of related commentary and dialogue. One communication right related to dialogicality could be said to be the negative right not be exposed to hate speech. In fact, in 2015, Finland instituted a new law on equality that has secures equality in the workplace and for public services, regardless of age, language, sexual orientation, and so on. While it does not single out the media, it stresses that hate speech and other disrespectful behaviour is against this law.

Another entirely new form of dialogue could be seen in the use of open data in decision-making.While data can be used by policy-makers for efficiency, as stipulated in the Open data policy for 2015 – 2020 of the Finnish Government it also works in reverse: Citizens can monitor and hold policy-makers and others accountable.

{research} PSM in the service of communication rights?

book project, Research

{This is a segment of an upcoming book chapter. Very interested in any comments!}

Commercial interest have since been coupled with many other challenges of digitalization to public service broadcasting – and much has been said about the current crises of public service ideal and practice. As Voltmer (2013: 160) sums it up: We are now at a historical moment where different realizations, mature and new, of public service broadcasting worldwide are under threat because of digital convergence, audience fragmentation, and deregulated markets – and we may just need to come up with new ways to ensure the values of independency, impartiality, and integration via media. Might one way to ensure those classic values to embrace human and communication rights as an explicit PSM mission? More specifically, in terms of Europe: If we take seriously the normative engagement of welfare societies about informed citizenship and communication rights, and if we try to learn from the critique of paternalism, centralization, elitism, the copying of commercial channels, what can we suggest for public service media in services of communication rights in the digital era? To find answers, one has to tackle at least one conceptual and one empirical challenge.

The first issue is a fundamental one. Today, the European institution of PSB can be said to embody many of the rights relating to information and communication, especially in relation to citizens’ access to and availability of relevant information. At the same time, a certain conceptual riff between PSB and communication rights does exist. Public service in the media sector has in most related literature been linked to democracy theories and, on practice, democratic societies. And while rights-based approaches “share a commitment to the ideal of equal political dignity for all”, and while realization of human rights requires democratic government, the ideals of democracy and rights point to different directions (Donelly 2013: 222). The former ideal is about collective empowerment – the latter ideal is about individuals. Related to this is the traditional practice of PSB: The paternalistic, one-way flow of communication from one center that disseminates information to anybody within its reach.

And yet, in practical, empirical terms, we have established that PSBs have been used as vehicles in realizing certain communication rights, not least the one of access to information/content. To find out whether PSM could serve communication rights of the digital era, one needs to operationalize those rights. One scheme to understand today’s communication rights is to map under these five distinct operational categories: (see Nieminen 2010, 14-15; Splichal 2002, 168-69):

Access is about citizens’ equal access to information, orientation, entertainment and other contents serving their rights. Availability indicates that relevant contents (of information, orientation, entertainment and other) should be equally available for citizens. Competence means that citizens should be educated with the skills and abilities to use the means and information available according to their own needs and desires. Dialogical rights means availability of public spaces available that allow citizens to publicly share information, experiences, views, and opinions on common matters. Finally, privacy indicates two different things: first, everybody’s private life has to be protected from unwanted publicity, unless its exposure is in the public interest or the person decides to expose it to public; and second, protection of personal data means that all information gathered by authorities or businesses must be protected as confidential.

In the current media landscape, PSM is not alone serving the public. Given the multi-platform environment, many propose that public service functions can also be performed what could be called public media de facto, ranging form community media to networked projects and events (e.g., Bajomi-Lazar et al. 2012; Horowitz & Clark 2014). A commercial TV channel may have a particularly important and engaging political debate program or news website; a community radio station may address issues of a region in more depth than national media outlets; and citizens may inform each other (and the world) on social media about the Arab Spring, or the Ferguson riots, more effectively than any legacy media news outlet.

Yet, if we take an overall outlook of responsiveness of different media outlets to communication rights, how would PSM fare in terms of communication rights vis-à-vis its de facto counterparts? Table 1 presents a simple sketch of PSM and selected other forms of media outlets, with the assumption that they all have a potential in serving in the public interest.

