Let's démocratize communication

Founding document

The founding document of the association « Communication et démocratie» (Communication and Democracy) was adopted on May 9, 2022 by unanimous consent of the entire membership of the founding meeting.

The late emergence of an influencers' market

Over the centuries, information and communication have given rise to real economic and professional sectors, on an industrialized scale. On the one hand, the telecommunications sector organizes the massive storage and rapid transmission of information; on the other hand, the information and entertainment media sector as well as the cultural industries organize the production and circulation of meaning. Their semantic statements can be about current events, politics, knowledge and learning, or literature and the arts. Together, these industries feed a large part of the informational fabric that gives consistence to human cultures.

On top of this, the media and cultural industries are the historical pillars of the construction of audiences, made up of people who find an interest in their semantic contents: readers, listeners and viewers. But it was during the 20th century, on the back of the telecommunications sector, that media started to attract more and more massive audiences and an influencer industry truly emerged. It increased the access of companies to these audiences and deepened the know-how linked to shaping persuasive messages. These "communication agencies" grew by selling the production and distribution of influence campaigns to companies, targeting specific client populations.

Advertising agencies quickly prospered by renting out to certain media the access to their audiences: selling advertising space and time as well as editorial and cultural contents, in order to broadcast precisely calibrated promotional messages. They then instituted their own broadcasting capacities outside the media: advertising in the public space and in the private spaces of individuals' and families' homes.

For their part, public relations (PR) agencies have developed strategies to ensure that their content is directly picked up by the news media, by creating and staging news events about the company and its products. Finally, other structures, often called "firms" or “advisers", have specialized in political influence and lobbying activities targeting institutions, to advocate for/defend the interests of their clients, mainly the economic interests of companies.

Together, the professionals of these agencies – advertising, public relations and lobbying – as well as their increasingly numerous interlocutors within companies, have gradually formed the communication sector.

Understanding why the communication industry went overboard

When they pursue commercial objectives – to increase product sales – advertising and PR operations aim to reach citizens in all spaces of society, to inform them about new products, to make them aware of novelties and to arouse their desire to consume. With the complementary activities of promotional marketing, conducted directly in homes and at points of sale, companies have gradually learned to extend their influence campaigns in such a way as to not just entice but to trigger the act of purchase.

Together, all these activities form commercial communication, which supported the economic and cultural development of the consumer society, first in the United States and then in Western Europe and Japan.

The existence of this model is dependent on maintaining a high level of household consumption. It was developed in the mid-20th century, in industrialized countries in which populations were still relatively exposed to a certain frugality/scarcity in the product offering. Back then the awareness of climate change and its consequences had also not yet taken hold. Commercial communication developed in a context of strong "economic growth", which was already generating pollution – although much less than today in terms of volume - but which offered an undeniable rise in the standard of living, including through consumer goods and household equipment: the widespread introduction and generalization of consumer goods like the refrigerator, the washing machine, the television and the car among others. At that time, this process was part of an economy marked by full employment. It was also part of a context of reduced inequality and, for large populations, an increased leisure time.

However, the "needs" of individuals are not indefinitely extensible, nor are the physical limits of the planet. After a few decades of prosperity - a period known as the "Trente Glorieuses" in France - maintaining a high level of household consumption and consumer demand has become increasingly difficult. At various levels in the industrialized countries, economic growth started slowing down and mass unemployment was taking hold. In order to maintain high consumer demand, industries and merchants embarked on a headlong rush of commercial communication. That was half a century ago.

Finally, the neoliberal revolution initiated by the great powers in the 1980s is characterized by the global deregulation of trade and finance. This context was going to facilitate the investments of the dominant companies in the field of communication, as well as the all-out development of influence activities implemented by the communication sector, which has since never stopped growing. In less than two decades, the world witnessed a hyper-concentration of the globalized economy between a few thousand industrial, commercial and financial conglomerates. Today, the majority of these multinationals are developing their own brand strategies, and they rely on a handful of international groups that dominate the communication and influence sector.

The influence marketing industry at the heart of a model that has become unsustainable

In order to sell goods that are increasingly superfluous, the industry has relied on persuasion methods that are ever more effective but often more problematic. Neuromarketing techniques, which focus on the behavioral determinants of the individual, have been perfected by targeting their action on the emotions or cognitive biases of individuals, in particular to affect the brain at subconscious level, for example via the biological reward system. At the same time, advertising has endeavored to anchor the desire and the acquisition of consumer goods in deeper socio-cultural dynamics, and in class relations within the population, in order to develop brand communities.

