By Elena Johnson, Research Intern, University of Virginia, VA
Each evolution of communication in history has always been followed by a hoard of skeptics and optimists, from Socrates lamenting the advent of writing, to Nicholas Carr questioning centuries later: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
While it is unclear whether writing has made us unable to recall things from memory, or Google is making us dumber, there are skeptics who argue that the rapid advances in media are making us less politically active and knowledgeable.
One outspoken author is Markus Prior, who wrote “Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections.” He claims that due to the wide range of media options available today more people are opting to ignore politics, leaving only partisan voters and an increasingly polarized system.
The argument hinges around the idea of a “floating voter” or those voters who are not strongly affiliated or persuaded by a particular party and “seldom approach an election with a firm sense of whom to vote for and do not always vote for the same party.” Some argue that it was the “floating” youth votes which swept Obama into office in 2008, but returned to their traditionally low participation rates during the 2010 elections when the Republican’s took back the House.
Figure 1: A decline in news consumption with the rise of internet sources allows people to selectively consume news that interests them or not watch news at all.
Prior explains that these voters tend to be less politically aware than their partisan peers, and as such they can be strongly influenced by elements like “candidate images or the controversy of the day.” Knowing about these controversies and seeing the images was inescapable back when a nation tuned into watch to the same newscast by Walter Cronkite each night. However, today we have a variety of options to distract ourselves from the news, be it a rerun of “Two and a Half Men” or the Facebook’s status updates on the daily trials and tribulations of your closest 423 friends.
Prior’s Washington Post article points out how “today’s media users seek out the content they really like. Unfortunately… few people really like the news.” This means that those uninformed citizens who are not invested in politics can remain removed from the political sphere. Prior argues that this detracts from the overall participation in an election— Why move your attention away from the most recent American Idol episode or your Twitter if you don’t really care about the elections at all?
This may not be a uniquely American phenomenon: a Washington Post article from June 13th reports that the media freedoms we’ve become so distracted by in the United States may be just as distracting in countries like Iran.
Thomas Erdbrink’s “In Iran, ‘couch rebels’ prefer Facebook” describes how the same people who led the infamous ‘Twitter’ Revolution in 2009 are now “playing internet games such as FarmVille, [and] peeking at remarkably candid photographs posted online by friends.” The YouTube video “Tehran Persian Nights” is a compilation of these photos, and illustrates the glamorous lives of this younger generation, with blonde women without headscarves shopping in high end boutiques, and young men and women going night-clubbing in high heels and fancy jeans.
Jinoos, a 39 year old Iranian artist, described her generation as “couch rebels,” and told Erdbrink that “our world online is like an endless party with no rules, and that keeps us very busy.” Some of the reluctance to participate openly in politics may be attributed to the “ferocity of the government crackdown that followed the protests of 2009” which has had long standing effects, including curbing any real outcry from Iran during the recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East. Facebook continues to be the tool of distraction, despite the restrictions implemented by the Irani regime.
On a more positive note, there are many ‘techno-optimists’ today, especially on the tail end of the Arab Spring where social networks are given a lot of credit for organizing protests against authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, the tweets which organized protests and found their way to Al Jazeera, and to an even wider audience internationally, played a key role in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
Studies in the United States are finding that social networks may even be improving our political activism. Pew Internet recently released a report on “Social Networking and Our Lives”, and discovered that Internet users on the whole are more politically engaged than similar demographics that did not use the internet. Beyond internet usage, they also found that using Facebook specifically increased political participation, concluding that:
“A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day was an additional two and half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and an additional 43% more likely to have said they would vote.”
Perhaps the future of society with social media isn’t quite as bleak as we pictured it. People are rioting for freedom and democracy, and the youth of the United States has proven that they can and will mobilize for a candidate and cause they believe in. All good things, right? Maybe not. Voting and protesting are inherently different elements of political participation, and some wonder if perhaps social media is simply good for revolution, but bad for democracy.
While resident techno-optimist Clay Shirky certainly sees the benefit of social media for both, saying that social media tools overall “probably do not hurt in the short run, and might help in the long run,” there are a fair few skeptics who feel otherwise. Prior clearly outlines the potential drawbacks of new media for politics, and pundits like Dave Parry point out that while social media can enable revolutions it “doesn’t necessarily mean that they enable the installation of stable power structure.” He also looks at how social networks are by nature unorganized and without a hierarchy and a clear leader there may be issues post-revolution with a power vacuum. Parry uses Egypt as an example of this, where citizens were concerned with the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come into power in the event of a quick election after Mubarak’s departure.
Overall, it remains to be seen what role social media is going to play in our lives. Some dispute the role it played in the Arab Spring; some argue that it caused the world to change with a hashtag. Whether or not you see it as a way for people to simply socialize or organize for lasting change, new media has had a lasting impact on the way people have come to communicate.
The trick is to sift through all the #nowplaying’s and #justinbeiber’s for the salient, world altering patterns and information. No one saw the rise of Facebook, many still do not understand the nature of Twitter, and few could truly say how it will impact our lives in the years to come, but with the most recent events there may be hope for those techno-optimists yet.
Elena Johnson is studying American Government and Media at the University of Virginia. She is currently researching social media and regimes at INSS and is also working for the Executive Office of the President. Last summer she worked at Women and the Environment Organization (WATEO) helping to organize educational programs for women in rural Iraq.