Table 1. Communication rights, public service media, and selected other media institutions: A comparison

  PSM Commercial broadcaster/media outlet Community/ alternative media Short term issue and other “projects” and spontaneous citizen journalism
Access Good Weakening (e.g., pay-TV and streaming pay walls) Weak: doesn’t reach everyone (filter bubble)[1] Often weak: doesn’t reach everyone
Availability Good, weakening if narrowed or if competing with commercial outlets with similar content Weak (more of the same and recycling similar content for audiences, eyeballs, and likes) Good, as filling in the gap; but not diverse Good, as filling in the gap; but exists only for a short time
Competence Traditionally good (education) Traditionally weak Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Improving with the help of social media (free tools)
Dialogicality Improving with the help of social media Improving, but for commercial purposes Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Often based on dialogicality, with the help of social media (free tools)

(a)    Private life

(b)    data

(a)    usually good

(b)    can be good

Weak (usually exploited for commercial purposes) Can be weak if no resources to guard privacy Can be weak if spontaneous and no resources to guard privacy

The above scheme would indicate that PSM could fare well in the service of communication rights. It is a simplified view that does not account for several core issues. For instance, audiences of public media can be global, regional, national, local and/or issue-driven (Aufderheide & Clark 2009). In addition, PSM exists in the same platforms as its commercial competitors. That may result in compromises in terms of intermediary liability, especially regarding privacy and freedom of expression that can be (e.g., MacKinnon 2010) In practical terms: national PSB companies are regulated under national legislation, but their activities in social media are ruled (mostly) by US jurisdiction. And, conversely, s Ziccardi (2013: 39) observes, digital communication and its platforms may have the potential to enhance international human rights, but this process is continuously being interrupted by nation-states and their interests. How would PSM organizations react to those challenges? Still, the original (even if implicit) role of PSM in guarding communication rights is clearly present and can be enhanced. No other media outlet has had that kind of on-going, sustainable commitment and obligation.

{teaching} To learn and to contribute.


Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 11.51.26 AM

The 4th Generation – Digital Human Rights course for the Helsinki University just ended.

The course was for me a first, an exploration on human rights directly related to the media and communication technologies, as well as supported by communication and tech.

One of the core learning objectives was to empower theories — and students — to work in practice. The philosophy behind this goal was the urgent, real-life need for communication and research expertise in the field; as well as the desire to give the students an opportunity to contribute, to help, to inspire, to enhance the work of organizations working on these issues. Theories can make a difference as applied in to the world, a scholar can make a difference in contributing his/her skills.

To stress these points, the final project was a question of choice: Either a scholarly paper or a consultancy project of sorts. (See the final project instructions here.)

Below are some examples of the final projects.

(There were many more great submissions – applied and scholarly work – but these final projects are by nature public = live online.)

(My co-facilitator Rune Saugmann and I are in the process of writing a reflection of this experimental course, between theory and praxis.)

{teaching} 4th Gen Expert Guest: Johannes Koponen on our Future and Human Rights


Our course is titled The Fourth Generation, as a reference to the possibility of information and communication rights soon entering the formal realm of human rights. But the phrase Fourth Generation of Human Rights can also be used to refer to the rights of the future generations: What kind of world are they entitled to and how should we take their rights into account, already now?

This last lecture of 4th Gen combines the above two interpretations.

Our esteemed Guest Lecturer is Johannes Koponen, an expert in strategic futures studies and development of business 2015-04-22 20.11.05models through futures studies methods. Currently, he’s working for the Nordic Think Tank Demos Helsinki. He’s also the co-founder and current CEO of Scoopinion that won the biggest Nordic media innovation award in 2011 (Uutisraivaaja, by Helsingin Sanomat Foundation).

Johannes holds a M.Sc. (Tech.) from knowledge intensive business major at Aalto University. He also has a broad understanding in communication and media research, and is currently working on his PhD at the University of Helsinki in Media and Communication Studies. In addition he teaches futures studies in Aalto University  and Open University.

Follow him @johanneskoponen.

