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The Internet & Democracy: Have We Learned Anything?

December 18, 2018

Connected In Cairo headersIn the first wake of the Egyptian uprisings, and their framing as a “Facebook” revolution or Twitter revolution or “social media revolution” there was a lot of Utopian discourse about the power of social media to create political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy.

Where are we now in our understanding of the role of the Internet in social movements, democratization and political transformation?

The Internet is a “great missed opportunity” for democratic political action and democratization, argues Stephen Coleman in his book Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy? (Polity 2017). Coleman’s “missed opportunity” is largely seen as a failure by governments–especially in democratic countries –to use the Internet to reconfigure political practice and connect with citizens.

Those citizens themselves, on the other hand, have adapted their own political practices to the digital era in many ways. Coleman insists that citizens are not masses being affected by technologies of communication but active agents who think about
political agendas and make judgments.

One of the great strengths of Coleman’s work is thus that he abandons technological determinism–“what is the Internet doing to democracy?”–in favor of asking what political actors are doing with the Internet. His answer: not enough.

The core of Coleman’s argument is in Chapter 3, where he lays out six strategies through which the Internet enables–or can enable–citizens to effectively engage in politics:

  1. The Internet promotes social connections and the circulation of public experiences, which gives citizens the capacity to set agendas and affect political actors.
  2. Digital communication technology provides a vehicle through which people can gather political information
  3. The Internet offers a space in which people come together in political discussion and debate, including cross-cutting discussion
  4. Digital connectivity empowers citizens to coordinate their actions to deal with political issues.
  5. Governments–not only the representatives of the state at the highest levels, but  particular ministries and legislatures–are increasingly aware of, and responsive to, public on-line discourse.
  6. Using the Internet, citizens are able to scrutinize their own surveillance, creating a kind of ‘inverse surveillance’ that in turn, allows them to neutralize their surveillance.

This is all very well, and Coleman, as a professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, naturally lays this out as a kind of policy/advocacy piece because that’s what political scientists do. And he focuses on what states ought to do, because, well, political science, right? As an anthropologist, though, I am always more interested in detailed description and analysis of what people actually do, politically speaking, with the Internet, and I find an interesting exploration of this in Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner’s fascinating analysis The Ambivalent Internet (also Polity 2017).

Coleman writes in Chapter two that we should examine “how the Internet has been
incorporated into people’s daily lives in ways that have expanded the range of democratic acts they feel capable of performing” (p. 55). This is precisely what Phillips and Milner do, and it turns out that what citizens are doing on the Internet, politically, is a lot weirder than Coleman’s sweeping generalizations suggest. Phillips and Milner embrace this weirdness and seek to understand it through the lens of folklore studies.

The authors suggest that the political discourse Coleman finds empowering but which also includes mischief, oddity and antagonism leading to meme wars, trolling, flaming and divisiveness, is best understood in terms of an inherent ambivalence: online behaviors are best seen as “simultaneously antagonistic and social, creative and disruptive, humorous and barbed” (p. 9).

The authors argue that folklore has long had tools for analyzing such ambivalence; however, the affordance created by digital mediation, in which people’ constant rapid manipulation and remediation of source materials raise the ambivalence of online expressions to a whole new level.

Drawing on folkore theories and methods, the authors explore four key aspects of Internet ambivalence: identity play, constitutive humour, collective storytelling, and public debate.

  1. Identity play refers to the ways people perform identities online. Protected by anonymity, identity play often becomes muddied as the boundary between individual identity and the reciprocal influence of collective responses breaks down.
  2. Constitutive humor focuses on the weirdness of many Internet jokes that do not always follow the classic rules of joking, such as online memes that have little/no narrative or punchline? The authors argue that such humor creates a sense of collective identity by weaving new references into highly fetishized insider jokes, which in turn maintain in-group dynamics, and attract new members to the group.
  3. Collective storytelling examines the ways Internet stories collectively build on one another. While the centrality of collectivism in the storytelling process, and the hybrid and heteroglossic nature of stories is well understood in folklore studies, the Internet takes this to a new level as the Internet provides people faster and easier ways to add individual voices into established urban legends. Urban legends can effectively draw from ‘hybrid vernacular sources and creatively reconfigure existing narrative tropes’ (p. 161). This chapter offered me the best approach yet for understanding the “Hilary Clinton is running a child sex slavery ring from a Washington, DC pizza parlor” legend in which, as Rolling Stones put it, the creators of the legends were “working together though often unwittingly“.
  4. Public debate. Using the contentious 2016 US Presidential Election as the prime example, the authors devote a chapter to illustrating how online debates are situated “between the evil twins of conflict and unity, along with affect and rationality” (p. 198).

Although both books are so North America-and-Europe centered that they border on the ethnocentric, their ideas and approaches raise important questions for re-thinking the collective storytelling about the power of the Internet to promote democracy that emerged in the first wake of the Arab Spring.

So what do we know now that we didn’t in 2011?

  • Wael Ghonim’s technological determinism (Internet=democracy) is dead.
  • States can’t be relied on to use new technologies to empower citizens, but they do pay attention to on-line collective action (albeit not always in positive ways)
  • People use technologies politically but not always in ways that bring them together to form coalitions and promote political change
  • The Internet affords opportunities to generate collective identities through insider humor and collective storytelling in ways that that exceed the bounds of what used to be collective public reason.

Well, it’s something. Clearly we have lots left to learn.

Democracy is created through acts of mediation, involving a range of technologically enabled practices from conversations to town hall meetings to watching television news and televised debates to blogging to voting. The Internet is one powerful tool that has–and continues to–transform such practices, and will no doubt continue to so in ways we cannot predict or control–but maybe we can begin to understand.

References

Coleman Stephen. 2017.Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mann, Steven, J. Nolan and B. Wellman. 2002. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance & Society 1 (3): 331–355

Phillips, Whitney and Ryan M Milner. 2017. The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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