Chapter 2: Modes of Digital Communication

Kelly Dermody

Overview

In this chapter, we look at how changes to the way we communicate can have profound effects on how we function as a society. We will examine the positive and negative impacts the printed book and “traditional” media like TV have had on society. Then we will discuss how the Internet has changed the way information is created and shared and what that means for society. Throughout the chapter, we will also look at who owns our communication tools and how they can impact us in good ways and bad.

Chapter Topics

  1. Introduction
  2. From Oral to Print Culture
  3. How the Printing Press Changed Society
  4. The Next Wave: Media Communication
  5. Ownership of Information Before the Internet
  6. Why the Internet is a Communication Revolution
  7. Who Controls the Internet?
  8. Conclusion: Becoming a Digital Citizen in the New World

 

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter you should be able to:

  • “[Explain] that different methods of information dissemination with different purposes are available for your use” (Association of College & Research Libraries [ACRL], 2015, p. 15).
  • “Understand the increasingly social nature of our information ecosystem where authorities actively connect with one another and sources develop over time” (ACRL, 2015, p. 13).
  • “Develop awareness of the importance of assessing content with a skeptical stance and with a self-awareness of your own biases and worldview” (ACRL, 2015, p. 13).
  • “Understand how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information” (ACRL, 2015, p. 16).

Introduction

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to research a topic for a class assignment, you turned to printed books, multi-volume encyclopedias, and periodicals such as journals and newspapers. The only way to access these sources was a trip to the library. Sources like multi-volume encyclopedias were expensive, took a long time to produce, and quickly became out of date. After you found your resources, you either took notes on them at the library, or trudged home carrying heavy books to flip through later. Now, of course, a quick Google search on your phone from the comfort of your own bedroom will produce the books, newspapers, and journal articles you need for your assignment. Some will ask you to pay for access, but others (often through your library) are free.

The way we convey information to one another has evolved: from oral traditions to the printed book; from the first overseas telegraph to the Internet. When you look at the scenario above, you can see the impact of the Internet on your daily life as a student. In this chapter, you will see how each stage of the evolution in communications created a profound impact on personal life and on society as a whole. Before the Internet we were mainly consumers of information, now we can be the creators; before the Internet we had to wait long periods of time for updates and revisions, now information is updated frequently, sometimes within seconds. We invent something that changes our way of communicating, and it in turn changes how we act as a society. Or as Marshall McLuhan said and J. M. Culkin (1967) summarized, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (p. 70).

From Oral to Print Culture

As a student you have no doubt read a newspaper article, book, or possibly an academic article (either in hard copy or online) for a class assignment. Distilling important information onto stone tablets, scrolls, and eventually in printed books and journals has been the way certain societies have conveyed information for centuries. When you think about the information contained in the books and periodicals you have read, it has probably ranged from purely entertainment, like what you might read in some magazines, to an in-depth research paper with data that you read for class. This is thanks to publishing technology that allows us to produce mass numbers of periodicals and books each day.

Writing things down was our first revolution in communication. Before writing, our first form of communication, oral, allowed us to pass down our knowledge, art, ideas, and culture from one generation to another through speech or song. Our oral traditions are still evident when we listen to or read folk tales, ballads, chants, prose, or verses (Vansina, 1985). Oral traditions made it possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law, and other knowledge across generations without a writing system. When cultures started to write down their knowledge it changed the way society communicated.

Writing produces information in a static way such that it can be passed along to someone as nearby as our neighbour or as far away as across the ocean without the message changing and without the need to memorize it. The information in written works can be preserved and passed down for generations. Today, we can go to the library and find a book on psychology published in 1911 alongside one published in 2017. With oral communication, you rely on a person and their memory for information, but with a writing culture, access to information is through a scroll or a book. While oral communities rely on elders or those designated to remember information, books allow readers to work independently to learn on their own.

 

Pause and Reflect

We have been programmed to believe that our print culture is superior to oral traditions. In university, we are told that only the information in research articles, written by professors, whose privileges have allowed them access to higher education, should be taken seriously. This western belief has had profound and violent consequences for indigenous societies colonized by western nations. Our beliefs still influence us today in how we treat indigenous knowledge. Only recently, have scientists started to realize their own prejudices and are working with elders to understand how indigenous knowledge of our ecology and climate can help us understand key issues like climate change. “For example, some climatology studies have incorporated Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) to explain changes in sea ice conditions observed over many generations” (Nicholas, 2018, para. 6).

