Equity versus Equality: Why Communications Policy is Crucial to Social Justice

September 28, 2017  • Eric Karikari

In September 2016, US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai proposed a Digital Empowerment Agenda with the aim of, among other things, providing broadband access and digital opportunities to traditionally marginalized areas which include economically disadvantaged communities, and large portions of rural America. I join the many people who have already done so in applauding Commissioner Pai for this initiative. It is important that such bold, yet crucial policy statements come from top policy makers. Even more important it is the spirit behind the move: such an agenda recognizes the need to include all Americans in the quest for a more just and prosperous society.

At the 2017 Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy, I was privileged to be among a team of smart and passionate people who deliberated several aspects of this Digital Empowerment Agenda. One of the important issues discussed involved how the agenda was going to lead the charge of diversity. The ‘small’ matter of whether the federal government should have diversity mandates for the communications industry evoked a lively and important conversation about which issues policy should address. This drew my attention to the terms “equality” and “equity.” Demanding that government leaves decisions on diversity to other stakeholders in the industry will, at best, ensure that everyone is treated equally. However, given the sociohistorical circumstances in which we live, equal treatment will not be nearly enough to address the pressing issue of digital marginalization.

The current ‘new media’ landscape presents a great opportunity to eliminate some of the exploitative and socially reproductive tendencies of the ‘old’ media and communications environment. In many ways, media and communications policies provide a blueprint for human communication. The limits and possibilities of human interaction thus, civic engagement, are significantly determined by the precepts of such policies. Therefore, it is the role of policy, for instance, to protect the most vulnerable citizens from the social and economic exploitation that (sometimes, unintentionally) come with advancements in communications technologies. The goal of social and economic emancipation is defeated when local participants do not feel their cultural circumstances are factored into decisions that are meant to be beneficial to them. While innovation in media and communications technology should always be encouraged, policies should set guidelines for equitable design and implementation.

Furthermore, it is the role of policy to ensure that the exciting ‘new media’ environment does not simply reproduce social reality. In the realm of social justice, reproducing existing social relations and economic conditions is problematic because it condemns people of color, older, rural, less educated people, and other marginalized groups to further exclusion. “Business as usual” will only deepen the plights of society’s most vulnerable. Instead, communications policies should leverage the transformative possibilities of media and communications technology to disrupt harmful social and economic patterns and relationships. This is not to say trends in innovation should be discouraged, but to suggest that the patterns of production, distribution, and adoption of media and communications technology should be reimagined to put people first.

No one is sure exactly how the media and communications landscape will change in the next few years. However, it is likely to change, and with every change there are two options; social reproduction and/or social transformation. By paying critical attention to the inequities that persist in our society, and by taking cues from historical events, society can make the choice to significantly transform society through sound communications policies.

Eric Karikari is the 2017 Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy Guest Scholar. The Communications and Society Program sponsors the guest scholarship initiative to give students of color the opportunity to foster their professional and academic career in the field of media and technology policy.

Karikari is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication and Journalism Department of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the view of the Aspen Institute.