Review – Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics (2010)
The initial enthusiasm over new media’s potential, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, as a means for activists to promote freedom and democracy or even overthrow authoritarian regimes has slowed down. The aftermath of the Arabic spring has left many disappointed. Today, we are aware that new media can be used for what many of us consider as negative purposes and not merely for its democratizing and liberalizing potential. Lately, for example, we have witnessed the so-called Islamic State’s use of video clips on YouTube to recruit and spread fear by cutting off Western heads on social media.
How to understand social change through new media?
Despite this, it is today fair to say that little is actually known about whether and to what extent new media affect and influence contentious politics. In other words, what is its potential to generate social change? Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch et al. researchers at the United State Institute of Peace argue in their report http://www.usip.org/publications/blogs-and-bullets-new-media-in-contentious-politics that the impact of new media on society can be better understood if looked upon at a level of five different units for analysis: 1. individual transformation; 2. intergroup relations; 3. collective action; 4. regime policies and 5. external attention.They emphasize particularly on the importance of adopting a more nuanced view of new media’s role in democratization and social change when recognizing the positive and negative effect new media may have on societal transformations. Furthermore, they are raising several research questions. Let me recall a few of them: Both, successes as well as failures must be understood, what they refer to as case selection. Are there counterfactuals? E.g. would social change have appeared without new media? By focusing too much on new media other real causes or so-called hidden variables may be missed out. Also, what they call strategic interaction should be reflected on. By that they mean that focus also needs to be put on the state targeted by the citizen protesters [yes it is often the state that is the target for protests and disapproval but not only]. Are there any counter-reactions? Does the state use and regulate new media to serve their own ends, undercut challenges to their authority and reputation or even use it to track down their opponents? After all, as the authors put it, “few incumbents want to endure their own Twitter revolution”.
The Iranian green movement
The report illustrates the approach with an exhaustively analysis of the role of social media in the Iranian green movement that arose after the presidential election in 2009. The movement used social media as a platform for social criticism. Whereas some observers saw new media as a major cause of the dramatic rise of protest following the election, others dismissed their significance. As a way out, the authors of the report search to sort out the conflicting claims by focusing much more on underlying connections between the new media and Iran’s political process. Anyhow, the discussion on the power of social media in particular did not leave the Iranian government indifferent. In contrary, the discussion incited the government to dramatically extend its control over access and content after a period of relatively liberal Internet access. In addition, Internet also became a tool for the government to track down or even imprison the protesters.
The strength of the report is the nuanced picture of the potential of new media as a means to achieve social change at different levels going beyond media’s oversimplifying headlines about “The Twitter revolution” and such. Additionally, the report offers an analytical framework for anyone interested in understanding new media’s role in social change, both positively and negatively. Indeed, what in this perspective is conceived as positive and negative is a matter of subjectivity. Surely, new media can be used by anyone connected as a toll to exert political power. But its true impact on contentious politics is less obvious and related to other societal factors.