Does social media enhance political participation and representation?

This post summarises the arguments presented at a roundtable of the same title convened by the School of Politics on the 24th February 2014. On the panel were, Ciaran Gillespie, Katharine A. M. Wright,  Nikos Gkotsis and Sam Cooke. You can join the debate via #SurreyPolitics.


The role of social media is a controversial issue that can be argued equally both ways. Although it may have started as a platform for voicing the concerns of citizens prominently, it has been introduced into the practices of government (whether that be through state institutions or members of parliament). It is therefore interesting to compare the way each of those two actors utilise Information Communication Technology (ICT), and more specifically social media, to advance their goals.

I will be approaching the aforementioned subject in three parts: a) I will briefly mention the normative theory categorisation of ICT and social media b) I will then outline two ways in which states use ICT in ‘e-government’ (with reference to their strengths and weaknesses): transparency and anti-corruption and c) I will conclude by presenting the examples of Greece and Turkey and the role played by social media in the protest of 2009 and 2013 respectively.

ICT and social media fall into the category of “cultural diffusion” (or “cultural filter”) as it appears in normative theory. This form of diffusion is founded on the interaction between the construction of knowledge and the creation of social and political identity by the subjects of norm diffusion (Kinnvall; 1995: 67-71). It involves mechanisms of identity and the construction of knowledge, including persuasive engagement, venues for dialogue and argument, and the transference and status of ideas. It employs deontological ethics. This approach underlines the rationalization of duties and rules which guide actions. The role of public debate and reasoning in creating the rights and duties which are considered important within a group is central. Emphasis is set on the means through which actions are motivated and practiced in attempting to make sense of the shared idea of the common good (Manners, 2008).

Four primary channels are identified in the way government transparency usually manifests itself (Piotrowski, 2007): a) proactive dissemination by the government; b) release of requested materials by the government; c) public meetings; d) leaks from whistleblowers. Although widespread in  their preference, issues like transparency have been negatively affected by misapprehensions about cultural norms, lack of education about transparency activities and failure to create equal access to information (Brown and Cloke, 2005; Kolstad and Wiig, 2009). Factors that may influence and create a permanent culture of transparency include: ICT access, trust, empowerment (increase of engagement) and social capital (society that can promote social good and benefit from increased access).

Anti-corruption methods preferred by the states include social change: this is based on the idea of reform through social empowerment of citizens by allowing them to participate in institutional reform movements and by cultivating a civil, law-based society as a long term deterrent to corruption (Johnson, 1998). It has been argued that by changing cultural attitudes which have been accepting of corruption, citizens can ultimately protect themselves of corruption (Fukuyama, 2001; Johnston, 1998).

On this subject social media has four major potential strengths: collaboration, participation, empowerment and time. It facilitates users to connect with one another and form communities to socialize, share information, or to achieve a common goal or interest. Their importance lies in their ability to provide a platform to speak, publish or broadcast information. The variables-hindrances that appear can be narrowed down to the following: technology literacy, usability, accessibility, functionality (Bertot, 2003; Barzilai-Nahon, 2006).

Even though ICT can be used by the government to foster and uphold a feeling of trust in the state and its actions, the over-zealous interaction of some members of state via certain social media creates the opposite result. Such is the case with Greece. Journalists on many occasions focus on the tweets officials post concerning in-party or intra-party rivalries, predominantly on a personal level. Usually this overshadows the reporting of significant political news. The role played by social media in the case of the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in 2009 was significant. The most important piece of evidence was a video taken on a mobile that captured the act. The video was leaked onto the Internet and social media. Various online groups quickly caught up on the event; their posts ranged from organising protests to promoting violence and vandalism. The result was the almost complete destruction of cities across the country, including the centre of Athens. The potency of social media and the effect they can have on people’s behaviour became even more obvious when protesters attempted to enter the Greek Embassy in London.

Another interesting example is that of Turkey in 2013. The events in Gezi Park were covered via online and social media as they were taking place, while CNN Turk was broadcasting a documentary on penguins in an unsuccessful effort to restrict public participation and prevent the further spreading of protests. In this situation protests as well as solidarity with the protesters was organised, supported, shared and strengthened solely through social media .

ICT and especially social media are obviously an influential platform for the dissemination of political initiative.  Nevertheless, anonymity and impersonality can enable the atrophy of a sense of responsibility and consequent lack of reflexivity concerning the repercussions of one’s statements. What must be made clear is that social media is a tool, but ultimately its effect depends on the manner in which it is used.