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Понеделник, 21 Март 2011 19:42

Social Networks and Politics 2.0

Orlin Spassov

The world of politics has rapidly changed in the recent years, becoming increasingly dependent on the new technologies. One of the key questions is to what extent the practices pertaining to the social internet could stimulate political and civic activities. In this context two driving forces have been clearly recognized: traditional political structures making their way into the Net, and activism taking place “from below”, encouraged by the revolution of the users. In the first case, the Net accommodates hierarchically organized institutions, whereas in the second, people take action by their free will and determine themselves the load and the nature of their involvement.

In both cases the potential of Internet was immediately recognized. In Bulgaria, the Net was used for disseminating political messages as early as the presidential elections in 1996. The political parties initially built primarily promotional and informational websites, not counting on interactive exchange with their constituencies. For the first time the potential of cyberspace was used more consciously in the 2001 parliamentary elections when all major political powers carried out their election campaigns in Internet. Party web banners appeared on the biggest web portals. A turning point in the campaign was linked to the fact that many of the traditional political ads, placed in the offline media, began referring to the party websites. Furthermore, in the course of the campaign the first opinion poll was conducted over the Net with the purpose of surveying the political preferences of the online populace. The user survey questionnaire was introduced for evaluating public trust in political figures, parties and institutions. For the first time there was the technical possibility for estimating the ratings of candidate MPs directly in Internet. Thus the principle of generating statistics quickly found its application in the political sphere too. Efficiency remained low, however, mainly because of the limited possibilities for two-way communication.

Internet quickly became an instrument for exerting informal pressure as well. For example, as early as 2000, protests were organized against the launching of news broadcasting in Turkish on the national TV channel through a specially designed website. In 2002 more than 50 000 school students supported an online appeal against the introduction of mandatory matriculation exams in the secondary education. In 2005 thousands signed a petition against the shutting down of reactors 3 and 4 of the Kozloduj Nuclear Power Station. Hundreds of petitions on all sorts of matters have flooded the Net in the recent years. On the whole, however, the informal uses of Internet for political pressure were only occasional for a long time, and genuinely independent interest groups were rarely established on the web. A number of successful environmental initiatives were the exception. Things have radically changed, however, with the advent of Web 2.0. The new principles of the social internet concern the very character of the political action on the Net, which by analogy is referred to by some authors as “Politics 2.0”. The change is rooted precisely in the emergence of websites emblematic for Web 2.0 and in the growing recognition for blogging. It has become possible to reach the users through much more highly profiled methods, and to get them actively involved in various campaigns. Political parties in Bulgaria already have an equally conspicuous presence in the new environment. Political leaders are more and more aware of the advantages of the adequate everyday participation in Internet beyond the already mainstream election campaigning on the Net. Parties and politicians sign up for Facebook in large numbers and anxiously look for wider circles of fans and friends. A wave of blogging politicians attacked Internet users in 2008, and particularly in the first half of 2009. Informal political activities immediately found room for expression in the social media as well. Politics is actively discussed by the users of platforms such as Vbox7 and YouTube, abounding with video clips on political themes. Web 2.0 sites have gradually taken the place of the old-fashioned petitions in the search for more active means for intervening in the political field. “Voting” for causes now is more and more often hosted on Web 2.0 sites. An environment particularly suited for informal civic action turned out to be Facebook.

In fact, it is perhaps Facebook that best illustrates both the potential and the limitations of politics as in Politics 2.0. Launched in 2004, the social network has grown like an avalanche thanks to the idea of bringing users together in groups of different nature (personal and public, formed on the basis of friendships, issues, causes, etc.). Creating circles of friends – the basic function of the site – was carried over as an ideology to civic activities in Facebook in general. Facebook, so to say, presupposes a feeling of bonding among the supporters of one cause or another, for it allows the group to perceive itself as connected to a network of contacts. It is easier to think of Facebook as membership-based: the platform implies the idea of analogy between what is happening in one’s circle of friends, and what is taking place in the community at large. Civic activity is thus encouraged for users easily identify as members of wider circles of “friends” grouped around a given cause.

This, however, is exactly the problem with the social internet. Drawing such simple analogies does not guarantee genuine civic engagement. The commitment most often ends with the click which subscribes you to certain idea, with the fleeting moment of empathy. Facebook is above all a platform for entertainment through socializing among friends. Between “having fun” and the politically engaged act there is practically no distance at all. In this sense, becoming a “member” of Facebook groups, subscribing to causes, etc., does not have the true potential of a serious engagement. The commitment is made while busy with other fun activities, and eventually turns out to be yet again more important in terms of adding to the purely quantitative dimensions of support (something already familiar from Web 1.0 and the traditional hand-signed petition) rather than expressing a new type of motivated and lasting position.

