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Has social media led to substantial changes in citizens’ repertoires of political participation?
In the past few decades, an upsurge in the use of social networking sites (SNS) has been witnessed (Bode et al., 2014). Ever since the emergence of social media, the deliberation of how and to what extent they altered the way people engaged in politics has been ardently discussed. To understand this question, one should first examine it in two directions, the definition of social media and political participation, before moving on to the discussion of whether or not there are changes over time. Undoubtedly, any authority would be ill-advised to underestimate the power of the internet. If using the internet and sending text messages can modify the foreground of a nation and overturn ingrained authoritarianisms; if they have the ability to change the fortune of an unknown man into an overnight star; if they have magic for fixing the ‘illness’ of the society by pressuring governments, is it possible for anyone to resist using these types of media to achieve their goals? It is an undeniable fact that the current society is a world where all kinds of social media are almost inevitable. Since the launch of social media over 10 years ago, one can fairly address that there have been some enormous changes in people’s everyday lives. According to Jeroen Van Laer and Peter Van Aelst, “A notable feature of recent public engagements with the internet is its use by a wide range of activists and groups engaging in social and political protest” (Aelst et al., 2010). Tufekci and Wilson (2012) provided an example of this statement. They noted that,
“Since the ‘‘Arab Spring’’ burst forth in uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt in early 2011, scholars have sought to understand how the Internet and social media contribute to political change in authoritarian regimes” (Tufekci et al, 2012).
The two mentioned assertions of each scholar have shed some light on the influence of the internet. This essay will deal with the following aspects of the question of whether or not social media reforms the means of civic participation in politics, a) what is political participation; b) what is the role of social media in the sense of taking part in the policy-making procedure. Finally, the essay will be concluded by the outcome of the discussion in question.
To begin with, the definition that was given by Boyle and other scholars in ‘Expressive responses to news stories about extremist groups: A framing experiment’, they proposed that the term ‘‘expressive action’’ included talking to friends and family about politics, sending letters to the editor, contacting public officials and attending rallies (Boyle et al., 2006). However, as Rojas, H. and Puigâ€iâ€Abril, E mentioned in their journal (2009),
“Verba et al. (1995) narrowly define political participation as ‘an activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action–either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies’” (Rojas et al., 2009).
Either way, one thing is clear, political participation is a set of activities to affect who decides or decision itself in any possible way. In ‘Mobilizers mobilized: Information, expression, mobilization and participation in the digital age’, a number of hypotheses were suggested by Rojas, H., and Puig-Abril.
These hypotheses embodied a model explaining the cycle of the interactions between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as Figure 1 they proposed below.
As the result of their study, assumptions of informational uses of ICT resulting expending expressive behaviours in the online sphere are sturdily supported. Furthermore, the relative significance of blogs as a source of information that accelerates such expressive behaviours is also suggested in this study. Nevertheless, one interesting result was noted that there is no support for a direct relationship between online expressive behaviours and offline participatory behaviours. This implies that online political activists may not be as enthusiastic as they are online when it comes to taking part in the policy-making procedure offline (Rojas et al., 2009).
Political participation on social media is referred to as ‘political SNS use’ by Bode (2014). The definition of ‘political SNS use’ is using SNS for political intentions, for example, displaying a political preference on one’s profile page or becoming a ‘fan’ of a politician (Bode et al, 2014). However, another argument suggested that while one is studying ‘political SNS use’, the disadvantages that it presented should not be overlooked. One example of this is addressed in one of Clair Cain Miller’s articles of The New York Times. Miller stated that due to the convenience that the internet provides, it is useful for promoting events, such as the Arab Spring to the Ice Bucket Challenge. However, people might be reluctant to express themselves because of the urge for obtaining recognition (Miller, 2014). With the exact reason, people tend to interpret the various signals in social media, as liked or hated. As these signals become clearer, the reluctance of people to express their views online increases; hence, the differentiation between the different positions will turn into a more serious situation and those who share the same or similar points of view will be even more unified (Miller, 2014).
