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Media, Technology, and Democracy (Faiz Jan) The development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially the

Internet, has divided opinion about their impact on democracy in terms of civic engagement. On one side of the divide are technological determinists who see an increased and positive association between political participation and the Internet (Mossberger, Tolbert, & McNeal 2008). On the other side are those who look at the Internet as a controlling tool, which is redistributing power “from the powerless to the powerful” (Pariser 2011; Hindman 2009; & Davis 2010). They see a disconnect between actual political decisions and the potential of voices circulated via the Internet. They are called social determinists. In between technological and social determinists are those for whom the Internet is a double-edged sword: it holds a promise of civic engagement in governance as well as an infrastructural bias against the common people (Coleman, Blumler 2009; & Gladwell 2010). However, there are no two opinions about the fact that the Internet has the potential to expedite a social and political change spurred by issues of day-to-day governance and peoples’ dissatisfaction with matters of economics. The Internet’s potential for enhancing civic engagement also leads to greater participation in democratic politics. The Arab Spring, which set off a democratic wave that swept away three dictators so far, give testimony to the power of the new social media and a new kind of social activism. Occupy the Wall Street protests, that have now spread across the Europe, is an example of grassroots action focused almost exclusively on public expression, the communication of


and parties a means for mobilization through e-mails. e-mails. communal. the media only provide topics that stimulate social discourse. coordination in a short time to call for a change. though loose. and online news in the U. The use of social media by protestors to challenge the power of autocrats has reinvented social activism. Mossberger. mobilizing. The theory of deliberative democracy argues that the media do not have a direct relationship with political participation. by supplying outlets such as chat rooms that permit individuals to meet and discuss politics. into a public sphere where they can share their views at “personal. and media 2 . “they are now defined by their tools” (Gladwell 2010). who have a common cause or grievance. These factors are: digital divide. candidates. and McNeal take a quantitative approach while measuring the role of the Internet in informing. which.S. and civic” levels (Shirky 2010). However. & McNeal 2008). could give a different picture. Social media bring increased.. and by providing interest groups. Democracy cannot function without a vibrant public sphere. which is the mechanism that influences political activities. Instead. “This theory predicts that the Internet should facilitate political participation through opportunities for individuals to meet and take part in discourse” (Mossberger. These authors. Where activists were once defined by their causes. who studied the effects of chat rooms. conclude that the Internet fosters participation in three ways: by offering information to help make informed decisions and promote discussion. Tolber. if taken care of.opinions and preferences that focus on Wall Street but that have global implications and linkages. public. and igniting a social discourse among the people. Tolbert. literacy in general. The power of social media lies in their ability to connect people. they fail to take certain factors into account.

Governments are no more the centers of power that directly control the flow of information. but there appears less enthusiasm about its potential for reconnecting political elites to citizens. In this age of the Internet common people can consume. like in China. which had forced Yahoo! to reveal the location of a prodemocracy dissident who had been e-mailing against the regime. Davis says that the Internet is neither widening nor deepening political participation or engagement between citizens and political leaders (p. By controlling or hobnobbing with the few big companies. which may actually be hindering the very public sphere ideal of public participation. These companies’ multinational character makes them resistant to some forms of regulation. governments can influence the flow of information. With the advent of the Internet this power shifted from the government. Yahoo! and Microsoft that represent new loci of power. not everyone has equal access to the Internet. oriented. and engagement aspired to. it concentrated in big companies like Google. and where people are literate.literacy. distribute. In any country not everyone is literate enough to use the new digital media. 747). but “they can also offer one-stop shopping for the governments seeking to influence information flows” (Pariser 2011). but not to the people. rather than politically. Internet use by ordinary citizens is predominantly consumer and leisure. We see on daily basis the Internet’s ability to connect people with each other. A case in point is China. they may not have equal access to information on the Net. Even if they have access to the Internet. Instead. Davis (2010) says there appear to be several aspects of the Internet. and create their own content without government control. 3 .

They are of the view that social media create networks. Hindman’s argument that powerful hierarchies shape the Internet is supported by Gladwell (2010) who also takes a social deterministic stand when he says that instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. which are without hierarchy.Most of the censoring gadgets have been provided to China by these big companies. Hindman takes a social deterministic perspective on the role of the Internet in hindering democracy. and this is their weakness because they cannot take on powerful establishments without having a hierarchy of their own. and that powerful hierarchies shape the Internet. instead it is shifting the bar of exclusivity from the production to the filtering of political information. He says the infrastructure of politics has determined the infrastructure of the Internet in such a way that common people speak but very few of them are heard. people’s uses of technologies lead to social and political changes. Hindman (2009) says the Internet is not eliminating exclusivity in political life. Similarly search engines guide and powerfully limit most users’ online search behavior. a multinational media company. This supports Earl’s and Kimpert’s (2011) assertion that technologies don’t inevitably lead to specific social or political changes. which are heavily linked. Similarly. Thus those in the position of power are likely to shape the adoption and implementation of a new information and communication system in such a way that it serves to enhance rather than undermine their power (Chadwik 2006). removed the BBC from its satellite service to appease the Communist regime in China and save its business deal (Hanson 2008). get more hits than those with few links. Instead. 4 . Web sites. while NewsCorp.