It would be naïve, of course, to claim that Facebook, and the social internet in general, are useless when it comes to political and civic initiatives. The problem lies elsewhere. Facebook is just an instrument. This instrument could be used with or without success. Success, however, depends above all on the constitution of the groups outside Facebook. If there is no solidarity in the really existing social formations, Facebook is not capable of generating it. The website works better when it comes to micro-politics or issues on which a broad preliminary consensus is reached. Thus, for instance, the “nation-wide protests” in front of the parliament in early 2009, organized through Facebook and other websites, had no success just because they did not get enough solidarity outside the Net. As few as 3 500 votes in support of the protests were collected in Facebook, whereas other causes, having to do with micro-politics or some largely consensual issues, attract a lot more supporters (the group in support of in vitro procedures in Bulgaria had recruited 11 000 members by the time, and the group “No to the war on the road” – 18 000 members).

It is obvious that “membership” in Facebook is not a symbol of social belonging in itself. Facebook could be used rather as a supplementary tool for the promotion of a given cause. For the time being, without access to the real groups outside the Net, the virtual micro-politics remain limited in their effect. The question whether it works out well, and whether it improves our options in the long run, stays open.

Regardless of the many uncertainties, the formal political structures have quickly colonized the social internet: just as the traditional media have converged with the new media. The changes in the political public sphere in the new setting, however, are purely cosmetic. The risk is that these activities remain a “show-off” only. The question is whether the activities of the political parties in Internet are anything more than a promotional campaign for securing votes from the cyber-culture constituencies. For now, the presence of the political parties in Internet often comes down to political marketing, whereas the new, social dimensions of the Net are called upon to legitimate well-known interests. In fact, neither the public sphere nor the alternative one is improved in these cases, rather the chances of the politically engaged institutions for becoming more attractive to the subcultures inhabiting the Net. In other words, the advance in the communication form is often presented as a change in the content. Clearly, a direct correlation of the kind is not always the case. The same goes about informal activism on the Net, oftentimes lacking fresh, new ideas and resorting to the freshness and novelty of the social internet to cover up or even disprove this fact. Activity (much too often unproductive, due to the growth in online communications) rarely develops into politically aware activism.

The ambiguous possibilities for implementing Politics 2.0 in Bulgaria, however, are above all attributable to the interdependency of the social media, the social networks and the general media environment. The claim on “sociality” is no longer limited exclusively to the Net today. The same principles have been largely adopted by the traditional media as well. Thus defining them as “traditional” is gradually exhausting its descriptive and analytical power. In the context of the new media constellation, the television, the radio, the press, and the new media operate to a large extent as interconnected vessels, and therefore require that they be discussed as an integral phenomenon. In order to comprehend what is happening offline, more and more often we need to look into the online situation, and vice versa. The distinction between these two spheres is only artificially upheld today, endorsing the illusion of clear-cut autonomy. Besides, the social media do not replace the “old” media, the latter remaining still powerful, even if influenced by the former in terms of the way they operate (both on the Net and off).

Here is why the problems related to Politics 2.0 concern the highly distorted, and for that reason unsuccessful media model in Bulgaria, of which the social internet is a component nowadays. The social internet cannot be discussed out of this larger context. It allows for the development of an alternative public sphere accessible to practically anyone but access itself does not offer a solution to the major issue: the quality of the public sphere. The lack of a strategy for promoting high-quality critical traditional media in the years of transition has significantly affected both the political elites and the civil society. A serious public debate could not take place; it simply was not nurtured. Now, with the upsurge we are witnessing in the social internet, we couldn’t expect that debate would come about miraculously. Web 2.0 does not have universal effect, as much as we wish it had. Technology is universal but it may be used in different ways and with different outcomes. Web 2.0 belongs to the history of media and could not be examined ahistorically as a fully emancipated phenomenon. It is occurring not only globally, but also locally – on the level of the local practices exerting a huge impact on the outcome.

Furthermore, we should not underestimate the fact that the social internet (just as much as the “traditional” internet, by the way) is rather enthusiastically used also by radical political formations. National socialist and xenophobic parties such as “Ataka” and BNS have started up Facebook groups. The leaders of many extremist organizations have set up Facebook profiles. On the other hand, the fact that “Ataka” and DPS are both on Facebook hardly suggests that the two groups would suddenly start cooperating with each other. In some cases the social internet even contributes to the growing antagonism, at times – also to the widening social gap between the participants. In other words, Facebook itself gives no guarantees and makes no promises of giving democracy a push; it does not distinguish between the “good” and the “bad” guys. After all, it is many of the old known battles that are fought on the fields of the social internet. Paradoxically somewhat, when the informal activities from below have grown massively, they are most likely to join the spheres of influence of one party or another, already on the Net. The latter happen to be in Internet for that very reason. Making Politics 2.0 relies on mixing official and unofficial information through the channels of the social internet, but would be impossible indeed without the “original” political context, and without the “original” media context, the reason being that, left to themselves, opinions in Internet remain amorphous, unconsolidated. It is the media and the politics that do the job of consolidating and transforming them into a public opinion.

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