Problem-solving as a passion and a profession

“I have always been interested in futures studies and that entails scenario-building. I was always interested in social and political sciences but ended up studying at the University of Technology. Those studies gave me a solid foundation in thinking that is centered around problem solving.  I always say that engineers can find a simple solution to a complex problem; but social scientists can see that the problem is actually more complex than the engineers could even envision. Bringing together these two views – complexity and a search for solutions – is what I want to do.

At the University, I worked quite a bit with usability studies and user-centric approaches. Interestingly, that field and futures studies both utilize scenarios as methods. It felt natural to move on to futures and strategic studies and research. Scenarios became the main method I use at Demos Helsinki and in my other work.

The essence of this kind of work is not only to see trends but envisions alternative ways of being and doing. The directions of trends will change. The truly interesting aspect of depicting change resides in understanding its array of possibilities.”

The power of disruption

“The possibilities I’m talking about are related to fundamental changes. We are often entrapped in this false sense of inevitability of the outcome regarding a problem. But if we spread the timeline far enough we can see openings and completely new possibilities.  At the same time, it’s good to remember the transformations that some in the field of technology call “disruptive”, are only profound when a product, practice, or structure changes into something that people want more than what existed before.

For instance: In the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade of spices was one of the largest forms of business. In fact, the entire currency system in the West was based on that trade. And then, at the end of the 19th century, one man, named Tudor, changed it all. He introduced the idea of refrigerating food with ice: He started to import ice blocks stored in saw dust from Michigan, the US, to warm countries – to those importers of spices.  People use spices, like the media, for many reasons, but one very important one was the fallacy that spices would preserve food.

Now ice, then ice machines, and later on fridges did the job. People working for the spice trade were not getting jobs in the ice cube trade, or the ice machine industry, or then in the manufacturing of refrigerators. Disruption will happen again when something – maybe Amazon Fresh – meets the most pressing use of the fridge and responds to that need in a new way. So meeting the need is the determining factor in disruption.”

Disrupting communication rights

“So now, if we think of communication, and communication rights, the disruption that has already happened and has already been established is about authorship and active participation. I suspect that the formalization of the rights also limits them somewhat – the times of the wild and free Internet are over.

But we can think of the field of media being somewhat similar to the field of energy production. We had major players in the industry, distributing energy to the masses. With renewable energy sources, and accessible technologies, many individuals can become actors, and produce their own solar power for their home. And if most people join the bandwagon, then perhaps it becomes a right to be able to be energy-self-sufficient.

The challenge we have now in the field of the media, when we think of those involved – say, Facebook, Google, and so on – that they are not producers of information as such and they have no interest in producing quality products. Their interest is in segmenting us, and to sell us, segmented, to the advertisers. And our unsafe and insecure world doesn’t invite us to break out of our comfortable filter bubbles.”

The Sensor Revolution and its challenges to human rights

“Another set of challenges is posed if we continue to think about the Internet of Things, or, as I think is more accurate, about the Sensor Revolution. If this phase isn’t thought through carefully, we will end up in a state of digital feudalism. All these developments, like the Amazon Dash Button, make our everyday lives so much more convenient and comfortable. But at some point we need to begin to question what this does to us as humans. If Tinder recommends a bride, and another site suggests the location at which we should get married… At which point do I make the decision? And the challenge is: Decision-making is a tough process and we’d love to avoid it as long and as often as we can.

The Internet is already almost like water. If it doesn’t flow, we’re in trouble. The discourse on [Internet] rights has taken interesting twists and turns, especially when much has been justified with freedom of expression. Those have been important discussions. But as radical as it may sound, I believe we must begin to bring some of the decision-making into the real of public policy, not only private enterprise. We need to guarantee access, and then we can begin to bring in the responsibilities that come with it, for organizations, businesses, as well as individuals.”

The future of us?

“One of the biggest challenges for us as scholars/experts will be – employment. We must start to radically rethink how we find our place in the world, and, in practice, how we work. This is no longer a choice to find a “different career path” but a necessity.  The old school, traditional employers of the industrial era barely exist anymore.

In physics, work is defined as “overcoming resistance”. Our world today is such that if someone invents an algorithm that could replace that person at work, he or she will get fired. But we should continuously make ourselves redundant. Yet, there’s so much work in the world – so many problems to solve – but how to find that space, collective, organization in which you can work, make a living, and participate in the society in that capacity.

