2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
New media and politics:
populist revolt, state control, and elections
review by Lyell Davies
Tweets From Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as it Unfolded, in the Words of the People who Made it. Edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns. With a foreword by Ahdaf Soueif. New York: OR Books. 2011. 234 pages.
The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Evgeny Morozov. New York: Public Affairs. 2011. 432 pages.
iPolitics: Citizens, Elections, and Governing in the New Media Era. Edited by Richard L. Fox and Jennifer M. Ramos. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Dehli, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 322 pages.
As is illustrated by the recent books—Tweets From Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as it Unfolded, in the Words of the People Who Made it; The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom; and iPolitics: Citizens, Elections, and Governing in the New Media Era—there is an intense current interest in exploring how new media is intersecting with political life. Each of these titles is significantly different in content and research methodology. Nadia Idle and Alex Nunn’s Tweets From Tahrir is a euphoric portrait of social media use during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion offers a dystopian study of the threat digital media poses to democracy. And Richard L. Fox and Jennifer M. Ramos’ collection iPolitics is a political science study of media and electoral politics. Each is useful to our task of understanding new media’s influence on political processes and conditions.
In the pocket-sized Tweets From Tahrir, editors Idle and Nunn present a sampling of the “tweets” sent by Egyptian protestors between January 14 (the day dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was ousted) and February 14, 2011 (immediately after power was wrested from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak). Presented in chronological order without spelling correction or vetting for accuracy, these 140-characters-or-less communiqués present a narrative of the Egyptian Revolution as it was lived by and shared among protestors. Idle and Nunn propose that these tweets serve as both,
“firsthand, real-time accounts of events (a primary source for historians of the Egyptian Revolution); and as a testimony to the significant role that Twitter and other social media played in those events” (14).
The tweets in the book were all transmitted by individuals who were on the scene in Cairo before and during the Tahrir occupation. In a message sent shortly before the first mass protest on January 25, a Twitter subscriber with the username “monasosh” tweets, “Scared, excited and hopeful #Jan25” (29). The next day, user “Adamakaray” tweets, “#jan25 protestor’s demands: increase minimum wage, dismissal of interior ministry, removal of emergency law, shorten presidential term” (33). In the pages that follow, using hundreds of tweets from dozens of Egyptian Twitter-users, the collection freezes in time the hopes and fears of a people who are in the midst of revolution. The 18-day narrative of tweets is broken only by a double-spread of ominous, wordless black pages, signifying the Egyptian government’s temporary shut down of the Internet.
Idle and Nunns are measured in their remarks on the role social media played during the uprising. They dismiss the Western media’s labeling of the revolution as a “Twitter Revolution”, arguing that this label,
“excuses commentators from seeking to understand the deep-seated causes of the uprising—the brutal economic reality for the majority of the population, the imposition of neoliberal policies reducing job security and suppressing wages, the lack of opportunities for educated young people, the sheer vindictiveness of a Western backed dictator as expressed through his police gangs” (22).
Nonetheless, they are convinced that although social media did not parent the revolution, these digital tools “helped shape the form of the uprising” (19). Critical of commentators who have ignored the role of social media in the Egyptian Revolution, Idle and Nunn argue that every revolution is “shaped in part by the technology available to those who make it and those who try to stop it” (21).
As a reader, I found Tweets From Tahrir most compelling as micro-level documentation of life inside the uprising. Campaigns, revolutions, or social movements, succeed or fail for a host of reasons and, as recent developments in Egypt have shown, effective long-term strategies are certainly essential to the long-term success of any movement for change. But so too is an ability to build immediate local solidarity among movement participants by creating a shared sense of purpose in and self-identification with the struggle. The messages presented in Idle and Nunn’s book ably illustrate that tweets can be used to share big strategic or tactical matters, or to send or receive important news updates, but this is clearly not their only use. For the protestors in Tahrir, tweets seem to have also served as part of a moment-by-moment preening process, one that kept the protestors motivated, linked to, and working with each other.
Illustrating this process in operation, in a tweet from January 26 user “Sandmonkey” offers advice to protestors who are expecting a quick end to their struggle; he tweets, “Please remember, it took a month of protests 4 Tunis revolution 2 success. Persistence is everything #Jan25” (48). In another illustration, this time from early February, “ashrafkhalil” expresses pride in the uprising when he tweets, “#egypt when did tahrir security guys get laminated badges on lanyards? Just noticed that. These guys are ORGANIZED!” (181). And, in a message that seems to illustrate the sender’s growing self-identification with the movement, “NevineZaki” tweets, “I never used 2 leave home without lip balm in my bag. now it’s switched to ID, tear gas mask & trash bags in a satchel! #fun #Egypt #Jan25” (148). The role low level tweets such as these played in binding individual protestors to each other as well as to the larger mass movement in Tahrir is not theorized by the editors. But the constant authoring and exchange of hundreds of messages of this ilk suggests that tweeting played a role in the emergence and articulation of the political identities and allegiances of the protestors, as well as helping to sustain their involvement over the duration of the struggle.
