The Four Estates
During the French Revolution, there were things known as the three estates. These included the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners; however, that's changed and expanded with time. With respect to modern politics, there is a term known as the four estates. It's used to denote the spheres of influence over modern policymaking.
And these spheres of influence are:
- The first estate is the executive branch of a government. Think the president, governor, or mayor.
- The second estate is the legislative branch of a government. In the U.S., that would be the U.S. Congress or state legislative bodies.
- The third estate is the judicial branch of a government. This includes the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts.
- The fourth estate is mass and traditional media, sometimes called ''legacy media.''
But for a long time, there have been murmurings of a fifth estate, an alternative sphere of influence, another component of society that influences policy making. What is this? Let's find out.
The Fifth Estate
In a very short definition, we can define the fifth estate as the term for non-traditional media. That's to say, anything but the big boys like the New York Times, CNN, FOX News, Time Magazine, and so on. Those guys have their own interests in policymaking and may be in cahoots with other estates or just have their own political leanings that run counter to your own.
If Airbnb decentralized hotels and let the common folk easily become homeowners, and Uber decentralized taxis and let anyone earn a living driving without licensing headaches, then the fifth estate represents the decentralization of the media. It's allowing anyone, you included, to become a powerful voice in shaping policy decisions without having to depend on the mass media. That is the fifth estate.
What is ''it'' though? What is this medium that allows you to do this? Well, it's the internet and the add-ons, so to speak, of the internet. These add-ons include websites and hosting services that allow you to easily create a website or blog of your own. It's social media where your voice can be heard, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It's file-sharing websites and technologies that allow for the sharing of knowledge freely and without constraints from big publishers or governments.
For the latter, a good example of this is WikiLeaks, a website that purports itself to be a free and independent way by which to expose the corrupt secrets of powerful people or nations, although it's worth noting that this organization has its clear biases and limitations, nevertheless.
But that's kind of the point. The fifth estate is not some ideal mechanism by which to share and expose truth or shape policy. Just like the fourth estate, the media, biases and corruption, and fake news are bound to arise. The only difference between the fourth estate and the fifth estate isn't idealism, pragmatism, or truth. It's that anyone can become an influencer, so to speak. It doesn't have to be a famous newscaster. Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite leading the nation in terms of whom to believe. It's each man for himself, so to speak, more so nowadays.
Moreover, the lines between the estates can often be blurred. For instance, you are well aware that traditional news media (the fourth estate) has political leanings of its own. FOX News, for example, leans heavily conservative in what they report and how they report it. So the line between the executive branch (if conservative) and some traditional media is often blurred.
The same goes for the fifth estate nowadays. A great example of this was President Donald Trump who was, in essence, the first estate and who uses the fifth estate, namely social media and Twitter, to push his own viewpoints that he believes the fourth estate isn't doing a good job of doing.
Another example goes back to WikiLeaks. Despite promising to do otherwise, WikiLeaks has never exposed significant wrongdoing of nations like China and Russia while doing so for Western nations. This has led to charges that WikiLeaks, as an agent of the fifth estate, is really under the direction of first estate entities, such as foreign anti-Western governments who supply it with Western secrets. The reasons for this are, indeed, debatable and, indeed, they continue to be debated (where else?) largely within what we call the fifth estate.
Though conflict has continued to arise across estates regarding this very topic, with the fifth estate criticizing the fourth estate and vice versa. This can all sound confusing and that's because it is! The world and how much of the people in it consumer information and engage politically is changing, so it's very important to note that the lines between these estates are heavily blurred in many cases.
The Fifth Column
Just a quick note: don't confuse the term ''fifth estate'' with the ''fifth column.'' The fifth column is a term used to refer to a group of people who engage in actions (like espionage) for a foreign cause or power within their nation in a way that undermines the interest of the majority of that nation or the line of thinking pushed by a highly centralized authority. This is not necessarily the case with the fifth estate, though there will always be members of the other estates who criticize the fifth estate on those terms.
Of course, in some authoritarian nations where all four traditional estates are centralized in control, the fifth estate, if they offer an alternative voice, can be dubbed as being part of the fifth column. As saboteurs, in a way, of a single viewpoint authorized by the government.
All right, let's take a moment or two to review. As we learned, there have been four estates for a long time and they've included:
- The first estate, which is the executive branch of a government.
- The second estate, which is the legislative branch of a government.
- The third estate, which is the judicial branch of a government.
- The fourth estate, which is mass and traditional media, sometimes called ''legacy media.''
These estates, or influential spheres, are involved in policymaking. Today, the term fifth estate is often taken to mean alternative media sources such as personal websites, blogs, and file-sharing websites that allow for the exchange of information on a peer-to-peer level. An example of this would be Wikileaks, a website that uses file-sharing technologies for their own agenda, which often (and mainly) includes exposing the secrets of Western powers in a way that no other estate would dare. And, finally, we learned that, while they may often get lumped together for various (usually spurious) political reasons, the fifth estate should not be confused with the notion of a fifth column, which is a term used to refer to a group of people who engage in actions for a foreign cause or power within their nation in a way that undermines the interest of the majority of that nation or the line of thinking pushed by a highly centralized authority.