How the Printing Press Changed Society

In 1447, Johannes Gutenberg created a printing press in Mainz, Germany; this press revolutionized the way we communicate. Gutenberg’s printing press was not the first machine to print books and pamphlets. In fact, Chinese monks were applying ink to wooden blocks and pressing them onto sheets of paper using a technique called block printing, about six hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press (Palermo, 2014). Gutenberg’s invention, however, was an improvement on the presses that came before. His movable blocks of type (letters) were made of a mix of metals that proved to be the perfect combination, at that time, for mass printing books and pamphlets. Also, his invention came at a perfect time in Europe; literacy rates were on the rise and those with money were buying more and more books. Therefore, there was a commercial market for book production and this is why the printing press took off in Europe before other societies (Graff, 1987).

Books and pamphlets created before the printing press were handwritten, first on scrolls and then on parchment paper in handcrafted books. In Europe, the first bound books were written by monks in medieval monasteries. This meant books were mostly produced for religious institutions and only the wealthiest people in society could afford them for their own personal libraries (Eliot & Rose, 2007). Since the Catholic Church controlled the main production of books in this period, the Church’s teachings dominated the types of books published and they were written in the language of the Church: Latin (Clanchy, 2007). In contrast to Europe during the same historical period, the Islamic empire gathered important hand-crafted Greek and Indian mathematical books and then translated and studied them, leading to a new era of scientific creativity from 800 to 1250 AD, hundreds of years before Europe’s Scientific Revolution (Devlin, Sept. 5, 2002).

Before Gutenberg’s press, literacy rates in print societies like Europe were very low and schooling was provided only for the boys of the upper classes (Clanchy, 2007; Graff, 1987). For someone who wanted to write their own book, it was difficult and expensive to get access to paper, quills, and ink (Clanchy, 2007). Before the printing press, knowledge was controlled by religious or monarchical institutions that had the means to produce it (scribes), and access to knowledge was reserved for the elite of society who could afford access to education and the price of books.

The mass production of books and pamphlets is linked to profound changes in European history. The Church no longer owned the only means of producing information. More access to information for more people led to social and political movements that changed Western society:

  • Detractors of the Catholic Church published their criticism in books, pamphlets, and posters. For the first time, Bibles were printed in large numbers for public consumption in local languages. Criticism of the Church spread throughout Europe at a faster rate thanks to the printing press and this led to the Protestant Reformation.
  • Scientists and great thinkers were now able to publish their own studies, as access to paper, ink, and a printing press became affordable for those with wealth. This enabled the rise of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.
  • Different political ideas spread, thanks to print, and influenced revolutions that led to the end of monarchical rule and to the rise of movements like democracy and communism in Europe and many other parts of the world.
  • People began to produce pamphlets and newspapers,  covering current events and influencing how people felt about politics and events. This was the beginning of the rise of journalism.
  • Authors could write for pleasure, and new forms of writing took off:  novels and cookbooks, etc.

 

Pause and Reflect

In The Disappearance of Childhood (1994), Neil Postman theorizes that the printing press in 1447 created the childhood we know today. In the medieval world, a child did not need to be able to read to work for a living, so children were expected to join the adult world of work as soon as they had mastered speech (around seven years old). The spread of books and literacy created the expectation that children should learn to read and write before they entered the adult world, thereby creating the longer childhood we know today where completing school is the marker of adulthood (Postman, 1994).

 

Of course in 1447, Gutenberg and his fellow citizens had no idea what far-reaching effects this new way of communicating would have on world history, just as we have no real idea how the Internet is affecting us. The effects of the printing press are still being felt today for better and for worse. Neil Postman (1994) calls this the “Frankenstein Syndrome,” a situation in which technology is developed for a limited and specific purpose (p. 21). “But once the machine is built, we discover—sometimes to our horror, usually to our discomfort, always to our surprise—that it has ideas of its own” (Postman, 1994, p. 21). The print medium has given people the ability to widely share different opinions and theories; this has both positive and negative aspects. McLuhan (1967) said, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such” (p. 235). Print is powerful. It can influence citizens to question their leaders and their own prejudices and it can lead to both violent and peaceful revolutions. So, as McLuhan pointed out, censorship of books and pamphlets soon became a powerful tool for governments to control what information citizens could read. Print has also been used by governments and other organizations to inflame hatred and bigotry against marginalized groups and “foreigners.”