For all people who are serious about exploring the intersection of digital media and political life, Morozov’s The Net Delusion is essential reading. Polemical in style and contentious in its content, Morozov’s work stresses how oppressive governments and demagogic propagandists are benefiting from the use of digital media communication technologies at least as much as democracy-minded citizen journalists. The author frames his argument with an account of the West’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. He argues, Western leaders have erroneously accepted the theory that the Communist Bloc was defeated when populations living under Soviet rule were able to access Western radio and television broadcasts, or watch pro-Western videos on their home video cassette recorders. Today, he argues, this flawed theory has found new life in “The Google Doctrine”—a “cyber-utopian” belief that the unrestricted movement of information through new media technologies will prove “lethal to the most repressive of regimes” (xii). Supporting his argument with a range of briefly visited examples—such as China’s highly restrictive Internet policies, the maintenance of state power in Russia during and since Soviet rule, and the use of social media during Iran’s Green Revolution, Morozov argues that in many contexts the introduction of new media has not advanced freedom or justice. Instead, it has simply empowered the strong and disempowered the weak (xvii).
The Net Delusion is rife with eloquent propositions regarding the operation of new media. Writing on what he terms “digital orientalism,” Morozov notes that in the West we tend to bemoan how the distraction of mass media entertainment is making “us” stupid but laud that these same digital medias are, when introduced into other regions, a force for democracy (241). In truth, he postulates, “The same young people America wants to liberate with information are probably better informed about U.S. popular culture than many Americans” (69).
But Morozov’s study is strongest when he turns his attention to the ways repressive states can use digital technology to advance their own agendas. Here, he catalogues state surveillance, propaganda, and censorship use of these technologies. In a chapter titled, “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook,” he argues that digital technologies have enhanced the ability of governments to spy on their citizens. He contends,
“Digital surveillance is much cheaper: Storage space is infinite, equipment retails for next to nothing, and digital technology allows doing more with less… there is no need to read every single word of an email to identify its most interesting parts; one can simply search for certain keywords… and only focus on particular segments of the conversation” (151).
Elsewhere, addressing how states can use new media for censorship purposes, he reminds us that the number-crunching algorithms that personalize our online shopping experience can just as easily be used to control what political information we have access to. Thus, the only difference between personalized advertising and personalized censorship is, “that one system learns everything about us to show us more relevant advertisements, while the other one learns everything about us to ban us from accessing relevant pages” (97). Morozov postulates,
“One of the most interesting and overlooked features of today’s globalized world is how much and how quickly authoritarian governments seem to learn from each other; any new innovations in Internet control by the most advanced are likely to trickle down to others” (139).
The author offers readers little respite from his dystopian view of digital media, except to say,
“Fortunately, we are not alone on the Internet—at least one billion other users are also blogging, Googling, Facebooking, and Tweeting—and most of our information is simply lost in the endless ocean of digital ephemera produced by others” (163).
Rich in rhetorical flair, The Net Delusion is nonetheless a valuable counterpoint to the positivist views of new media that are today circulated in many popular, governmental, and academic arenas. Morozov’s arguments are not without problems; some readers will lament that he does not provide more substantial case studies to illustrate his points—thereby bringing greater subtly and nuance to them; others will note that divergent conclusions can be drawn from some of the examples he does offer. Nonetheless, The Net Delusion directs us to an inventory of questions about how new media can be used to advance repressive political agendas, questions we must engage if we are to credibility assess the full impact of digital technologies on political life.
In contrast to Morozov’s impassioned treatise, the chapters of Fox and Ramos’ iPolitics provide a sober exploration of the intersection of new media, elections, and governance. In the introduction, the editors write, “the digital age has drastically transformed the method and style of political communication and mobilization” (2); then proposing,
“Yet the degree to which the new media environment fundamentally alters political outcomes and brings citizens closer to democratic ideals… is much less clear” (2).
They offer two overarching questions to frame the studies presented in the collection: First, how have new media forms changed the way people and politicians engage in politics? And second, have these new media forms promoted democratic ideals around the world? (2) The combined findings delivered by iPolitics offer no simple answer to these questions, but they do provide clues as to some of the ways new media is impacting and restructuring political life while also directing us towards a latticework of additional questions about what may be occurring.
The book is organized in three sections, titled “The Shifting Media Universe and News Consumers,” “Campaigns and Elections in the New Media Environment,” and “Civic Mobilization and Governance in the New Information Age.” The first two sections deliver a portrait of the expanded media environment of today (one where there are many more sources of information available to consumers, where news delivery is instantaneous and updated round-the-clock, and where there are a preponderance of niche markets and ideologically partisan news channels), as well as a study of the use of television and YouTube advertising by presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama and two studies of media use by political campaigns in Northern Europe.