but also to the citizens of the globe at large. However. they are considered as new tools that can enhance. the point that these writers miss is that social media [or for that matter. and where the strength of the argument counts. civil society and the state communicate with each other.” writes theorist Manuel Castells (2008). These networks revitalize the public sphere where people interact with each other and with those who make policies on their behalf in a deliberative form of democracy. It is an arena which is synonymous to the notion of the marketplace of ideas. there must be a global public sphere. which lies between the state and society. The structure and mode of operation of the public sphere defines the structure of a polity. the Public sphere is an abiding part of a democratic polity. which makes the governments responsible and accountable not only to its own citizens. According to Habermas. movements driven by social media are ephemeral. German sociologist Jürgen Habermas was the first to articulate the concept of the public sphere. Instead. not the status of the speaker. “How the public sphere is constituted and how it operates largely defines the structure and dynamics of any given polity. the Internet] are not considered to be replacement of interpersonal networks. As Aelst and Walgrave suggest there is little evidence that the Internet is becoming a substitute for traditional form of protest.Because of having no hierarchy and being virtual. If a global civil society exists. Public opinion emerges in this public sphere. which provides oxygen to the system for its functioning and growth. 5 . especially on issues of political concern. These networks have now become global in nature taking the form of a global civil society. to influence and shape policies of the state. defined as the process by which citizens. expedite and sustain interpersonal networks.

Otherwise left to the technology this public sphere will become “just less relevant” (Pariser 2011). which always precedes any economic or political change.Without a functioning public sphere the state’s interaction with the public is reduced to the relatively brief periods surrounding elections. This new and spontaneous activism has been made possible by the new social media. The new social media has now made it possible for global civil society to make big corporations. and interest groups remain unaccountable to the people. and across Europe which have lined up against the greed of international financial institutions which are based in a few countries but have global implications. but at the same time does not believe the Internet per se would bring democratic revolutions across the globe. We see the global civil society and a global public sphere in action in the U. which are beyond the control of a single country because of their multinational character. corporations.S. without a functioning public sphere. Though election participation is a hallmark of representative democracy. the future of democracy is dependent upon an active public sphere. No change is possible without a strong public sphere. He is enthusiastic about the positive role of the new social media. the government. accountable. Just like it’s past. The potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere. Clay Shirky (2010) looks at the new social media as a helping tool for expanding and revitalizing public sphere. 6 . and a vibrant public sphere makes social media more effective (Shirky 2010). But the success of this global activism depends on interpersonal character of bonding of the small local or national networks that have coalesced at global level.

In the filter bubble the public sphere is sorted. One of the ways governments try to subvert this people-to-people coordination is the filter bubble (Pariser 2011). These corporations have become established hierarchies. But the success of social media should not be judged in the short term. they effect a change in the long-term. It means that if there is no public sphere. which can offset the fragmentation effect of the traditional mass media that is in the control of either big corporations or authoritarian regimes. new social media work in an environment where non-state actors have become more powerful than the states themselves. they do.Do digital tools enhance democracy? Yes. but by enhancing the scope of public sphere they can challenge established power. The strength of new social media lies in its capacity of developing a horizontal coordination among citizens. There is 7 . unlike the view of technological determinists who think that the mere presence of new digital tools can herald a democratic change. Conclusion: Technology changes the shape and character of media. which has serious implications for democracy. New social media do not pose a direct challenge to authoritarian regimes. Thus new social media has a supporting role in promoting democracy. social media themselves cannot bring a lasting change. Shirky says that the power of social media lies in their ability to coordinate and that’s why authoritarian governments try to stifle communication among their citizens. and hostile to dialogue. while digital activism create weak ties without hierarchy. new social media challenge the power and pave the way for a democratic change. By enhancing and strengthening the public sphere. However. fragmented by design.

J. E. Citizens. M. (2009). (2006). (2009).” This brings up the issue of narrative. New Media & Society. “Those who tell the stories of a culture really govern human behavior. from Internet Politics: States. Hanson. The Myth of Digital Democracy. (Oct. The Information Revolution and World Politics. Coleman. 12: 745. Gladwell.a need for more research into how these weak ties created by new social media can be converted into strong ties and sustained enough to challenge established hierarchies. from The Internet and Democratic Citizenship: Theory. References: Chadwick. (2010). and New Communication Technologies. In the words of George Gerbner. and sell the narrative of rational reasoning that should resonate in the global public sphere. S. Hindman. & Kimport. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. London: Cambridge University Press. Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Where Have We Been and Where are We Headed? In Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. (2011). & Blumler. Earl. non-state actors who are driven by particular ideologies also use them to cloud the atmosphere. 8 . M. A. J. Davis. Those whose narrative dominates the mass media win this war of information. power does not lie in tools themselves. Mayland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. and Policy. Practice. 4. Boston: MIT Press. 2010). New Media and Fat Democracy: the Paradox of Online Participation. K. E-Democracy from Below. (2008). There is a need for more research on how to effectively use new social media for snatching narrative from terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. Not only common citizens with democratic aspirations use social media. In The New Yorker. A. especially in the Arab and Muslim world. London: Oxford University Press. Internet Politics: Some Conceptual Tools.

Mossberger. C. 9 . Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. M. from Digital Citizenship: The Internet. 616(1): 79-93. and Political Change. The Political Power of Social Media: Technology. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society. (2010).Castells. and Global Governance. 90 (1). London: Penguin Books. (2008). C. Pariser. the Public Sphere. Tolbert. Shirky. (2011). & McNeal. Boston: MIT Press. London: Penguin Books. Shirky. K. 28. (2008). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. R. (2010). C. Communication Networks. Society. In Foreign Affairs. E. The Benefits of Society Online: Political Participation.. and Participation..