 

Related Articles

For more information on the role the printing press played in European history, please see this video: “The Printing press as an Agent of Change” (CC BY video).

 

The Next Wave: Electronic-Media Communications

The next great revolution in communication came in 1843 with the telegraph, the first electronic messaging system. It used Morse code to send messages across wires laid between towns and even across oceans. By the mid-twentieth century, we had various electronic ways to communicate throughout the world: the telephone, movies, radio, and television (Naughton, p. 125).

As with the print revolution, the electronic-media revolution meant we had new ways to communicate. Like print, it affected how we act as a society. We could now convey emotion and powerful images to get our message across. In our living rooms we could see the true horror of war or famine and be prompted to do something about it. On the negative side, we were also bombarded with ads that influenced us to ask our parents to buy that new Barbie Dreamhouse.

 

Case Study: The Role of Media Coverage and the Civil Rights Movement

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. began writing his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. King had been arrested on April 12 during a peaceful protest for the repeal of the segregation laws. The letter was a response to eight white Alabama clergymen who had called King an “extremist” and had told the protesters to be patient and to wait for lawmakers to repeal the racist laws.  King’s letter explained the cornerstone of the civil rights movement: a strategy of non-violent resistance to racism. King pointed out that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. The letter was immediately rejected for publication by the New York Times Magazine, and it was months before it was partially published in other newspapers and magazines. It was a year before it was published in its entirety—in King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait (Noah, January 9, 2013).

While getting King’s words into print was a slow process, the civil rights movements had come alive in a time of wider dissemination of news media. As more and more peaceful protests were met with police violence, news media all over America began to cover the encounters. Images of police wielding water hoses and unleashing German shepherds on non-violent protesters were shown in living rooms across America. TV and media coverage were helping the movement spread its message to the rest of society and attracting followers from various backgrounds to the cause. Present-day congressman John Lewis, who when he was a young man was brutally attacked at the March on Selma, said, “The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn’t been for the news media” (Treadwell, 1987, para. 6).

Related Articles

For more information on the role the news media played in the civil rights movement, please see this video: “Selma, Alabama: The Role of News Media in the Civil Rights Movement | The African Americans.

Questions
  1. What role did print and electronic media play in allowing a marginalized group to spread their message?
  2. Think of current campaigns using social media. Would the civil rights movement play out differently today?

Ownership of Information Before the Internet

By the mid-twentieth century, information production was supported by large-scale infrastructure. Across the globe, people read newspapers, went to see blockbuster movies, and read bestselling books. Information had become a money-making commodity that could be bought and sold every day. By 1995 (when the Internet took off), large media conglomerates like News Corp, owned by Rupert Murdoch, owned newspapers from across the world. Powerful book publishing companies like HarperCollins (also owned by Rupert Murdoch), decided who was published and whose works appeared in bookstores and libraries. Film and TV production were controlled by companies like MGM or NBC. To further emphasize the narrowing of ownership, 20th Century Fox was owned by … you guessed it, Rupert Murdoch—at least until 2013.

The push to industrialize the production of information in the twentieth century meant information became part of what Yochai Benkler has called “the industrial information economy” (as cited in Naughton, 2014, p. 84). For the average citizen, writing up your ideas with a pen and paper, and making photocopies and posting them around town as flyers was still a way to communicate your opinion, and maybe you could get access to airtime at your local community TV station, but overall, information was produced and disseminated by large corporations. While freedom of the press and alternative and independent printing houses meant that dissent and new ideas still emerged, there was an air of closed professionalism when it came to traditional print and media (Naughton, 2014).

Why the Internet Represents a Communications Revolution

Activity: 2.1: Take the Quiz

  1. How many digital devices do you own that allow you to access the Internet?
  2. How often do you post something to a platform where more than ten people can see it?