The character of the work in these first two sections is illustrated by, for instance, Zoe M. Oxley’s study “More Sources, Better Informed Public? New Media and Political Knowledge.” Here, the author reiterates the overall theme of the collection, asking “has this explosion in the number and variety of outlets for political information resulted in a better informed public?” (26). Examining the knowledge that audiences glean from a range of news media sources, including non-traditional ones such as fake news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, she determines, “increased news media options have not resulted in increased political knowledge levels among the overall public” (32). In part, she proposes, this is because there has been an explosion in the range of entertainment media choices available to consumers too, thereby spreading audiences more thinly. Oxley concludes, although heavy news consumers can today access many more news information sources—and as a result tend to be better informed than they were in the past, among individuals who are not big news consumers the introduction of new media has not increased political knowledge (44).
There is no shortage of good scholarship in the first two sections of iPolitics, but it is not until its third and final section, titled “Civic Mobilization and Governance in the New Information Age,” that the collection really finds its stride. In this section, in “The Dog That Didn’t Bark: Obama, Netroot’s Progressives, and Health Care Reform,” Matthew R. Kerbel presents a fascinating study of the tensions between pro-Obama netroots progressives and the President’s traditional Washington-insider supporters during the push for healthcare reform. Kerbel argues, netroots progressives believed that far reaching healthcare reform could be won if power could be wrested from an insider “system built around big-money television politics—including entrenched officials backed by wealthy interest groups, Washington-based political consultants, and old-fashioned journalists” (236). However, the author explains, although Obama had embraced netroots progressives during his campaign for the presidency, once he was installed in the White House he turned instead to conventional power brokers for support, leading his administration to ignore the netroots on healthcare. Kerbel proposes, with the correct political will, netroots organizing can be harnessed by populist political campaigns as a means to circulate ideas, recruit support, and raise money, while offsetting the influence and interference of moneyed status-quo-minded Beltway-insiders.
In another well-targeted study from the third section titled “Twitter and Facebook: New Ways for Members of Congress to Send the Same Old Messages?” Jennifer L. Lawless delivers a simple but memorable examination of the digital communication behaviors of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives. For her research data, over an eight-week period Lawless monitored 7,043 Facebook updates and 7,668 Twitter messages issued by members of the House and Senate. From these she concluded that, in content, the digital messaging generated by today’s elected officials is little different from the messaging of their pre-digital predecessors. Linking her findings to a study-framework developed by David Mayhew for his 1970s research on political messaging by politicians, Lawless notes that, today “the representatives and senators who use Twitter and Facebook tend to engage in the classic incumbent activities of advertising, position-taking, and credit-claiming” (228). Thus, although social media could provide opportunities for greater interactivity between elected officials and the citizenry, thereby elevating political debate and deliberation, these tools are instead being used as “two new ways to send the same old messages” (209).
While Lawless’s findings about the content of politician’s digital messages is perhaps not surprising, her findings regarding who among the Congress is using new media technology is fascinating. She indicates that the average Republican Party representative sends nearly four times as many tweets than the average Democratic Party representative, as well as posts nearly three times as many Facebook updates (217). She contends, this may be because “Republicans distrust the mainstream media in far greater proportions than do Democrats” (216), and are therefore more committed than their colleagues from across the aisle, to finding ways to circumnavigate mainstream media gatekeepers when it comes to getting their message to the citizenry. Paradoxically, Lawless notes that despite egregious examples of overt sexism in media coverage of female candidates running during the 2008 election, women politicians are slightly less likely to use these communication tools than men, and are therefore not taking advantage “of these new media to sidestep the gendered media coverage they often receive” (217).
Also worth noting from the third section is Matthew A. Baum’s “Preaching to the Choir or Converting the Flock: Presidential Communication Strategies in the Age of Three Medias,” a study of the different messaging styles politicians will need to master if they are to communicate effectively with audiences through broadcast television news, Internet, and entertainment-driven soft news, program formats. Although Baum’s article is not intended as a “how-to” piece, for Jump Cut readers who are active in political work, his study contains useful insight as to how to go about developing an effective media communications strategy for a political campaign.
Together, the ten chapters featured in iPolitics present a useful look into some of the ways new media is intersecting with electoral politics and matters of governance. Readers who are already fairly well versed in this subject area may be disappointed by some of the book’s early chapters, insofar that they survey topics and themes that are already quite well known within the field. The collection is also a little unbalanced geographically: the three non-America based studies are not comprehensive enough in their scope for the editors to claim that the collection is global in its focus; therefore, with the rest of the collection targeting U.S. politics and media, some of the space used by these studies could have been better allocated for additional America-focused studies.
Aristotle argued that rhetoric impacts all other disciplines of learning and praxis, since oral communication is a requirement in all fields of human endeavor. Today, digital communication occupies a similar position and the influence of new media is being felt in every social and cultural arena, including political life. Although each employs a different epistemological approach, Tweets From Tahrir, The Net Delusion, and iPolitics each deliver insight as to how new media is influencing political conditions and our engagement with political processes. Whether or not we’re satisfied with the political realities new media is now playing some role in orchestrating is for us to decide.
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