Blogs and Bullets, New Media in Contentious Politics (book review)

The report Blogs and Bullets, New Media in Contentious Politics focuses on the influence of new media over political movements. Its authors try to have a disenchanted look on the then (in 2010) fairly new phenomenon, keeping a clear distance both from cyberenthusiasts and cyberskeptics. They acknowledge that this type of media have been receiving wide praise as being tools to “facilitate participatory politics and mass mobilization, help promote democracy and free markets, and create new kinds of global citizens” (p. 6), but they also report the opinion of those who maintain that new media “encourage self-segregation and polarization” and “help authoritarian regimes monitor and police their citizens” (ibid.).

Where lies the truth? The first reply the researchers give is a candid “we don’t know” (ibid.). They point out that not much research had been done and therefore any conclusion reached is based on anecdotal evidence rather then robust research, which would need a strong design, as defined in the following pages (p. 8 to 11). So the case selection must include both success and failure stories and the influence of new media on the former needs to be deeply analysed. Moreover hidden variables must be taken into account as well as their interaction with new media. A causal link has also to be ascertained, as well as the counter reactions through the very same new media.

A further aspect regards the collection of data (such as link and content analysis, as well as meme tracking), which can be harvested with automatic systems, on the blogs or through the social networks.

The report then lists five levels of analysis (p. 11-14) of the political effects of new media. One concerns those who participate or are exposed to them (individual transformation). New media can create new opportunities for engagement but, on the other hand, they can divert citizens’ activism away from the offline arena. Another level is linked to relations among groups. Here too there can be two effects, either a successful dialogue or a polarization of the groups’ positions. A third level concerns the facilitation of collective action, by reducing communication costs and allowing individuals with the same ideas to become visible. A further point regards external attention as new media are much more difficult to censor and control than the traditional ones. On the other side, regimes have control on the communication infrastructure. so they can block access to some websites – or to the Internet altogether, or they can exploit new media for regime policies, in the same way as activists’ groups, to influence individuals and groups, organize actions and get external attention.

The following pages (p. 15-28) show the application of the research design and in particular of the five-level analysis cited above to 2009 elections in Iran. The conclusions are much less positive than what what supporters of the “Twitter Revolution” think.

The last two pages (p. 28-9) contain a few recommendations for future research, such as being skeptical of claims about the alleged democratizing power of new media, acknowledge their good and bad effects, consider the regime reactions and keep in mind that information is not enough to cause a change.

Five years are worth more than a generation in the new media world. In lapse of time, a few answers have been given to some of the questions contained in this report. So a research sponsored by Facebook has shown that people limit exposure to opinions contrasting to one’s own, something which is confirmed by Marko Skoric in the video lecture below:


Skepticism contained in Blogs and Bullets, New Media in Contentious Politics has further been developed by Evgeny Morozov in his book To Save Everything, click here, though I would define the latter more like a delusion.

Despite having been written in 2010, this report is a useful read to get comprehensive, concentrated background information which is needed to better understand today’s use of new media.

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