Blog Archives

Social Media Data and Conflict

The issue of social media and political conflict is relatively under studied and the site for important research. Actually, my next book project will be about social media and conflict. But first we have to look at some demographic data to learn more about how these media are being used. The data below come from here. First a few bullet points of brief explanation.

social networks and age distribution data

  • Instagram has become the most approachable social media network
  • No surprise to anyone, Pinterest has a primary demographic of women.
  • If you’re looking to capture the attention of the young and upcoming generation of Internet users, get creative with Snapchat, Vine, and Tumblr.
  • LinkedIn is great for B2B, which is also no big surprise. One area that is often overlooked with LinkedIn is education and high-level professional marketing. LinkedIn has the most highly educated and high-income users consisting of 44% Americans with an average income of $75,000 or greater.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest most particularly are not aging well. They aren’t holding on to their users or engagement. They aren’t capturing the younger generation and their attempts to do so are failing.
  • Twitter has stood the test of the time better than other older social networks.
  • For how recent Pinterest experienced their massive growth, they just as quickly experienced complete indifference from their once excited users.
  • Facebook seems to be the way everyone stays in touch, but the social network fewer and fewer people actually use. The anticipation of how they will maintain popularity or what brilliant idea may replace Facebook keeps us all on the edge of our virtual seats.

We must consider how information is delivered across each of those networks.

Facebook, Google+, and Twitter have nearly the same demographic numbers according to this graph, but they are entirely different social media networks.

Facebook has a sense of consistency, but a problem of actually getting your content seen.

Twitter is a mayhem of hundreds of posts per second, yet they are becoming increasingly visual and you can practically do no wrong. With Twitter, you can post 10-15 times a day and only be seen once by a follower.

Google+ has a more technical and international demographic. Google+ readers tend to connect to Google+ at the same time of day that they connect to their personal email accounts—briefly in the morning and most certainly at night.

While each of these networks appear to be practically the same, they all have their perks and deliver information very differently. Just the same, many users exist across all three of these popular networks, but almost everyone has just one favorite. It is important to speak to your demographic across each of these channels to reach them in their time, in their way, and the way they expect to hear from you.

The data from above isall basic business demographics designed primarily to market products. But if we extrapolate its political implications remain pretty interesting. I will be quick here because we will take up this issue in future posts. But, for example, new digital media allows us to “meme track.” Meme tracking is identifying the flow of the specific concept to determine its movement from individual to individual and its influence. Phrases and words can be tracked across different electronic media and help answer the question of whether or not ideas move from the blogosphere to the mainstream media or vice versa. Meme tracking has implications for conflict resolution as well as understanding how ideas are taking shape in influencing the initiation of conflict. The future post will explain in more detail how this occurs.

 

Advertisements

How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy

digital media and securityThere was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.

The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.

In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.

In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.

The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.

Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.

 

Time to Stop the Abstract Reference to “New Media”

In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.

Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.

It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.

The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.

Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?

The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.

 

 

 

 

 

The Media Literate Terrorist

https://i1.wp.com/static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/6/17/1403002847286/Mass-surveillance-of-soci-011.jpgThe media in general, and new media in particular, are increasingly effective tools used by extremist in Syria or ISIS. Even their extraordinary brutality is no match for the skill in which they are using new media to attract new recruits, send propaganda messages, scare the enemy, and promote their goals of a single Muslim state. ISIS is now one of the more sophisticated users of technology and they are intent on strutting their stuff to show the world what they can do. You can read more by Gabriel Wiemann on new technology and terrorism here and here.

First, ISIS begins with a historical frame or a brand if you will that marks them as epochal and steeped in the language of historic Islam and religious triumphalism. This brand frame is consistent and deftly designed for particular audiences. Hence, they refer to the current organization of states in the Arab world as “colonial” or “Crusader” partitions. They use video messages to challenge the arrangement of states and call for a single Muslim nation under the protective covering umbrella of Islam. Like all ethnopolitical groups, they claim to have been oppressed, mistreated, and brutalized such that they are justified in righting an ancient wrong. They frame messages designed for young recruits on the basis of ancient injustices and deep threats to their primordial claims of truth and geography. These messages must be working well enough because recruitment is up along with supplies and weapons.

You have to give ISIS their due with respect to rhetorical sensitivity and their ability to adapt to technology and message strategy. With just about the same skill as any Hollywood producer, ISIS creates a sense of importance, urgency, and participation in something greater than yourself. Messages are crafted differently for Westerners then Arabs (the Westerners get a softer less violent sell). Long boring speeches by Osama bin Laden on video sent to Al Jazeera were replaced by jihadists who were familiar with colloquial English and could speak to American youth about liking their next-door neighbor because you borrow their lawnmower, but how that neighbor was really an enemy of Islam. Now ISIS has mastered twitter, Facebook, and has many messages translated into various languages. They send images through Instagram and travel with a camera person who takes video of battles and dramatic moments to be used later in the other images.

