Social media, political change and power – Impact and strategies

By Seija Anttonen

Prof. Clay Shirky (New York University) makes interesting inputs on the impact and potential of social media in bringing about political change, in his article in Foreign Affairs (90.1: Jan/Feb 2011). His recommendations are targeted for the U.S. government and their internet freedom strategy, but Shirky’s message is relevant in the wider discussion on social media as well.

Shirky’s main argument is that instead focusing on the use of social media’s power to topple governments that has been much studied, the real potential of social media lies in its ability to support civil society and strengthen the public sphere, and to bring about change in the long term instead of quick overthrows. Shirky also criticizes U.S. government’s ‘instrumental’ approach to internet freedom that was launched in 2010 by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Social media’s real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere – which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.”

Changing opinions is a two-step process

The use of mass media and other media tools in political activism is far from being a new thing. Shirky refers to the two-step flow of communication model developed by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld already in the 1940s, highlighting the fact that mass media alone do not change people’s minds. Instead it is a two-step process, where “opinions are first transmitted by media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues”. The second step of social interaction is in fact seen to be more crucial in the process of changing opinions compared to mere information sharing.

Hence, it is important to combine the development of political freedom that is adequately connected, with developing a civil society ‘literate enough’ to discuss the ideas brought to the public fora. Developing a public sphere by reinforcing both the tools (media) and the conversation that forms the opinions (civic interaction) is the best way forward according to Shirky, and he calls this way ‘the environmental view of internet freedom’.

“Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation.”

Such a process, according to Shirky, requires long-term support strategies and more general support to civil society development, instead of short-term instrumental approaches that target specific regimes or aim to create software or other tools for anti-censorship purposes as the U.S. Internet Freedom Approach suggests. Shirky also warns about the potential backsplash of such initiatives, for “external support runs the risk of tainting even peaceful opposition as being directed by foreign elements”, hence risking the local activists with unintended effects of using such tools.

Social media as a coordinating tool

A key new element that social media can bring to political activism is its power to support collective action as a coordination tool. With the use of such tool, undisciplined groups (civil society, activists) can compensate their disadvantage and reduce the costs of coordination, putting them in much stronger position against disciplined and coordinated groups (governments, businesses) than ever before. Besides organizing protests and other civic activism, the coordinating power of social media can also be harnessed to coordinate ‘shared awareness’ by enhancing the ability of individuals to understand the situation as well as their knowledge that others understand it also.

The fact that political and apolitical speeches are not mutually exclusive in social media, as non-political sites can also become sites for political action (e.g. a music group fan page turning into a platform that mobilizes political activism), can heighten the tension between civil society and political powers. In such diverse environment it is also easier to cover political activism under the veil of other kinds of social media interaction. These kind of developments have made political powers increasingly wary.

Balancing power between the state and the civil society

Shirky uses the term ‘conservative (dictator’s) dilemma’ to describe a situation where “a state accustomed to having a monopoly on public speech finds itself called to account for anomalities between its view of events and the public’s”. Examples of the conservative dilemma can be found for example in China, where shared awareness of corruption has put the government in a difficult position in balancing to what extent they allow the discussion or try to limit it.

The power of social media in creating shared awareness has made governments (as well as companies, in terms of consumer activism) increasingly aware of the potential of social media tools, and as response they are finding ways to curb such activism either through monitoring and censorship, or through use of the same tools themselves. With social media, the threats to the legitimacy of governments are increasingly coming from the inside, which has changed the way governments approach e.g. censorship and/or access to information.

“The best practical reason to think that social media can help bring political change is that both dissidents and governments think they can.”

In the new environment, simply blocking the traffic from the outside is no longer enough, and shutting down communications grids can just as easily alert even larger number of citizens to oppose the hegemonic power. In addition, when most of the tools or platforms used are privately owned and produced, it becomes understandable why the ‘instrumental’ approach may not be the best one when hoping to support the development of an active civil society and public sphere.

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  1. […] discussed in an earlier blog post, increased access to global media and especially the new and social media often threaten the status […]

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