More broadly, commercial communication has exploited the principle of fashion trends in order to push consumerism into a cycle of intensive growth: it has reinforced its strategies around the ideas of marketing obsolescence. In other words, it has articulated, in the advertising narrative around "novelty", industrial strategies of design and gadget innovation in order to provoke an accelerated cycle of product renewal even when the old ones still work.

In the last few decades, the massification of the advertising market has been observed in all areas of society. More and more private media have developed with a model that is strongly or totally financed by advertising, and dependent on the economy of audiences and media planning. Many media outlets have thus largely abandoned their journalistic ambition and cultural mission in order to cater to the ideal tastes of the average viewer. At the same time, product placement became ubiquitous within major productions in cinema and video clips, while sponsoring and naming became a central feature of the big sports and cultural events.

The public space, which, unlike the media, cannot be bypassed, is also affected, with the multiplication of displays in the streets and in various places where people pass through (train stations, subways, etc.): posters, digital screens, giant billboards hanging from buildings, including historical monuments as has become commonplace in France. Since the 2000s, in France, brands are even present in schools and curricula.

Today, there are few human beings who have not been exposed daily, since their childhood, to thousands of advertising messages and commercial stimuli. The economy of well-being shows that these high levels of advertising pressure have impact on society and its members.

They negatively affect consumers' sense of satisfaction and, by reinforcing only the so-called extrinsic values of populations, go against the stimulation of empathy and solidarity among individuals.

Deregulated and at the service of the big brands, the communication sector deploys a range of commercial influences that play a direct role in the organization of the mass over consumption global phenomenon including in economic sectors (or products) that are particularly polluting or have negative impacts on our health. In this way, in the context of deregulated capitalism, the commercial influence of large companies makes it possible to perpetuate a model of overproduction, leading to the depletion of natural resources, the massive emission of CO2 into the atmosphere and the accumulation of waste. In other words, the commercial influence of the multinationals allows the maintenance of an unsustainable consumerist and productivist model, that is at the origin of the present environmental and climate crisis.

Image whitewashing to preserve corporate impunity

The intensification of the debate around ecological and international solidarity issues at the turn of the millennium has led to the development of voluntary, non-binding commitments by private actors, based on the narrative of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Inspired by the ideological narrative of "sustainable development", CSR narratives are often inserted into commercial campaigns, in order to highlight the social or environmental qualities attributed to products, sometimes extended to their production process. But these CSR narratives are also widely applied to so-called "corporate" or "institutional" communication strategies, which focus on the image of the company itself, on the reputation of its brand beyond its various products. In this context, for-profit companies publicly attribute societal missions to themselves and stage a news story around their alleged benefits.

Without real control regarding the conformity of these claims with reality, the CSR narrative on the commercial level can mislead consumers-citizens, to the detriment of a possibly more virtuous offer. The CSR narrative that companies also develop at the corporate level can, for their part, create an informational fog likely to drown out other information, such as documented denunciations of their real practices regarding human rights and the environment.

The whitewashing practices at image, social or ecological level, organize the opacity on the harmful consequences of companies and their predatory economic models. Through them, they protect themselves from reputational risks and their negative effects on the financial value of their brand image. In doing so, CSR narratives take part in the construction of an ideological discourse around the efficacy of self-regulatory bodies, and contribute to the disqualification of restrictive measures introduced by public authorities. The practices of image whitewashing thus contribute to the impunity of the corporate sector.

The contemporary issues of corporate image whitewashing also raise the question of NGO communications. In a rich and diverse civil society, a limited number of large associations, with real brand awareness, undertake large-scale communication campaigns, and their narratives and practices may be perceived by the public as being representative of "civil society" as a whole. However, in many of these campaigns, communication managers decide to call upon the same communication agencies as large companies, and accept to use equally aggressive and dubious marketing and advertising practices (goodies, purchase/sale of personal data, false advertising semiotics), solely focused on short-term objectives of triggering donation behavior. Some also engage in poorly controlled partnerships, in which the benefits for the company in terms of image may be excessive or out of step with the general interest of the operation.

Consequently, devoid of a political vision of their activities and communication postures, these civil society organizations contribute to establishing representations, within the wider population, that can go against the struggles that the associative sector has been leading for a long time. Worse, they contribute to the growing confusion, in the public perception, between the actors of the non-profit sector and the big private economic interests, thus benefiting the CSR narrative of the corporate sector and legitimizing their image whitewashing.

The democratic stakes of the influencer industry in the new era of a connected world

On issues of major importance such as the energy transition, food or public health, the diffuse ideological influence of the CSR narrative can give way to corporate campaigns with more direct political objectives. Linked to institutional lobbying activities, these corporate and public relations campaigns are part of "360° lobbying" mechanisms, similar to those developed by the tobacco industry in the 20th century.