The website ask.fm (you need to logon and get an account) has a section where you can ask questions about how to travel to a particular location and join ISIS including suggestions on what to bring. There are instant messaging programs designed for communication that can be kept secret and are not made public.

Terrorist and extremist groups have been using social media for some time now but the effectiveness of these media will only grow. These new communication technologies are cheap, accessible, and highly interactive. They promote more individualized contact as well as coherent yet dispersed communities. Combating these new forms of connectivity is increasingly more interesting and challenging than understanding how ISIS are other groups use them.

 

 

 

 

 

Ethnopolitical Capitalism and Access to Communication Technology

Most and Lease Expensive Cities

The table above represents the most and least expensive countries in the world. I’m not so concerned in this posting with a discussion of cost of living but with the relationship between how expensive it is to live somewhere and access to media, computers in particular. There is a correlation, a strong correlation, between developing countries and what has been termed the “digital divide.” This lack of access to information and information technology is not a simple unfortunate byproduct of other things, but a crucial issue with respect to economic and social development. Media access will provide the crucial information and knowledge that make developing countries more productive.

The full implication of the consequences of the digital divide are still being untangled, but there is no doubt that the cheapest places to live are usually developing countries and they lag significantly behind industrialized countries when it comes to technology and the Internet. Even more interesting and perhaps detrimental to developing cultures is the fact that these developing countries focus on infrastructure rather than how the technologies are to be used. Of course, infrastructure is important and necessary but issues in information strategies, diffusion of information, and political possibilities are perhaps more important. Communication technology lowers barriers to the development of democracy, helping disadvantaged communities, and facing social problems. There have always been the “haves” and “have-nots” but now there is the “information rich” and “information poor.”

Muslims and the Digital Divide

Catherine O’Donnell in an article on Political Parties and the Digital Divide explains that Muslims are increasingly wired and have made progress in the last years. In particular political parties are online accompanied by growth in blogs, listserv’s, and chat groups. Interestingly, politics in Muslim countries is increasingly online but the divide between rich and poor countries is greater than ever. Developed countries have more high-speed broadband and sophisticated infrastructure. Again, the price of living in developed and undeveloped countries is predictive. The cost of an hour of Internet in a cyber café located in one of the developed countries in the chart above has dropped significantly. But this is not true for less-developed countries.

Prejudice and the Digital Divide

One more insidious relationship is between race and technological availability and use. Technological power is deepening the levels of discrimination suffered by those who live in undeveloped countries and are especially a member of a minority or disadvantaged group. Technological power advantages those already in power and reproduces the class system that makes it so difficult for less powerful groups to prosper. The study “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” documents the relationship between the use of new digital technology and disadvantaged groups. Below are some conclusions from the study, which was completed in 1999 so the actual data has changed, but the general thrust of the conclusions still hold.

“Those with higher education have more access to information technology.”

“High income families are more likely than low income families to have Internet access.”

“Political disadvantages are correlated with communication technology disadvantages.”

There is not only a racial divide but an ethnopolitical one. Group contact, including dialogue and deliberation, predominantly rely on access to new technology. And this is increasingly true because new technology provides the means and opportunity for communicative exchange at a far greater level then could ever be achieved by organizing face-to-face contact.

Computer skill and access to the technology and training necessary to maximize their use is a form of new power. If these new technologies are not made available to disadvantaged groups then power gaps will grow even greater and the differences between groups that typically lead to tension and communicative distortions will be exaggerated. Equally as important is the content that travels on communication technology. Dialogue between contentious groups such as Islam and the West must find the public sphere. This is most likely to be in cyberspace.

No Advocate for New Media Would Want to Take Credit for Egypt or Ukraine

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multi-sensory impact that is not present during routine politics. we have not heard much from Ukraine but pay attention as things heat up.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community. But it does pose the conservative dilemma which is that shutting down new media causes an uproar and does as much damage as good in the eyes of the dictator.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities  in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

Edited From Feb 2013

Three Important Studies in Digital Media and Politics

Below are summaries of 3 studies that represent trends and progress in digital media and politics. They are of particular interest and represent highlights from 2013. More details are available from the Shorenstein Center.

The first study demonstrates empirically that the global village is increasingly a reality. Most twitter contributions are beyond the local geography and represent a new pattern of interaction.

“Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter” Study from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published in First Monday. By Kalev Leetaru, Shaowen Wang, Guofeng Cao, Anand Padmanabhan, and Eric Shook.