 

You will likely notice that you own more than one device connected to the Internet and spend hours creating and posting work or comments for dozens if not hundreds or thousands of people to see. Just like the people of Johannes Gutenberg’s time, we are living in the midst of something new and if we reflect on it, we can see that it is changing not only the way we communicate, but also the way we function as a global society. The perfect combination of the arrival of both the affordable personal computer and the opening of the Internet to the public in the 1990s created the current communications revolution.

In technical terms, according to InternetSociety.org, “The . . . internet consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, governments, and others. Open standards enable this network of networks to communicate. This makes it possible for anyone to create content, offer services, and sell products without requiring permission from a central authority” (Internet Society, n.d., para. 1). Thanks to open standards, the Internet is not owned by one global company. The Internet is a carrier of information in the forms of websites, email, files, videos, VoIPs, and files yet to be invented (Naughton, 2014; Leiner et al., 1997). The Internet has facilitated a revolution in how we communicate because it allows information to be stored, created, and distributed to large numbers of people, across the world, in a matter of seconds. Or to put it another way, billions of pieces of information, including the digital artifacts of our human history, plus our own creations, can now be accessed at the touch of our fingers.

In thirty short years, the Internet has become, for many, as commonplace as electricity and running water. The Internet is a truly global revolution in communications, but access is still limited in developing countries and in some rural and poorer areas. In 2017, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2015), the United Nations special agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) stated that 51% of the world’s population had Internet access and 89 million users were from least developed countries. However, “only 15% of households in [least developed countries had] Internet access at home. In these countries, many [people were] accessing the Internet from work, schools and universities, or other shared public connections outside the home” (ITU, 2017, p.2). According to another survey, of thirty-eight countries, by the Pew Research Center, the majority of citizens polled consider free expression in cyberspace, without government control, to be a fundamental right (Wike, 2016).

The Internet, like the printing press, is an example of what Professor Clayton Christensen (2003) called disruptive technology. Christensen was primarily concerned with how a new technology can significantly alter the way that businesses or entire industries operate. Just like companies, society is also forced to alter the way it acts. We can already see a few disruptive changes the Internet has made to the way we communicate:

  • Global spread of information quickly and for little cost. Information now spreads faster and wider for little cost.
    • Using Twitter, “a celebrity . . . can flash a message to . . . 6.3 million followers” in seconds (Naughton, 2014, p. 131). Thanks to email and instant messaging, we no longer rely on the phone or snail mail to relay messages at work or to loved ones across the world. There is a downside to this quick spread of information: not all information is worth sharing (think of racist posts, bullying, and fake news). We are also entering into what social scientists call social bubbles where we filter out views we don’t like (Alvermann, 2017). You will learn more about this in chapter 5.
  • Reliance on the Internet. We no longer seek out traditional sources to quickly find information.
    • An entire generation of children have now grown up knowing that a quick query to a search engine will always produce an answer, or multiple answers (Halavais, 2009). Access to education is easier as we can teach ourselves without a trip to the library, simply by using online resources like videos found on YouTube and at the Khan Academy.
  • Reliance on the Internet for information is disrupting traditional forms of relationships, like asking our friends or seeking out experts in our local community.
    • As we will see in chapter 5 we also need to be able to critically evaluate what we read on the Internet. Dr. Google is always quick to give you a terminal diagnosis for your headache, but this may not be an accurate response to your actual situation—and may cause you to worry unnecessarily or to take inappropriate or even dangerous action
  • We broadcast ourselves. Everyone can be a producer of information and production cost is low (Naughton, 2014).
    • The Internet allows us to create and upload thousands of pictures, videos, and pieces of information every day. This has resulted in what Clay Shirky has called the “mass amateurization of publishing” (as cited in Naughton, 2014, p. 130) or what Yochai Benkler has called “social production” (as cited in Naughton, 2014, p. 85).
  • E-commerce. We now shop online for everything from airline tickets to groceries.
    • Thanks to various cyber-security features, we give our credit card number to online stores like Amazon and feel our financial information is safe (ish). Shopping online is a great example of how disruptive the Internet can be. “Bricks and mortar” stores have recorded profit losses in direct correlation with the rise of e-commerce (Niemeier, Zocchi, & Catena, 2013). Anyone remember video stores? Online videos and streaming services like Netflix made them obsolete and so what was once a familiar store fifteen years ago is now non-existent for this generation.

