New Media and Social Mobilizations
“The times are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan, but not at all, when viewed from another angle. The new media have expanded and improved participation in public affairs. More and more persons are involved in debates and even the solutions of several problems. Connected by digital media, people today have more information than ever and new opportunities to voice opinions and exercise influence on issues ranging from air pollution and animals care to abortion and euthanasia and, at another level, electoral campaigns.
This implies considerable support for democracy, but it comes with several restrictions. Most obvious is that not everyone has the necessary connections and hardware. Although the digital divide has lessened over time, it still remains a problem. Beyond this limitation, there are at least five conditions that the social media impose on debates of public affairs.
1. Context of trivialization. The contents that we receive in our social media are usually scrambled and scattered. A comment about the globalization of the economy appears in the midst of news and opinions about a football match, a new speculation about JFK’s murder in 1963 and a sexy video by a trendy starlet. The actual exposure to political issues can get narrower despite the availability of more information from diverse viewpoints as they are spread across the huge and constantly changing public space.
2. The form affects the substance. The torrent of information that we receive all day long is usually shaped by the rules of expression in the social media: short phrases such as those of 140 characters in Twitter; narrow, decontextualized contents; and the primacy of image over text. The most effective messages tend to be on either the aggressive, confrontational or the light, funny side. There is nothing wrong in making political affairs accessible but oversimplification blends out the complexity and nuances that public issues usually require for comprehension and discussion. The meme of a political candidate can be effective in ridiculing and fighting an opponent but it falls short of explaining a policy proposal.
3. Weak and ephemeral ties. In social media, we built networks of relations. The reticular structure is the main attribute of the Internet and social media. Our capacity to receive and express contents depends on the extension and diversity of our networks: our friends, relatives and acquaintances and the people they know. That is how social networks work, both online and offline. By the way, I prefer the term “sociodigital networks” to fields like Twitter and Facebook, to highlight the reticular nature, though I recognize that “social media” is the generally accepted expression, especially in English.
4. Small and closed universes. We are usually connected to networks of people with similar hobbies, ideas, and preferences. Both offline and online, we create micro spheres of personal and social networks. Our networks operate especially when they are places of comfort, where we can exchange preferences and find people with similar ideas. That is one of the limitations for political exchange and political proselytizing online. We can spread our political positions to people with similar points of view. It is not common that persons with very different positions are in our networks.
5. The conventional media are still needed. No political change occurs only due to online proselytism. The transformations that people seek, in any field of public life, must have consequences on the operation or decisions in the institutions. Politics is necessary to bring about those changes and one of the contemporary engines of political decisions are the media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other digital networks can get influence over the traditional media and, then, can contribute to changes. The social media have been an extraordinary tool to help people organize and to help that their voices reach the political institutions and the traditional media. This happened in the Arab Spring (Egypt, Tunisia) in 2011 and also, albeit at a smaller scale, in the Mexican student movement in 2012, to provide just a few examples. Thanks to the combination of online articulation and street mobilization, these movements had the chance to win public presence in the broader media and win influence for institutional changes.
The social media are part of a broader and complex public space that is composed by the institutional zones for political deliberation (like Congress), the school, the church, and the traditional media, among others. The big news of recent years is that the citizens can gain access to the public space through social media. That possibility favors democracy and creates new forms of political participation and expression. Now we have a media ecosystem where the socio-digital media are one of several influences on and from society.
One of the consequences is that the social media, in spite of its name, favors individual interaction but in a collective space. People find new forms of participation, different from others that are traditionally empathetic, solidary, or with a formal organization. A campaign on Twitter does not replace street demonstrations (they are still indispensable in many cases) but can help to increase attendance and the visibility of a public event.
All these aspects have been widely recognized in the discussion about the political uses and implications of the social media. But they are not always considered in their assessment and, especially, in the magnification that is frequently made by activists and by analysts of the political uses of social media. It is very important to not underestimate but, at the same time, to not overestimate the capacities of the social media in the new presence that social movements are acquiring with digital resources.
Let me conclude with a personal memory. When I was a young scholar we were engaging in politics at the university with resources that were so limited that they barely allowed us to spread our ideas and proposals beyond small circles. We spent whole days printing flyers on mimeograph, which was for us the most accessible copying technology. We distributed them on campus and sometimes, with a lot of fear, in adjacent neighborhoods. This was quite dangerous in the early 1970s. During those days it was unthinkable that our messages could reach the mass media, neither television nor even newspapers. Today, four decades later, the society in my country has gained the right to demonstrate in public, and social and political groups of all kinds spread their ideas and positions on Twitter and YouTube. The mass media can no longer ignore an important movement. The times have changed, yes. Today, with social media the people can express themselves and influence public affairs. The old mimeographs are no longer needed. Yet, what remains essential are the participation and decisions of people. Social media are great tools for communication but they do not replace people.
Raúl Trejo-Delarbre is Titular Researcher in the Institute for Social Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM ). He has a PhD in sociology from the same university. Among his recent books are Simpatía por el rating: La política deslumbrada por los medios (Sympathy for the Rating: Politics Dazzled by Media) and Alegato por la deliberación pública (Allegation for Public Deliberation). Web: http://rtrejo.wordpress.com, Twitter: @ciberfan, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Banner Image: Lights photographed by Ryan McGuire (creative commons).
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