There are a couple of methods to go about this. The most interesting of these has been coined by Juha Leppänen: We have heard so much about the “Creative Class” but it’s a very exclusive concept.  We should instead think about the Curious Class – curiosity is an innate ability in everyone. It’s fascinating, I find, how little we talk about curiosity given that  it’s a fundamental feature of problem-solving and innovation. Another aspect is that all of us must embrace digital tools. Those shouldn’t be denied from those who are not immediately at ease with technology. “

{teaching} What to Do? Project Ideas & Instructions


The F2F Session on April 8th.

Last week, Rune asked us how we, as individuals, can ensure our digital human rights. Is policy-making (global/national) enough?

This week, we expand the question to ask; What can we do as media, communication, political science, journalism, NGO etc. EXPERTS? How can we use out knowledge to support human rights, communication rights, digital rights? This question is not merely rhetorical: The more mediatized our lives are, the more relevant our abilities to do sociological, organizational, communication & media analysis. [IMHO – the world will need more engaged scholars who work not only as outside observants but as agents of social change.]

We will now move on to working on a real life project — a research piece,  or a policy paper, a campaign scheme, an advocacy/awareness-raising video, or a scholarly paper… All this can be done individually or in groups. The choice is yours. You will be evaluated according to your core idea, implementation, and presentation.

  • This week we choose topics for individual/group work (your choice).
  • You will work on the project in the following weeks, also for some time on 15.4. (we will include some discussion on how to pitch your project) so that…
  • … On 22.4., you will present your 7-10 min. pitch about your project and we’ll discuss your ideas, first findings, and question.
  • You will have a chance, would you so like, to meet with me between 13.4.-21.4. to discuss your project ideas prior pitching. You will get a Doodle email to sign up for a time slot on 10.4.
  • … And, you continue to produce a final product — that can be a group research report, a website, a video, or an individual scholarly paper — by 6.5.

Real-Life Projects

Here are some people and organizations who would welcome your help. More details in class/on Skype/via email:

  1. Meeri Koutaniemi – human rights activist / photo journalist. She would need research help in her work on female genital mutilation. She has several issues/questions she wold like to explore so this can be a work of several groups/individuals.Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 2.03.02 PM
  2. Naisten Linja – Women’s Line is “meant for every woman and girl suffering from abuse, threats or fear. Volunteered women trained by Women’s Line answer the phone. All calls are confidential and free-of-charge.” They want help in envisioning their new awareness-raising campaign — “Valoa, ei Vakivaltaa” — and some policy recommendations.
  3. The Kota Alliance – is a new non-profit that aims at being an incubator for small and medium sized women’s rights organizations. It would welcome a development of a digital resource/toolkit on cyberviolence against women that would be featured via their website, and showcased during their next seminar, #Kotaday.
  4. 2012-11-21 08.06.02DemocracyNOW! This alternative global news outlet aims at providing “access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the corporate-sponsored media, including independent and international journalists, ordinary people from around the world who are directly affected by U.S. foreign policy, grassroots leaders and peace activists, artists, academics and independent analysts.” They have a department for media education, as well as vast news archives — and they would love to get ideas on how to use their news coverage in awareness-raising and teaching human rights. [Here’s Simin Farkondeh from DN! talking to a class of HY students a few years back about why the organization exists.]
  5. GESCI – this is a project that I will be working on also in the future and would welcome some help now, possibly to be continued as a research associate work later. This project is about cultural rights and sustainability. They would need help in mapping African NGOs that work in the field and harnessing the approaches taken.

    Images from the Sound of the City Creative Industries project by GESCI

    Images from the Sound of the City Creative Industries project by GESCI

  6. M4ID: “M4ID is a social enterprise providing new communication technology services for the health and development sector.  M4ID was founded in 2008 and is based in Helsinki, Finland.  M4ID combines in-depth knowledge of development and health issues with technology and communication expertise. Together with its global network of expert partners, M4ID is uniquely positioned to support social change initiatives worldwide.” M4ID has a new project about communicating maternal health issues in an effective way. They are interested in research that would map discussions around MH and SDGs — and the role of communicating MH — in order to better position their new project: 

    The results of the research would be featured at a major maternal/newborn child health conference in Mexico City in Oct 2015.

