The demand for democratic change has been amplified using social media tools, but Josephine De Costa maintains that true political change is still brought about by strong networks pressuring hierarchical party structures.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about ‘Facebook revolutions’ and people claiming the Internet and Twitter are changing the way politics works. With the Internet being used to organise and to dissect the Bersih 2.0 rally in support of electoral reform in Kuala Lumpur, it’s worth asking how true these claims are about social networking sites and their ability to contribute to political change.
The Internet, as we know, has revolutionised communication. It has allowed for unprecedented speed in communicating news and information regardless of geographical barriers or price. However, one of its most significant effects on communication is to allow greater participation in the news process. Through blogs and independent websites, individuals can publish information and opinions as they want. And all of these attributes mean that the Internet can be a considered a tool that transforms the way activists (both social and political) communicate and organise themselves.
But what I will suggest in this article is that, while the Internet and social media have fundamentally changed social activism, its effect on political activism – and politics generally – is much more muted.
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For this article, social change involves concerns relating to ‘society’ and ‘culture’. These will include attitudes, such as towards the environment, and consumer demands. Political change involves a change in the political party or political structure of a state. So while an example of social change could be a clothing shop shifting to Fair Trade fabrics, an example of political change would be the recent Tunisian revolution where the government changed hands.
Although both these social and political spheres are intimately related, the way change is or can be brought about in the political sphere, I think, is different from the way it is brought about in the social sphere – and the internet’s effects in the two are different.
The internet and social activism
In addition to being a communication tool, the internet also allows social activists to form global networks of an entirely different structure to traditional activist institutions. These groups have loose, networking structures where the members may be linked by only weak ideological ties.
This allows movements to reach greater audiences and allows members to link with each other regardless of geography, and not requiring them to fundamentally change their lifestyle or place of residence. Essentially, the internet means that modern social movements do not have to challenge their members’ individual identities and goals as much as pre-internet movements, because membership and activism is often as easy as a click of a button.
This allows members to possess different ideological goals and inspirations, and individual groups can work together on common goals while still maintaining differing objectives and identities. This aspect can give a movement a powerful advantage over traditional activism as it enables groups to attract many more participants – with more ideas, experiences and expertise – meaning they can campaign against their opposition in more ways.
Modern corporations are particularly vulnerable to this kind of contemporary social activism, which can target their logos and branding with ease and distribute negative publicity across the globe. As corporations function in a competitive society where there are other companies selling the same products – as opposed to dictatorships – they are more likely to bend to pressure in the place of losing their consumer base.
Social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter allow quick transmission of information and allow individuals to make their opinions heard extremely easily. It is this that means social media have been proclaimed as being instrumental in political events in Iran, Moldova and more recently of course in Tunisia and Egypt – an idea that has proved irresistible to the Western media for various reasons (which are a matter for a different article).
The name “Twitter Revolution”, however, has arguably exaggerated social media’s actual effect on the ground. For example, one commentator, Evegny Morozov, has argued that Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution” was as much influenced by other forms of communication – such as the telephone – and that there actually weren’t that many Twitter users in Moldova at the time.
Despite this, it is important to note that the Internet does indeed allow for greater participation in political processes. Citizens are constantly accessing political information, being exposed to campaigns both by political parties and lobbyists, and have the ability to make their opinions heard by their politicians with relative ease.
Politics, however, is still fundamentally hierarchical in nature, and political parties remain at the top of that structure.
The key point here is that social activism generally focuses on corporations and civil society institutions. Even though corporate power and monopolies are rampant, social activists have an advantage in that there usually are alternatives to a particular company. A change in consumer opinion and careful targeting of the logo and branding of a company can place a huge amount of pressure to change, as they run the risk of losing their customers to another similar business.
By contrast, political activists focus their efforts on governments where there is often no real alternative. Governments – particularly in non-democratic countries – have much greater authority in their states. They are therefore both harder to pressure than normal corporations, and remain at the top of the political structure.
Because of the very high barriers to bringing about political change, it can be seen that true political change requires strong inter-personal ties. Such ties will mean that members are more committed and more likely to partake in effective action – despite the risks involved. These ties, as have been suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in his oft-cited article “Small change”, published in the The New Yorker this year, are not the ones that the Internet and social media encourage – fundamental political change requires much more of people than to click a button or send an email.
Therefore, while the Internet and social media have allowed for greater communication, expression, and participation in the political arena, they haven’t changed how politics works. Rather, they work as tools that speed up the process where there is already a critical mass of frustration with a government or political structure.
While the internet has been effective in pressuring companies into changing some of their practices, true political change is still brought about by strong-tie networks pressuring hierarchical party structures. Political activists can lobby political parties, and they can do so extremely effectively in coordination with the internet, but the internet has not fundamentally changed political activism beyond acting as a communication tool.
Josephine De Costa is a Malaysian student currently on exchange from Australia at Monash University’s campus in Malaysia.