New Media and Political Conflict
Claims that new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have significant impacts on political activity and protest continue to swirl around in the academic world in particular. It takes little more than a local citizen to be interviewed and report his use of Facebook for the world believe that these fancy new media are responsible for protest and the outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy. Consequently, there is contentious debate about the role of social media in crystallizing events in certain countries. The long-term research on these matters is sparse but we can introduce a scholarly perspective and at least “sum up” our current state of knowledge. There is a review article pertaining to the Internet and politics here. Below I will intertwine some commentary with a statement of the general direction of this research.
It is true that social media play a role in political protest and organization. But it is important not to overstate the role. The riots and eventual overthrow of Mubarak were influenced by social media but not caused by them. This is especially true as a protest spreads because it becomes more difficult to contain information. If the social upheaval gains traction, if it refuses to fade away and the size of the crowds swell, then many participants will begin documenting and sharing images. This becomes a self reinforcing cycle as it becomes apparent that more people are participating and thus encouraging others to participate.
The opportunity for what is termed “user generated content” is a special feature of new media. This means that information and stories about political activity are removed from the sole hands of the official journalist community. Bloggers and users of Facebook and Twitter begin to produce content, write stories, and take pictures and essentially become citizen journalists. A so-called “citizen journalist” will have a different perspective than the professional journalist. He or she will have a more subjective and “on the ground” view with a more hard hitting human impact. That is one reason why social media are better at coordinating leaderless challenges to authority than they are at organizing democratic processes. Dramatic photographs that come to characterize a political movement (burning flags, violent police or security people, dead innocents) are increasingly likely to be taken by citizens with new media capabilities. The amount and quality of user generated content is also dependent on the richness of the media system of the country. Egypt, for example, had greater use of Twitter with more tweets from organizations and activists then did Tunisia. It is not surprising that Egypt and Tunisia, which have more new media users than any country in the region, experienced greater social upheaval and pressure toward change. An interesting future research question will be to explain why some countries have experienced unsuccessful protests (Algeria, Bahrain) or no protest at all (Saudi Arabia) even though these are cultures with access to new media.
New media lowers the cost of collective action. It makes organization cheaper and available to more people. A key challenge in all social organization is to take networks of people with weak ties and coordinate and motivate them. The quick, inexpensive, and pervasive contacts available through Twitter or Facebook make this easier. But the downside is that the ease of contact and organization made possible by new media makes it more difficult to build permanent and durable social structures. This is related to the term “slacktavist” or the tendency for new media to be an easy way to contribute, a way that does not require much effort, but make people feel like they are doing more than they actually are.
This tendency to make dramatic claims for the effects of new media continues: Jay Carney, a spokesman for the White House, claimed that the video offensive to Islam caused the riots in Libya. We know now of course that the video had no such potency. Still, because the Internet is not confined by physical boundaries it provides political actors with a number of opportunities. It becomes easier to destabilize social systems from afar. There are now electronic diasporas that enable ethnic or religious communities to stay in touch with their home countries and maintain identities rather than assimilate into a host country. Muslim communities that ring the city of Paris are one example. Lack of cohesion, difficulty with language and employment, and regular cultural tensions are consequences of failing to assimilate and maintaining an identity within ethnic homeland. It is also important not to forget that the Internet is more vulnerable to censorship than you might think. There is an association between Internet use and democratic processes in a country, but this is probably more likely the result of democracies allowing widespread Internet use.
In the future it will be impossible to study social protest or conflicts without including the Internet and the tools that it makes available. New technologies are increasingly integrated into our political consciousness and more than anything else are influencing the information process. In other words, it will affect what news becomes available to different cultures, how fast it reaches various subgroups, and as exemplified by Wikileaks it will make new information available. In the end, social movements are increasingly dependent on new media but it remains the case that such movements have ethnopolitical explanations and that politics and history come first.