  7. YOUR IDEAS? All are welcomed.

Tips, Format, Timeline of the Projects

  1. You all have a general theme and purpose for your research but: Define your research goal/questions carefully and see how you can answer them.
  2. Make it doable. Narrow down your ideas, focus. Engage in division of labour. You have one month.
  3. Your final product can be in ANY format. Try to match the format with your research goal: Will you do a conventional research report? A video? A series of blog posts? A scholarly essay?
    1. This is your final ‘product’ for the course.
    2. You can submit it as a group, or even if working as a group, decide to submit individual ‘products’.
    3. Note that the use of theory and research literature can be important to your topic/focus. Whatever resources you use, please reference them in some way (formal citations or some other way of referencing).
    4. You will also be asked to submit a short 1-2 page individual self-reflection: What did you learn, as a scholar, about theory and practice, about ‘applied/engaged research’, about your topic — and, naturally, about the media, comm tech, and human rights?
    5. These are due 6.5. This is a lot of work so this will be the main assignment for the rest of the course.
    6. The final products will be evaluated in the context of your specific assignment and format. We will naturally assess the facts and ‘usability’ of your end product, be it a scholarly essay or a video, as well as how the content and context fit the format you have chosen. We will also assess your take-aways = self-assessment as a part of the final project grade.
    7. Feel free to reach out to me & Rune at any time for questions. I will also circulate a Doodle schedule in case you want to discuss your projects F2F or via Skype/Google Hangout.

For 22.4.:  A Project Plan

Here are some basic elements an organization might request from a research consultant:

  1. Proposed approach and rationale explaining how the approach responds to the objectives set by the organization and why it is the best approach to take.
  2. Proposed methodology and instruments.
  3. Work plan and timeframe.
  4. Budget.
  5. Proposed consultant/s including CVs with information about qualifications, competence and experience relevant to the assignment.
  6. Samples of similar reports which demonstrate the approaches, methodologies and contexts which the consultants are familiar with.
  7. References
  • For 22.4., please provide 1.-3. in one page.
  • Be creative and adjust the above to your chosen project.
  • If you are doing a scholarly project, please provide an abstract of 300 words.
  • Email the one-pager or the abstract to Minna & Rune by 22.4. 13hrs. You will receive feedback on your plan shortly after the session.

For 22.4.:  A Project Pitch

A pitch includes the same elements (1.-3.) but as a presentation. (These simple instructions, while not directly meant for project consultancy (rather than for pitching your PhD) may inspire – or amuse – you.)

  • Please prepare a 7-minute (and not a minute more) pitch on your project. You may, or may not, choose to use visuals to support your pitch.
  • If you are doing a scholarly work, your task is to give a compact 7-minute scholarly presentation.
  • If you are going to participate virtually, please let Rune & Minna know in advance whether you wish to Skype in, or whether you will send us a text we can present on your behalf, with or without visuals.

For 6.5:  The Final Product

  • Your “final product” – whether a series of blog posts, a research report, a scholarly paper, a video, a Facebook page… We will share it with your “clients”. Let us know if it can be shared with other course members, too.
  • 1-2 pages “self-reflection”: Lessons learned about human rights from the practical project, intersections between theories and practice, other insights regarding the “learning-by-doing” process…

Assessment of 22.4. & 6.5:

  • Content: How well have you captured the research need/question of your assignment?
  • Content: How well have you narrowed down the research need to match the time frame and the essential issues at hand?
  • Content: How understandable and usable is the content for your end-user = your client. (For scholarly papers, that is the academic community.)
  • Form: How well “packaged” is your end product? How does the form (whether the pitch or the final product) serve the purpose of your assignment? (For scholarly papers, this means following the academic conventions.)
  • Form: How coherently, clearly, and logically is the content presented?
  • Extra bonus: For innovation – whether it’s an innovative, out-of-the-box presentation or a conceptual novelty.