How can new media enhance democracy?

Review of Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change, Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I.

Clay Shirky analyzes the potential of social media in supporting civil society and mass protests around the world to offer his advice to the US government in its foreign policy related to Internet Freedom.  While I´m not particularly interested in the US-centric purpose of this article, I consider that the conclusions coming from the analysis of several case-studies are very interesting and, therefore, worth sharing and discussing here.

Shirky explains briefly how in the Philippines (2001), Spain (2006) and Moldova (2009), text messaging contributed to the organization of mass protests which forced out national leaders. However, as Shirky notes, in Belarus (2006), Iran (2009) or Thailand (2010) the activists failed and where repressed violently. These cases show that, even if social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all political movements, the outcomes of their use in mass protests are diverse. Therefore, “the attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes”.

Drawing on empirical and theoretical work, the first conclusion that Shirky suggests is that social media are most effective in states where the public sphere is already powerful and constrains the actions of the government. For this reason, social media should be considered as tools to strengthen civil society and the public sphere, and their effects will be visible in the long-run and not in weeks or months. In addition, Shirky notes that the public sphere emerges more likely as a result from dissatisfaction with economics or governance than from embracing abstract political ideas.

The author discusses two main arguments against the power of social media in politics: 1) ineffectiveness and 2) that they produce as much harm as good because repressive governments can suppress dissent more easily. Regarding the first one, he recognizes that the critique against examples of “clicktivism” is correct but he considers it not to be central to the theme, as “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean than committed actors cannot use social media effectively”. Social media do not replace real action, but help to coordinate it. The second critique, however, has to be considered more seriously according to the author, as social media can help to strengthen authoritative regimes. Interestingly, for Shirky, censorship of foreign media sources and surveillance are less important than the ability of states to shut down communications and denying dissidents the possibility of coordinating or communicating an event.

Considering all these items, Shirky suggests the US government to replace an instrumental approach to Internet Freedom with what he calls an “environmental approach” to the topic. The instrumental approach is action oriented and overestimates the value of broadcast media (such as preventing states from censoring foreign websites) and of computers. In contrast, the environmental one acknowledges the importance of conversation and considers that the highest priority has to be securing the freedom of personal and social communication, as well as the freedom to freely speak in public. According to Shirky, the freedom of assembly is more important than the access to Youtube or Google to build a strong civil society.

More than the author´s policy advice, what I consider very interesting from his article is the acknowledgement of the importance of the public sphere and his opinion about the two main critiques to the political power of social media. However, regarding this last point, the author does not mention the lack of access to ICTs of large parts of the population in many countries as another imporant weakness of new media as tools to foster social change from the bottom.

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7 Responses to How can new media enhance democracy?

  1. Zandra Persson says:

    First and foremost, Mariona’s review highlights the importance of new media policies within governmental institutions, e.g. foreign ministries. This can be seen as a response to new media activities on the ground. Today, no one can afford not to integrate new media into the communication strategies. New media is changing the way we’re communicating at different societal levels and units.

    As Mariona, underlines, Shirky’s analysis suggests that new media is most powerful in democratic states in which the civil society and the public sphere are already strong. Obviously authoritarian regimes are more likely to use manipulate media, including Internet, to serve their own interest. However, I do not think that the power of new media as a tool to coordinate real action for people in authoritarian regimes should be underestimated. It offers groups of people a space to discuss and form opinions that they would otherwise lack, which may have a liberalizing effect on continuous politics in the long run. This is what we are currently witnessing in Tunisia. While the Arabic spring has shown that social media can have a triggering effect to initiate a change in power, we have also witnessed that the establishment of a sustainable social revolution cannot be assured by Twitter or Facebook.

    In the light of Shirky’s analysis, I find new media’s potential to foster democracy, therefore, particularly interesting in so-called transition countries, already open to social and political change. In Albania, for example, the LGBT-movement has within a few years made it from being a small anonymous group of activist on facebook to a powerful voice in national politics. Indeed, new media’s impact on continues politics is related to many societal factors. The LGBT-movement has had more success in Albania than in neighboring Balkan countries. In the Albanian case, it is suggested to be related to the absence of a strong religious tradition in the country as well as a wish to meet demands from EU in order to enter the union. As Mariona correctly concludes: “New media do not replace real action, but help to coordinate it”. This is the true potential of new media to enhance democracy.

    • Mariona Sanz says:

      Thank you Zandra for your comment and for letting me know about the Albanian LGBT movement, which is very interesting, I agree with you: the power of new media for social change should not be underestimated in authoritarian or transitional countries. However, we cannot underestimate that the economic and political context, together with other societal factors such as freedom of expression or the literacy of the population are also important to consider when analysing how new media promote protests, democracy and development.

      • Zandra Persson says:

        I totally agree with you Mariona, these are factors which are very important when analyzing new media’s impact. The use of visual images (online and offline) protest art, culture jamming etc. can, on the other hand, be a way to reach and influence a wider part of the population, including unconnected and not literate people. However, the interpretation of visual images depends also much on the individual’s preunderstanding (i.e. cultural capital) and and may be different from the originator’s intention.

  2. Kristina Körnung says:

    Very interesting review! I think Shirky’s article were among the most interesting. A much valid point is made on the emergence of a civil society to balance the power of the state, that the use of social media by itself cannot bring about change, as it must also relate to “real-world action” (p.6). The discrepancy between this action and social media use that poses a very interesting challenge, especially in the light of the so-called “slacktivism”-debate. Shirky’s example on the Save Darfur Facebook group kind of sums it all up. The discussion made by Aday et al relates to this – what if the use of social media doesn’t translate into more real-world activities – “diverting their attention away from productive activies” and making the citizens “more passive, by leading them to confuse online rethoric with substantial political action” (p.9). On the other hand, the use of new media can also be the opposite, as one can develop “new compentencies” in partaking, making people more politically aware. In this view, the development is promising.

    • Maria Del Carmen Rodriguez says:

      Hi Mariona!
      Yes, you are right! Shirky´s work is worth to comment and disseminate! It is very interesting to see how positive Shirky is about the role of social media even though he concedes the existence of public spheres in the real world determine the influence social media have over the digital world. Concerning his discussion on two main criticisms, Shirky might be forgetting about other important arguments that censor the role of social media in political activism. By instance, Sean Aday in his article “Blogs and Bullets” lists four recommendations after having analyzed the Iranian presidential election protests in 2009:
      – “Be skeptical of sweeping claims about the democratizing power of new media
      – Acknowledge the good and bad effects of new media
      – Beware of backlash
      – Do not mistake information for influence “ (2010, pp.26-27)
      I would be interesting to see Shirky´s responses to those. Exciting debate!

    • Mariona Sanz says:

      Thanks Kristina for your reply and for sharing so many valid points. I totally agree with your view, and what I like from the article is the overall conclusion, which in my view could be that social media do not replace real action, but help to coordinate it and to raise political awareness,

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