Who Controls the Internet?

From the very beginning, the Internet ran on the revolutionary principles of neutrality and openness. Of course, to connect to the Internet, we need to pay an Internet service provider (ISP), so accessing the Internet has never been free. But net neutrality means that once you are online, you can access any website, upload your own works, and participate in any social media platform of your choice. You may need to pay for apps or memberships, but with neutrality, it is your right to choose, for instance, between Netflix and any other streaming service. The idea of openness has created a “sharing culture” on the Internet, which we see in tutorials on YouTube as well as in the sharing of open source software solutions (Naughton, 2014).

This unlimited access to different websites and a culture of sharing is what made the Internet an e-commerce revolution and has led to new business ideas like Amazon (Niemeier et al., 2013). It has also created platforms for people to express their views and for other people to learn about these views. Important social movements and even political revolutions are now played out online.

While neutrality and openness sound utopian, the reality is that the Internet is in a constant battle with larger forces who want to control it and censor its content. The concept of net neutrality is currently under review in many countries like the United States (see “Fight: The Wired Guide to Net Neutrality”). Censorship of content is controlled by the government on a country-by-country basis. While most democratic countries have only moderate Internet censorship, other countries go so far as to limit the access of information such as news and to suppress discussion among citizens (Murdoch & Roberts, 2013). Internet censorship also occurs in response to or in anticipation of events such as elections, protests, and riots.

 

Case Study: The Role of Social Media and the Tunisia Revolution

On December 17, 2010, demonstrations erupted in Tunisia. A few weeks earlier the website WikiLeaks had released classified information from the US diplomatic service around the world, making it, according to WikiLeaks, “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain” (WikiLeaks, 2011, para. 1). Included in the online documents was evidence of corruption against the Tunisian government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987. That day, a desperate act by an unemployed fruit seller was all the catalyst that was needed. The Tunisian people had finally had enough of corruption, high unemployment, and lack of political freedom, such as freedom of speech (Anderson, 2011). The Internet played a significant role in organizing the protests and demonstrations that followed, and in disseminating news and pictures to the rest of the world. Reporters and civilians on the ground used Twitter to send out up-to-the-minute reports. Protesters used Twitter and Facebook to organize and set the times and places for their demonstrations. They also used the two social media platforms to warn one another about and to keep one another safe from the military and the police (Anderson, 2011).

Soon after the protests began, the government ramped up its attempts at controlling the Internet. These started simply enough with site blocking, but soon turned more sinister. Tunisia’s Internet Agency started to harvest the passwords and usernames of bloggers, reporters, political activists, and protesters by injecting hidden JavaScript into the login pages of many popular sites, like Facebook (O’Brien, 2011). They then subsequently logged into these sites using the stolen credentials, and deleted the protesters’ Facebook groups, pages, and accounts. They also used the information to arrest and jail those involved (O’Brien, 2011). The demonstrators prevailed anyway, and twenty-eight days later, on January 11, 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. The successful revolution in Tunisia inspired what would become known as the “Arab Spring,” a revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, foreign interventions, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East. For the first time in history, social media and the Internet were key players in an uprising.

Questions
  1. Marshall McLuhan (1967) said of the print revolution that it “created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such” (p. 235). What role does social media play in allowing opposition to the government but also in facilitating government centralization?

Conclusion: Becoming a Digital Citizen in the New World

We are living in a time of revolution in methods of communication. Using the Internet allows us to share our information and creations. It also provides a platform for the inclusion of both mainstream and marginal voices and it creates a space for us to participate within our chosen society (Mossberger, Tolbert, & McNeal, 2008). However, we need to act as informed citizens when using these new ways of communicating.

In the next chapters, you will learn how to conduct yourself as a digital citizen on the Internet. This means remaining critical of what you read and carefully considering how you conduct yourself online. As connected users we need to be aware that while sharing videos, images, and memes can give us instantaneous positive feelings, uncritical use of social media can also lead to poor decision-making and life-altering consequences (Alvermann, 2017).

 

References

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