In order to move a debate forward in the political arena, large companies buy advertising space and carry out PR operations, then disseminate eminently political messages to the public. Some of them also engage in "astroturfing" tactics, staging false citizen mobilizations or artificially generating uncertainty and doubt in the scientific field, thus distorting, in the eyes of decision-makers, the state of opinion or consensus in the academic world. From then on, these companies are in a position to capture the informational universe of the political leaders they target, and to control the entire decision-making process in favor of their economic interests.

The lack of transparency and the weak regulation of conventional lobbying is now a well identified political problem. In addition, since the end of the 20th century, the regulation of image laundering and 360° lobbying has become an issue that jeopardizes the struggle against the impunity of corporations and endangers the democratic mechanisms of collective decision making. In addition, the Internet and the connected world provide the communication industry with new and unprecedented means to increase its influence over peoples' minds, both commercially and politically..

Since the end of the 20th century, a socio-technical process of digitization of the world has been underway, i.e. the establishment of a continuous connection of individuals to digital technology. Over the past decade, a shift to the digital age has taken place, so that looking at screens has become the main human activity while awake. As a result, a new advertising market has developed that allows more messages to be delivered to the population, more often and in a more targeted way. While largely additional to the previous advertising markets, the online advertising market has nevertheless put the traditional media in difficulty. It has led to an increased dependence of news media on shrinking advertising budgets, and has caused online versions of the media to increasingly open up to advertising hidden in editorial content (native advertising). The dependency of the media on large advertisers also subjects a growing number of journalists and editorial offices to censorship and self-censorship mechanisms in their investigations of the corporations that “pay their wages».

The digital advertising market is also based on new technological capacities for collecting personal data and individual targeting that raise specific issues, in addition to the direct digital pollution in which this sector plays a major role. The market for personal data, to which the targeting of populations gives rise, generates problems of mass surveillance that lead both to issues of surveillance capitalism and to major democratic abuses. The economic interest in collecting (and selling) personal data, as well as in broadcasting advertising to Internet users, has also led to the development of new persuasive design techniques, interfaces that actively solicit individuals and lead them to increase their time spent online. These dynamics, all driven by the advertising economy, lead to the development of an attention economy, that preys on peoples attention-spans, brain time, well-being and health.

With this transformation of the advertising economy in the digital age, the communications sector now sports the world's largest companies, the "digital giants». Thus, a handful of companies on which the major media outlets now depend have cornered the online advertising market and monopolize the channels that provide access to human attention.

Establishing a political answer to the aberrations of our communications society

It is by communicating with their fellow men that human beings produce sense, and it is by the communication that they became humanized as thinking beings. Semantic, syntactic or pragmatic, human communication is fundamentally political. It is a precious tool that every society must effectively use to promote social, political and cultural debate.

But this tool is now being misused. The communication sector has been taken over by large industrial and commercial interests which, in a context of deregulation, commission and finance influencing campaigns that can be harmful to the community. Today, most communications professionals still have little or no understanding of the political issues raised by their clients' activities, although a growing number of them are now sincerely questioning the practice of their profession. While for-profit companies are legitimate when it comes to communicating information about their products, including through the purchase of advertising space, their communication and influence activities are currently insufficiently regulated.

The rules to fight against the abuses of influencer techniques are insufficient, and those that exist are not always applied. In order to regulate the content of messages, the self-regulation mechanisms, which have largely replaced the public authorities in this area, have shown their inadequacy, and even revealed their true nature as bodies for defending first and foremost the interests of the advertising sector. Beyond the techniques, the media and the messages, the level of advertising pressure on the populations, correlated to the dependence of the media on the advertisers, has now reached unsustainable levels. As a result, a few large non-profit organizations are forced to divide up a few crumbs of the advertising market among themselves, and to give in to the dominant practices of the influence industry in order to achieve equally short-term objectives, while the voices of the smallest socio-economic actors and citizens remain almost completely unheard.

In this context, the contemporary activities of the influence industry force us to follow an undesirable economic and social trajectory, harmful to the environment, to planetary balances and to our own individual and social well-being They also contribute to weaken our collective capacity to provide solutions to these problems and to change our model. None of these activities are even truly publicly questioned and debated, as a true democratic process would require.

It has become necessary to offer a political response to the excesses of the communication society. The reorganization of the means of information and communication has become inevitable, and its methods must be discussed and decided by democratic debate. In this context, a public analysis and debate around the issues of communication by legal entities must contribute to a wider reflection on the communication society of tomorrow, and on the necessary reforms that must be undertaken in order to see it emerge.

