New Media and “Information” versus “Deliberation”
The answer to the question about what exactly defines “new media” is usually a list of new technological developments. Web 2.0 is most associated with new media because of its interactivity and user-generated design capabilities. Rather than passive viewing of content on a screen content can be created and shared by users. Examples are blogs, wikis, Facebook, twitter, you tube, pod casts, social networking, RSS feeds, and each have numerous marketing and social applications. The most popular of these are the social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube. For our concerns here, it is necessary to locate these technological developments within communication and deliberative political processes. We can begin by making the distinction between “mediated information” and the “deliberative experience.” New media is mostly helpful with the mediated information environment; that is, it stresses an information environment composed of the press, television, blogs, talk radio, etc., and the quality of discussion among people. It contributes more to the information community rather than the public. New media makes information available in asynchronous time and space. Except for research on online discussions new media is not usually associated with the deliberative experience which involves a form of dialogue to seek a new consensus. This is not to diminish its importance in the information society. Facebook, for example, has been successful at establishing discussion forums that facilitate public discourse. In fact, ideal speech conditions are enhanced in some instances.
During the 2008 presidential election, Facebook was used seriously for political communication. The campaigns followed traditional communication strategies, but included Facebook as well. Facebook can facilitate communication. It combines the features of local bulletin boards, newspapers and organization and places them in one location that is available any time any place. Also, political leaders can use Facebook as a medium to communicate with members of the public or their own group. It thus provides leaders with an effective way in which they can reach the public. The Israelis and Palestinians have numerous Facebook pages devoted to peace, friendship, the two-state solution, the nature of the conflict as well as partisan and ideologically narrow pages.
New media played a role in the 2009 Iranian elections as well as providing information and contact with the outside world during protests. Twitter was used by people outside Iran to spread information and report on what was happening. These media also made it possible for women, whose participation is restricted by Islamic law, to play a more significant political role. The mainstream media also benefited from new media because new media users send out information when the traditional media are banned. In other examples, social media played an increasingly significant role in the Gaza war of 2008-2009 termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Israel mounted its own YouTube site to show off the accuracy of its weapons, and Hamas used blogs to demonstrate their strength (Arab Media, 2009). Banning the traditional media, as was the case in Gaza, makes it possible for a political entity (e.g. Israel or Hamas) to have more control over the message. This empowers so called “citizen journalists” and gives them some control over content, but still lacks the depth and breadth of professional journalism. Not all new social media is very successful. Facebook, for example, receives a lot of media attention and can attract support, but its group formation requirements are so low that individuals show little commitment. People join Facebook groups to express personal identity and solidarity with others because it cost little and requires even less from them.
What we call new “social media” has a few unique qualities that sometimes, but not always, makes them adversative to the political process. The Habermassian public sphere is a communicative arena for rationale, inclusive deliberative discourse; it is an environment where participants in a conflict can get together for debate and discussion under maximally communicative conditions. But new social media are characterized by deterritorialization, that is, a mediated publicness of non-localized space. The participants are spread out geographically and the interaction is an attempt to be intimate and authentic rather than rational and focused on the common good. But this multiplicity of voices remains important to the deliberative process. As Mouffe explains, there must be a place for the expression of dissensus and this is especially true in political conflicts where, according to Mouffe, conflict is constitutive of the political. This is the notion that a fully constituted democracy emerges out of conflict or the clash of identities and political interests. The more there is a clash of differences the more fully articulated is the democratic polity or, in the case of ethnopolitical conflicts the more fully realized is the solution potential. One of the most powerful features of new social media is the extent to which they extend networking and linking. It is simply easy to tap into new networks of information and establish contact with others. There is, for example, a considerable amount of contact between Israelis and Palestinians. But none of this represents revolutionary implications for deliberation. Moreover, new media can be controlled, exclusionary, and fragmented: States actively filter the internet, bloggers are harassed, and users are often intimidated. Cammaerts warns that it is difficult to produce a deliberative sphere on the internet. And although there is potential for serious participation, these technologies are rife with contradictions.