New Media as a New Form of Political Activism?

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Obama´s presidential campaigns, the Arab Spring and “Cinque stele” movement in Italy, share a common denominator; internet. However it has been difficult to assess its impact. Due to its non-monolithic nature, we could say that an important part of these successful stories was achieved through the major internet based social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and My Space. Based on an idealistic and egalitarian image of the world, the internet gives to citizens an opportunity to create and convey their own political and social opinions, waiting for feedback from other followers who share the same destiny, that of living in a world where voices are not equally heard.

Albania is embracing this new political reality. Leaders share their political messages via social media, which are now used as portals where television, journals and undoubtedly citizens, receive the latest information about their political activities. It seems that the internet creates a considerable deviation from traditional media, allowing forms of political participation that were not available in the previous elections.  Despite this and leaders’ calls for adding them on Facebook or following them on Twitter, it is important to take a step back and assess whether internet produces more democracy through the increase of  political participation in virtual spaces, where  share, like and attend seem to be the new dimensions of the “political animal”.

Online public sphere

downloadIf we want to start our logical analysis from a common sense, it looks like the internet is the perfect concretization of the metaphysical idea of Habermas about the public sphere. Inspired by the philosophical concepts of Kant, he said that the monologue is a direct confrontation of the individual with himself and his identities, while the public discussion divides him from his quotidian “vulgarity”. “It is exactly this positive exchange dynamic among private entities (individuals) that create the substance for a new arena, public sphere that is settled between the society and the state as a legitimated instance based upon the individual logic”. It is a space where the primary rule of inclusion is the equality and all subjects are inspired by a common goal, that of seeking the truth.  Said this, it is clear that the two primary functions of this space are: 1- the (act of) communication and 2- the equal chance for inclusion in rational discussions.

Political participation

Given that participation is, by definition, an active behaviour with intent to influence government or public officials, how do new forms of online behaviours fit into the traditional definition? For a long time scholars have been only focused on the conventional and traditional ways of participation such as voting or the mere exposition towards political messages, while nowadays, due to technological  innovations, people  have found new ways of being part of the decision making. Email, bulletin board systems, conference calls, electronic vote etc., today are not only available and useful services in the WAN but also means of increasing the citizens’ political inclusion. [People] blog, start or join groups, participate in networks, share links, and regularly interact through new media, According to Kahne, Lee, and Feezell there are three ways of online participation culture: 1- politics driven; 2- interest driven and 3- friendship driven.

participationStudies have shown that in post-transitional democracies, such as the case of Albania, the political participation, especially of youth has declined through years due to a latent skepticism, which depends from the political and the economic performance of the state institutions in respective countries.That is why these new forms of involvement increase the chances for more political participation, distancing themselves from chains such as political affiliations, parents influence or the relation that they create with the authorities.

Political behaviour

One of the main theoretical problems posed by the emerging role of the internet is the definition of collective behaviour among users. Originally, a collective behaviour refers to how people think, feel and behave as members of crowds and masses. Liking a public page of a politician, joining a group on Facebook or on Twitter, shifts individuals from a crowd that is a temporally collection of people who happen to be [online], to a mass that is a collection of people who pay attention and react to the same thing without being in one another’s presence.

IMG_0489According to Louis Wirth the mass has some main characteristics. First, it contains a large number of people, spread out in major areas that do not permit the “face to face” communication. Secondly, it is unorganized, is not a party or a group directed by a leader, where the chance for uniformity is an obvious threat. It is heterogeneous, both in convictions and perspectives and last but not least it is open to suggestions and easily influenced by the emitted messages through the mass communication means.

When citizens are located in communication networks characterized by political heterogeneity, the exchange of information is likely to take on heightened political consequence. Internet, especially social networks, brings together people of different cultural, educational and political backgrounds, whose collective behaviour would shape the dynamics of communication within this space. Therefore, disagreeing with or supporting each other’s opinion, are in this case not only communication rituals but also reflections of personal political behaviour, the confrontations of which stimulates micro and macro political change. The question is whether people are really so open in facing theirs and others cognitive dissonances, in an uncontrolled environment or they simply selectively expose themselves to opinions and statements that reinforce their existing political behaviour.

How youth think that social media, especially Facebook and Twitter shape their personal political behaviour? How do they perceive this new political dynamics?

Read full research paper HERE.

Article by: Irena Myzeqari*
Edited by: Ivana Petriskova

*Dr. Irena Myzeqari works as teaching assistant at the department of  Public Relation- Communication at  the  European University of Tirana

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