Let's democratize communication and re-imagine the world's riches

The non-profit organization "Communication and Democracy" - "CODE" - was born with this in mind: bringing together qualified personalities on these subjects, coming from a variety of academic disciplines as well as from the communication and media sector, and from civil society. But also people with a variety of competences useful to its social purpose. The aim of the organization is to offer a space for high-level independent analysis. It seeks to be a real place for critical debate on the political stakes of communication, for the animation of public debates on the subject, and for the elaboration of proposals to be put forward to the public and to be advocated to political and institutional decision makers..

Its action aims to contribute to the re-imagining of a society of communication at the service of the people, cultural emancipation and the preservation of the planet, in which the communication of companies and civil society participates in the ecological and social transition. Its activities contribute to the process of democratic respiration that our contemporary societies need in order to transform our modes of production, our ways of life and, consequently, to change our political structures.

Institutional reforms have thus become necessary to renovate the mechanisms of representative democracy and to structure the mechanisms of direct democracy. But there is also a need for public, economic and cultural policies that allow organized civil society and social movements to actively contribute and shape the public and political debate.

It is on this last element that CODE's theory of change focuses: the plurality of discourses must be able to influence and counterbalance, in an equitable manner, the considerable communication and influence powers of large corporations, the supervision and regulation framework of which must be rethought and renewed.

The democratization of the means of communication must lead to the recomposition of the informational sphere in which humanity evolves, in order to enrich the cultural substratum that feeds society on a daily basis. In doing so, this policy is an invitation to re-imagine the riches of the world.

Our priorities and strategic alliances for a milestone victory

At least five major principles should structure a policy of democratization of communication activities: the training of key actors in the stakes of communication, the public transparency of influence activities, the supervision of products, practices and contents, the regulation of contents, and the redistribution of the means of production and diffusion of narratives.

Training in communication issues must evolve, by transforming the curricula of future professionals so as to focus on the political stakes of today's communication, and by accompanying the capacity building of civil society on the strategic and ethical stakes of communication; this last element should facilitate the adoption of communication standards by NGOs that are both efficient for the accomplishment of their social purpose, politically coherent and ethically ambitious.

 In order to make the communication activities of legal entities transparent, the details of the expenses incurred in the various media must be made publicly available and easily accessible, and be subject to specific reporting obligations when it comes to political influence communication activities;

The supervision of communication activities aims to put an end to their main abuses, such as intrusive, hidden or polluting advertising media and marketing techniques, the promotion of products whose mass consumption has harmful consequences for the environment or public health, or hidden astroturfing and political influence strategies and initiatives;

Be it commercial, CSR or corporate messages, corporate narratives must be subject to independent regulation by public authorities in the general interest. It is a question of controlling, in mass communication, the presence of useful, verifiable and complete information, and preventing semiotic strategies leading to marketing obsolescence, image whitewashing and concealed political influence on public debate.

In the longer term, the transformation of the economic and cultural model requires a redistribution of access to the means of communication. In a perspective of cultural battle, public policies must intervene, particularly on economic issues, in order to limit the capacities of advertising diffusion by big companies, to support the independence and the plurality of the media, and to facilitate the access of the civil society to the means of communication. Civil society organizations defending causes must be able to benefit from a privileged access to the means of communication as well as spaces in the appropriate media so as to facilitate the expression of the diversity of citizen narratives.

The organization intends to articulate its struggle for the regulation of the communication activities of large corporations with the ongoing struggles for the accountability of parent companies with respect to the consequences of their industrial and financial activities, and for the transparency and regulation of their institutional lobbying activities. It will support the evolution of standards around corporate social responsibility insofar as they do not substitute for the weaknesses of public intervention. It will frame its work on the issues of regulation of communication activities within the broader issues of environmental and consumer protection, democratic media reform, and the development of a free and user-friendly internet and digital technology..

Just as democracy is a process to be constantly protected and deepened, the mission of “Communication and Democracy» should be structured on a permanent basis, and will undoubtedly diversify and evolve with the changing historical context. Nevertheless, the first constitutive elements of the communication society we are calling for could emerge relatively quickly.

Our medium-term objective is that the action of Communication and Democracy will have contributed to the fact that people in general, and political decision-makers in particular, are no longer subjected to the most aggressive influence devices, and that they are only exposed to a reasonable communicational pressure, respectful of their psychic integrity and of their daily attention time; the organization will have contributed to the fact that individuals are better able to establish a critical distance towards persuasive communication; that it has contributed to the fact that the media can mainly put at the disposal of the people informational and cultural contents independent of external influence strategies; that it has acted so that the citizens, gathered in movements and associations, are better equipped to emit political messages in the public debate, and that they are better accompanied in this by media that have become at the same time more independent, and incited by the public authorities to offer to the civil society appropriate conditions of distribution of citizens' narratives.

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