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 GillespieKatharine A. M. Wright,  Nikos Gkotsis and Sam Cooke. You can join the debate via #SurreyPolitics.

The impact of social media in political participation and representation is a debate which has gained a vast amount of attention. More specifically, since the introduction of the internet and the increased usage of social media in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, it has become the focal point due to government controls and citizens use of it to circumvent government controlled media (see for example Anderson, 2003Ghareeb, 2000Hofheinz, 2005).

The majority of countries in the MENA region accepted the internet and its developments as a part of the globalization process early on, however, some waited until the late 1990s and early 21st century before adopting it completely. Some reasons behind adopting it later than other countries included a fear of a decentralisation of power and the apparent threat of Western domination which accompanied the internet through access to illicit topics such as drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, religion, and politics. As a result of this, the internet has become a sphere of political contestation and consensus over it is mixed, with Tunisia arresting people and putting extreme restrictions in place and Bahrain being seen to take a more liberal and slightly symbolic approach.

In 2004, cyber-activism was seen to properly emerge in Egypt and spread across the MENA region, subsequently being seen as the emergence of a cyber-civil society and a virtual replacement for government controlled media (Khondker, 2011). In 2005, countries such as Iraq, Libya and Egypt saw an increase in the arrest of bloggers, thus highlighting the significance of blogs and websites in working for increased political transparency. These arrests were made possible through the use of US SmartFilter, which enabled governments to monitor internet usage (Hofheinz, 2007).

Iran has also felt the threat of social media and the internet during the 2003 student protests and the 2009 elections. Social media sites such as Facebook were used to highlight discrepancies in the 2009 Iranian election campaigns with the main issue being unequal air time on television and radio for candidates rivalling Ahmadinejad. Social media was thus used as a forum through which other candidates were able to reach a wider audience.

In December 2010, the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid sparked the beginning of social uprisings in Tunisia, which had a subsequent domino effect across the MENA region. Three months prior to this, a similar instance occurred in Monastir, and it is argued that the reason the first case did not have the same effect is because it was not filmed (Khondker, 2011). This emphasises the significance of social media in the dissemination of information and images, thus gaining a wider audience (see Beaumont, 2011).

Whilst Tunisia was the first of the MENA countries to see the fall of their leader, the use of social media to raise awareness of perceived government brutality was a few months earlier in June 2010. The Facebook page ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ was created, and the online protest at government action spilled onto the streets of Egypt. What initially began as a series of ‘Silent Stands’ later erupted into the protests in Tahrir Square. Through the use of social media, Asmaa Mafouz created a vlog (video blog) asking people to join her in protest against government corruption on January 25th, making the demand for people to become vocally and physically involved rather than staying at home and participating in ‘cyber-protest’ (Barrons, 2012).

Social media was heavily used for the dissemination of information amongst various populations of countries across the MENA region seeking to oust their political leaders, and can thus be viewed as a form of political apparatus. The different roles attributed to various social media forums, for example Facebook was used for scheduling, Twitter for coordination, and YouTube to gain a wider audience, further highlights the individual strengths of various social media sites. The varying ways in which these sites were used further emphasises the crucial role of social media in the absence of an open media.

Despite the strategic use of social media throughout the various uprisings which fall under the umbrella term of ‘The Arab Spring’ (see Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011Lotan et al., 2011) and the means by which it was used in Iran (Knight, 2012); social media cannot be seen to have enhanced political participation. What it has achieved is a means by which people have become actively involved in the process of emphasising what they believe needs to happen in order for political progress and increased political participation to occur. Moreover, whilst it has also not necessarily enhanced their political representation, it has provided the peoples of the MENA region several platforms through which they are able to represent themselves. Therefore, social media can be seen to have had a huge political impact on the political awareness of citizens in countries where uprisings and political discontent have occurred. However, it is not as strong as it could have been in enhancing political participation and representation.