The past few posts I have written all belong to a collection of case studies about new media practices and the 2012 elections. I want to collect them all here, and briefly reflect on what these case studies might mean overall for democratic engagement and participation.
As was to be expected, these case studies do not provide us with any neat conclusions about the relationship between new media practices and democratic engagement and participation. Across different platforms, different communities, and surrounding different kinds of events, we see very different kinds of practices emerge. Beyond that, each specific practice can suggest multiple possible readings in terms of the implications for democratic practice. To know or measure the intention underlying a practice, or the effects of that practice on a culture, is particularly difficult in the disembodied and widely dispersed world of new media.
Yet there are a few trends that can be identified across these platforms. As I emphasize in the section on Facebook’s news feed, it seems that the realm of the “social” is increasingly becoming entwined with the realm of authoritative news media and politics. Although for many Facebook represents a realm of private life, of leisure, and thus politics is taboo here, the structure of the platform makes it easier than ever to share news and political content. This has the dual effect of giving the individual’s political opinion more authority, and of giving sources of authority more personal relevance by connecting them to the social realm.
Similarly, in the case of “document the vote” practices, we saw the way that “mass social media” can effect huge changes in political mobilization and democratic practice simply by making individual practices visible within a social network. In this way, the authority of strong social ties is more effectively mobilized by social media platforms, and political action takes on greater meaning socially.
Both of these effects mentioned have a clear relation to those kind of events which we hold up as evidence of the democratic power of new media. If we take as our model the revolution that took place in Tahrir Square in 2011, we see that this was partially fomented by the intertwining of the social, news media and politics. “We are all Khaled Said”, the notorious Facebook page created about an Egyptian who was killed by Egyptian politic officers, represented an intertwining of the social and the political, and later was used to spread information about the protests in Tahrir Square. Furthermore, Twitter was famously used by protestors to share information about events as they happened on the ground, and this social, political voice became itself a source of authority as news media organizations began to circulate the content posted here. Even as the repressive media in Egypt tried to undermine the event by false or dismissive reporting, social media platforms allowed individuals to continue to voice their political position, supported by the authority of “citizen journalism”.
Although the situation and the political culture overall is radically different in Egypt than it is here, in both countries the voice of the citizens is upheld as the proper authority to which the media and political authorities should answer. New and social media platforms seem to be scrambling the traditional relations between these three powers, and in particular allowing social networks to have some of the technical power of mass media
However, in many cases we also see that this new authority being granted to social networks is not necessarily used to enhance democratic engagement or political action. In the case of the “mock the vote” practices, we see the way that much of this individually produced and mass-circulated political content is little more than an empty referent, being combined with other empty referents of pop culture to get a cheap laugh. Similarly, the “live tweeting” of political events like the debates seems to actually detract from real political engagement or consideration, in favor of purely “communicative capitalism”, or the broadcasting of messages purely for their own sake.
It seems that many of the democratic and political new media practices being engaged in are still modeled on the traditional structures and practices of mass media; individuals are looking for the biggest audience, pandering for “likes”, trying to increase their “social capital” through a recirculation of powerful cultural symbols and images. In particular, it seems that in the realm of U.S. government politics the possibility of original thought or language has been systematically snuffed out. “Entertainment media” seem to ironically offer greater room for dialogue and creative engagement than the media of U.S. politics, which permits only a single narrative storyline of us-versus-them. The new media practices of the 2012 elections revealed only two real choices: the utilization of this oppositional narrative to garner social capital, or a removal from all political engagement either via simple tactics of mockery or by blocking out the political noise altogether.
Although technological affordances has shifted the balance of communicative power, there has not yet been a corresponding cultural shift that allows individuals to think creatively about how to use this power outside of the traditional paradigms of mass media, and outside the current narratives of the political landscape. This requires a sort of radical reimagining, a rebuilding of politics and media from the ground up, literally. To escape the highly determined landscape of mass media politics, it may be necessary to actually begin the process offline, unplugged, outside of any kind of “media practice”. This seems to be the hope of movements like Occupy Wall Street, where citizens are encouraged to actually get out from behind a computer and come speak to fellow citizens, to experience an unmediated kind of sociality and political discussion. It seems that in the case of the protests in Tahrir Square, the ultimate full-scale revolution that resulted did not come from demands made on Facebook, plans made by protestors via Twitter, but from the momentum and inspiration of the physical protests themselves:
“Taken aback by their success, once in Tahrir the activists had to work out what to do next. The initial idea was to call for the arrest of the Interior Minister, but the people in the square, most of whom were not part of any political group, were chanting for the removal of the regime. The activists realized they could not call for less than the demonstrators wanted. So the demands of the Revolution were set by the spontaneous chants of the people.” (Idle, p.32)
This unmediated political voice might also be the key to reimagining what a real “rule of the people” would look like here in the U.S., and help us to imagine what kinds of new media practices would reflect and support this kind of democracy.