One of the most comprehensive assessments to date about the effect of new technologies on human communications worldwide, this study examined patterns among more than 1.5 billion tweets from 70 million users over a one-month period in late 2012. It provides empirical evidence that the world is indeed shrinking: “There appears to be only weak geographic affinity in communicative link formation in that users retweet and reference users far away nearly as often as they do those physically proximate to them.” Further, on average people tweet news that happens locally and news about far-away events with about equal frequency. Twitter is “not simply a mirror of mainstream media” and has its own distinct conversational dynamics. The data also show that significant portions of the “world’s most influential Twitter users” were in places such as Indonesia, Western Europe, Africa and Central America. The overall takeaway is that where we live is beginning to matter less in terms of our knowledge, interests and social networks: “Geographic proximity is found to play a minimal role both in who users communicate with and what they communicate about, providing evidence that social media is shifting the communicative landscape.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf
The study below demonstrates that incivility online damages  expert credibility  and distorts the communication process. The study was responsible for a magazine shutting down its comments section.

“The ‘Nasty Effect’: Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies” From George Mason University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. By Ashley A. Anderson, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, and Peter Ladwig.

The study, published in February, has the distinction of being one of the few to actually help change editorial policy this year at a publication. Popular Science cited the study in its announcement that it was shutting down its comments section to push back against a perceived “war on expertise.” There remained some controversy, however, about whether the study’s conclusions were broad enough to justify that editorial decision. The researchers used online surveys with embedded experiments to test how people responded to articles about nanotechnology; some were accompanied by nasty comments, others not. The study’s findings suggest that “impolite and incensed blog comments can polarize online users based on value predispositions utilized as heuristics when processing the blog’s information.” Further, the researchers note, “The effects of online, user-to-user incivility on perceptions towards emerging technologies may prove especially troublesome for science experts and communicators that rely on public acceptance of their information. The effects of online incivility may be even stronger for more well-known and contentious science issues such as the evolution vs. intelligent design debate or climate change.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf

The third study is an interesting and important summary of the role of the Internet and political campaigns

“The Internet and American Political Campaigns” From George Washington University, published in The Forum. By David Karpf. (Pre-print open version here.)

Part of a growing cohort of academics pioneering the subfield of online politics, Karpf provides a short, useful summary of the state of research in this area. For journalists, the works cited page alone is a valuable who’s who — fill up that contact list for campaigns 2014 and 2016 — but the narrative also underscores some basic truths: The web has not changed many forms of participatory inequality; polarizing candidates frequently win the small donations race; the “culture of testing” and analytics are changing how campaigns allocate resources; liberals and conservatives typically use technology differently for campaigns. One striking insight: “We are potentially moving from swing states to swing individuals, employing savvy marketing professionals to attract these persuadables and mobilize these supporters with little semblance of the slow, messy deliberative practices enshrined in our democratic theories.” But definitive answers remain elusive on many other fronts. “There is still, frankly, a lot that we do not know,” Karpf writes. For more insights in this area, see Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s response, “Messaging, Micro-Targeting and New Media Technologies.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf

The War and the Digital War

I suppose it was inevitable that the union of war and new media would spawn some strange offspring that looked like a combination of hip media and varieties of war. Terrorists, revolutionaries, and disenfranchised citizens are carrying laptops, hand-held cameras, and phones into battle and posting real-time and unedited messages on Twitter and Facebook.

In 2003 we saw the early effects of new media when telephones were able to capture images such as Abu Ghraib and turn the site into an international symbol of torture. You can watch YouTube videos of Syrian rebels fighting government forces in real-time. The video takers are now part of the battle and have specific assignments and training. You can hear the video takers cry “Allahu akbar” when he successfully captures a photographic moment. We could call this the “YouTube war” because of the union of cell phones and social media that make it possible to furnish the world with real-time war. And YouTube does not delete very many videos; thus, there are some graphic pictures and raw scenes that even amount to crimes.  You can see an example here but be forewarned .

The rebel videos in Syria are accompanied by English translations and commentary which touts the successes of the Syrian rebels. According to one article in the Wall Street Journal in September 2013 the rebels have hired accomplished graphic designers with stylized script to enhance the effects. It is not uncommon to leave cell phones and cameras on dead bodies so their content will be picked up. Some videos are designed for religious audiences and contain religious messages. A good reading on the use of social media in revolutionary movements appears in the online publication Small Wars Journal. It is free and easily available.

