Facebook. “I like ‘Save Darfur’”.
Whether at home or on the go, people seem to connect to someone or something all over the world. They are tweeting towards liberation. From the American point of view this expressing and mobilizing of opinion seems to embody democracy, or at least the way towards it, through encouraging everyone’s input into politics. Looking at ‘the Egypt’ of the past weeks it appears obvious: new media facilitates revolution and opens the world to everyone. This is when Clay Shirky’s recent article The Political Power of Social Media: Communications Technology Will Help Promote Freedom – But It Might Take a While published in Foreign Affairs cautions against overestimating the effect of new media.
Although only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of new media on civic engagement, this phenomenon doubtlessly offers much room for analysis. Shirky highlights two main considerations: first, a strong public sphere has to exist before social media can become a mobilizing tool. Second, the true value of social media does not lie in the transmission of news, but in communication among people directly and contact with popular media, since it compiles the common culture that most can identify with on a daily basis. These two latter entities are important facilitators for forming opinions and thus building the basis for change. For instance, the cute-cat-theory suggests that a government cannot easily censor not yet politicized culture without running into the conservative dilemma of having to be accountable towards its policies and people as well as other countries. Popular culture increasingly serves as a channel for activism. Any government that constraints seemingly apolitical culture would raise tremendous amounts of international resentment and criticism, perhaps more so than it would with political restrictions as it would interfere with the direct daily life of the people.
Even though Shirky believes this mechanism of communication and popular culture does require a government that is already kept in check and balance by a strong public sphere, I would not argue that different situations of discontent can potentially lend themselves to the initial creation or strengthening of a public sphere even in most restricted societies. It has to be provided however that the country has not suppressed communication among its people completely as authoritarian regimes become more aware of social media and respond to the power of it. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that interactions among constituents worldwide remain free, and then to let the respective countries tweet themselves into some form of democracy through their very own, established public sphere.