Citing from Bode’s journal, “although social networking sites were not originally conceived of as political tools, politicians have quickly adapted to use them as such” (Bode et al, 2014). The internet has given civil society new tools to support their claims. In the recent years catchphrases, such as, ‘‘Twitter Revolution’’ or ‘‘Facebook Revolution’’ have been high-lighted (Tufekci et al, 2012). However, one should keep in mind that social media alone did not cause the revolutions and demonstrations (Joseph, 2012). In the case study of the Arab Spring, it was the urgent need of four things; namely, justice(Adala), freedom (Hurriya), dignity (Karama), and respect (Ihtiram) which pushed the citizens participating in those protests, and social media merely played the role of supporting the combustion by providing the platform for exchanging and spreading the information. Due to the falling costs and expanding capabilities of mobile phones, the traditional communications have been enriched with capacities of taking pictures and videos. Within the past decade, communities in which it had long been difficult to access information were converted into massive social experiments fuelled by an explosion in channels of information (Aelst et al., 2010).
The evolution of new communication technologies brought new forms of political communications. In Jeroen Van Laer and Peter Van Aelst’s journal, they categorised 4 new forms of political communication; namely,
a) Internet-supported action with low thresholds. In this category, donation of money, consumer behaviours, and legal protests and demonstrations are involved. It is believed that donating money is the most primary way to engage in a social movement that involves almost no risks or commitments (Aelst et al., 2010).
b) Internet-supported action with high threshold, which means transnational demonstrations, transnational meetings, and Sit-in / occupations and more radical forms of protest.
One case study of this section is the Harvard Progressive Student Labour Movement at Harvard College. The incident was for demanding higher living wages for the institution’s security guards, janitors and dining-room workers. This movement was initiated with the occupation of several university administrative offices in 2001. Eventually, the ‘real-life ’sit-in at Harvard College was accompanied with a ‘virtual sit-in’ in order to increase media attention and to broaden the pressure on administration officials (Constanza-Chock 2003;Biddix & Park 2008).
c) Internet-based action with low threshold. This includes actions that are solely performed online: online petitions, email bombs and virtual sit-ins. Any Face book user can generate a group to protest or support a specific cause and invite other members to ‘sign’ this cause by taking part in this group.
d) Internet-based action with high threshold. This involves Protest websites, Alternative media sites, Culture jamming, and Hacktivism.
The definition of culture jamming was coined by Stolle and other researchers, “changes the meaning of corporate advertising through artistic techniques that alter corporate logos visually and by giving marketing slogans new meaning” (Stolle et al., 2005). These ‘attacks’ are all blurring the line between what is legal and what is not. These tactics are then labelled as ‘electronic civil disobedience’, ‘hacktivism’ or as ‘cyber terrorism’, and depends on the point of view (Denning 2001; Vegh 2003).
Using and managing social media as a participatory tool is not the same thing. The real challenge is how to utilize social media to properly take part in the decision-making process. It is indeed that the world needs diverse voices and with the help of social media, everyone is granted the power to ‘have a say.’ Social media did not merely become a tool in hands for those who actively want to have a say, they also bind the communities which were not asked to take actions previously. However, one should bear in mind that ‘saying what’ is the most crucial part of participating in politics. The results from Bode’s study are compelling,”-political SNS use is not a dead-end, but instead provides an impetus for greater political participation” (Bode et al, 2014). Perhaps it is worth acknowledging here that social media have indeed changed the citizens’ repertoires of political participation. The evidence is compelling, although there are some opposed arguments. The development of ‘political SNS use’ is promising and is a study worthy for future research.
Biddix, J. P. & Park, H. W. (2008) ‘Online networks of student protest: the case of the living wage campaign’, New Media & Society, vol. 10, no. 6, pp. 871–891.
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