Some Ways New Media Has Changed Revolutionary Movements

Authoritarian regimes have always tried to control traditional media (radio and television) and have usually had the upper hand. But now the rebels have increased information and can gather intelligence more skillfully. Sophisticated American intelligence tries to understand the battlefield but revolutionaries now do it with amateur videos uploaded from handheld devices. Moreover amateur video legitimizes the narrative of partisans and insurgents. It is the first real countermove in the effort to weaponize information against authoritarian regimes. Propaganda is now a tool everyone has access to.

Secondly, the public sphere aspect of new media allows for mobilization. In Egypt in 2011 the phrase “We are all Khaled Said” on Facebook was a significant aid to youth mobilization during the 18 days in Tahrir Square. In one interesting development rebel fighters have Twitter and Facebook accounts in which they reveal their identity and answer questions “on the field.” They do not divulge locations but other than that the fighters use these social media to disseminate information and establish an online identity. They are completely comfortable with exposing themselves probably because they are simply used to sharing one’s identity online.

But third, social media cannot put weapons on the battlefield so it has its limitations. And state regimes have their resources and instruments of oppression that can easily overwhelm social media. Moreover, social media are particularly good at forming weak ties that are not accompanied by energized activism. Those who are members of Facebook networks make few real sacrifices and are “weakly tied” to the cause.

Finally, it is a little frightening to imagine the worst of all possible outcomes. Although new media in the form of videos uploaded on YouTube were instrumental in prompting debate about Western intervention in Syria and use of chemical weapons, there were also thousands of recorded atrocities before that and nobody paid attention. We might end up being increasingly entertained and narcoticized by images of war, and at the same time feeling just fine about doing nothing.

How New Media Changes Religion: Goods Not Gods

Data seems to pretty clearly indicate that Americans in particular are changing their relationship with religion. It has been commented upon and written about with increasing frequency. The most typical change reported is that religion is becoming more individual; people are picking and choosing their own beliefs and practices and forming hybrid combinations that represent individual feelings and emotions. Moreover, private and subjective spirituality is replacing what were once coherent religious beliefs rooted in history and social and intellectual development. Finally, we hear more and more about the abandonment of institutions and the community’s general distaste for long-standing religious institutional doctrine and practices. Somehow the accumulated wisdom that informs institutional practices is fading away to be replaced by private preferences.

Bryan Turner, writing in the Social Science Research Council, offers up some interesting insights into the relationship between communication and religion (go here). Traditionally, the religious practice of communication was authoritative and hierarchical. It was a unitary system of beliefs influenced by clearly established sources of knowledge and wisdom (Popes, Priests, Imams, Rabbis). One receives messages and information from authoritative sources and the layperson’s communication was a node in a hierarchical chain with upward supplication and downward instruction.

New media – in the form of the Internet, Facebook, Web 2.0, cell phones, etc. – has upset this traditional religious communication structure. In the new media environment communication is more horizontal than hierarchical and certainly more diverse and fragmented than unitary. User generated possibilities have changed messages because such messages have become more devolved from authoritative status sources and more subject to negotiation and multiple interpretations. Turner points out that in Islam there has been an inflation of authoritative sources such that any local mullah can turn himself into a source of authority. Knowledge about religion has been democratized such that the Internet and pamphlets are equally as authoritative as individuals. People feel less need to attend their collective religious service because their needs are met with individual preferences and online religion.

Again, in the case of Muslims, they are learning increasingly more from the Internet especially Muslims in the diaspora. There is a correlation between the electronic network and the social network. This correlation has altered various distinctions between types of contact. As I said above, pagers, videophones, email, websites, and cell phones have transformed social relations in religious communities (especially diaspora communities) and offered new ways to theorize those communities. Some authors have explained how communities of people with religions in common use the Internet to cultivate a cosmopolitan democracy that addresses broader issues.

In the future we will see the increasing frequency of new public spheres because electronic media will provide access to thousands of individuals who share interests. The mobilization qualities of new media will make it possible to quickly amass like-minded individuals into electronic communities. Perhaps, we will come full circle and reconstitute larger institutional organizations. Globalization will be very dependent on the Internet as a source of connection to other cultures, including one’s home culture, and the combination of new interpersonal networks with the broad and fragmented information on the Internet will serve to reinforce individualism. Individualism and religion is a two edge sword; it can be associated with rigid thinking and fundamentalism as well as creativity and expressiveness.

New media and horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones will result in a form of individualism consistent with the general commodification of culture. In other words, religious choices and consumption are becoming more important than informed absorption into an established religious system. People want religious “goods” not “gods.” And although established religions will maintain a fair amount of strength and presence, processes for deinstitutionalization are in play as individuals learn to defend their own subjective spirituality and participate more fully in horizontal relationships formed and sustained by new media.
Also posted in Hartfordfavs.com

New Media and “Information” versus “Deliberation”

New media cloud

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.

%d bloggers like this: