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Is Social Media Revolutionizing Politics? Advice For Those Trying To Find Out

March 20, 2012

The public debate over whether social media is “revolutionizing” political action is actually interfering with getting solid scholarly accounts of where and how social media is transforming political contexts.

Long before the Arab revolts, the notion that new media might revolutionize politics emerged as one of the most influential and popular trends in political communication. Journalists, academics, politicians, engineers, corporate heads and spokespersons all weighed in authoritatively on the topic.

Cyberutopians–like Wael Ghoneim–insisted that the Internet was completely transforming political action. Normativists–like Malcolm Gladwell in debates over the role of social media in Egypt–argue that it is just a new set of tools for political actors to do what they have always done. This debate has created a general frame for assessing the roles of social media in political activity in binary terms–a “revolution” vs. “normalization” frame in popular discourse

Scholarly work on the topic is informed by this public discourse. The result, claims Scott Wright of the University of East Anglia, has been to reduce the quality of academic research into the subject by leading scholars to frame their work in terms of two polarized schools of thought:

  • a ‘revolution’ school which argues that new media tools will bring sweeping changes to the functioning of the whole political system. “Effectively, technology deterministically generates a democratic state of affairs – however conceived – because the characteristics of new technologies overcome barriers to ‘idealized’ direct or deliberative democracy,” writes Wright. Early examples include Rheingold (1993), and Corrado and Firestone (1996)
  • a ‘normalization’ school whose members argue that, after all, these technologies are just tools for doing politics as usual in new ways; they see their opposite numbers as describing relatively small changes and promoting them as being revolutionary. The chief example is Margolis and Resnick (2000).

In a new article entitled “Politics as usual? Revolution, normalization and a new agenda for online deliberation” published in New Media & Society Wright argues that his article argues that the schism between revolution and normalization has negatively influenced subsequent empirical analyses of political conversation online (and of e-democracy studies more generally).

He argues that

  1. many scholars have failed to consider the nature of revolutionary change in any detail. Revolutions can occur on myriad spatial scales from the local to the global, the revolutionary significance of new technologies can emerge according to different scales of time, and revolutions may involve a variety of kinds of technologies and practices. Instead of attending to these complications, scholars often tend to frame and interpret their research findings in terms of the very technologically determinist accounts of revolutionary change of which they are so critical.
  2. the binary frame of  revolution vs. normalization has led researchers to disproportionately analyze existing political institutions and practices, often using narrow definitions of politics and normative underpinnings that may not be relevant in the context of new media.
  3. the revolution vs. normalization frame may have led researchers to interpret their empirical data in an unduly negative way.

Ultimately, Wright suggests that when scholars adopt, intentionally or not, the revolution vs. normalization frame, it can shape which cases they pay attention to, what research questions they ask, and how they interpret their results. results. As a result, serious empirical assessment of the roles social media plays in different kinds of political activities is lacking.

Wright offers the following suggestions for scholars asking questions about the extent to which social media are changing the way politics gets done:

  1. Reconsider ‘revolution’ and ‘normalization’ Clarify what you mean by these terms. Without a working definition of “revolution”  it is hard to determine whether one has happened, difficult to understand what causes one, and impossible to measure its effects.
  2. Do not get obsessed with the latest innovation. Attend to the spatial and temporal contexts in which innovations are being put to use. Efforts to make a case for or against media revolutions often involve studying the latest technical development in isolation, rather than looking at the cumulative effects of innovation, the adoption and discarding of technologies, and the creation of new practices over time. Lack of context leads to poor scholarship.
  3. Look in different, Third Spaces. Remember that politics happens throughout the public sphere.  Whereas most research on social media has  “focused on established political events (e.g. elections), institutions (e.g. parliament/party websites), activities (e.g. government-run online consultations) and actors (e.g. elected representatives’ blogs)” Wright advises looking at alternative spaces whose importance to the wider political process may shift as a result of innovation. (I read this as a call for ethnography)
  4. Look over longer timeframes
  5. Increase experimental (social science) research

References:

Corrado A, andFirestone CM, eds., 1996. Elections in Cyberspace: Towards a New Era in American Politics. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.

Margolis M,Resnick D. 2000. Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace Revolution. London: Sage.

Rheingold H. 1993.  The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Wright, Scott. 2011. Politics as usual? Revolution, normalization and a new agenda for online deliberation New Media & Society 14(2): 244-261

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