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Where did you last encounter a piece of political information? Chances are, you clicked on a link a friend sent you on a messaging app, read the preview to a piece on the Facebook wall of a colleague, or followed a retweet posted by an acquaintance on Twitter. Depending on your predilections for the ways of the ancients, you might also have picked up a printed newspaper or watched the news on a television set.
Two episodes from 2011 and 2016 bookend public expectations regarding the role of digital media in politics. In the wake of the protests and demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East that we discussed in Chapter 5, the dominant public narrative portrayed social media as the keystone that enabled the opposition to coordinate a challenge to otherwise seemingly unwavering autocracies. Only social media offered disgruntled citizens the possibility of taking their discontent to the streets. Decentralized networks on top of real-time communication systems enabled activists to level the playing field against authoritarian regimes that previously had taken full advantage of their control over the official media and showed an unfettered capacity to repress any sign of dissent. It does not matter whether we see digital media as a causal factor; no account of the events in Egypt would be complete without a reference to the #jan25 hashtag on Twitter or the “We are all Khaled Said” site on Facebook (see Chapter 5).
It is June 2015 and the famous American reality-TV personality Donald Trump announces his bid for the Republican nomination to the 2016 race for the US presidency. Journalists, Republican donors, and prospective voters now have to decide if they should take his bid seriously. The history of American presidential campaigns is littered with celebrities and third-party candidates who tried to capitalize on their fame or success by entering politics. While some like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Michael Bloomberg proved to be successful, most celebrity candidacies turned out to be mere blips in the history of American politics. How should observers decide on whether Donald Trump’s bid fell into the first or the second category? The Trump campaign portrayed their candidate as being in touch with the long-forgotten people lacking a voice in US politics (Green 2017), a group that the campaign of the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton helpfully labeled “deplorables” (Chozick 2016). To assess the validity of Trump’s claims, journalists decided to take to social media as a source of how well his message resonated with the public.
Imagine for a moment that you are a member of a local group of activists. Your group found out that the recently proposed zoning regulation threatens to cut off vital channels of airflow into your city with unforeseen consequences. At the next meeting of the city council, you want to demonstrate the strength your concerns have with the general public. But how do you get the word out?
Organizations are a fixture in democratic politics. Parties, business groups, advocacy groups, unions, and lobbies represent groups of people who share a common interest and who join forces to exert influence in the political process (Abrahamsson 1993). Pluralists see organizations as a natural component of liberal politics and they welcome them in a political arena that they perceive should provide opportunities for decentralized and balanced competition among organized interests (Dahl 1956). Others are less positive in their assessment and are concerned with the fact that inequality lies at the very heart of organizations. First of all, they tend to represent those who already have a disproportionate presence in politics to begin with. Second, organizations, more often than not, engender internal differentials of power between the leaders and the rank-and-file members (Michels 1915). These two layers of external and internal inequality thus shift representation from ordinary citizens to political elites, thus inspiring distrust in organizations as vehicles for political participation on both the political left and right (Abrahamsson 1993).
Ever since the protest cycle of 2010 and 2011, which included events such as the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, Occupy Wall Street in the United States, and anti-austerity movements in Spain and Greece, the question of whether digital media are transformative tools that facilitate collective action has been a major theme in the public imagination (Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016). Although the potential of computer-mediated communication for social and political activism has been one of the central topics in the digital politics literature almost from the very beginning (see Margolis and Resnick 2000), with early milestones in the Zapatista movement in 1994 or the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999 (Kahn and Kellner 2004; Van Laer and Van Aelst 2010), it was in the 2010s, after the popularization of social media, that the public started to think of the internet as another tool in the political repertoire of social movements and not as just a novelty item.
Reaching people is not enough. Communicators want to influence them as well. So, the question becomes what effects digital media have on those exposed to them. Do digital media change the game by rendering people helpless under their spell? Or do they introduce new groups of people to politics who previously abstained? Any new step in the development of media technology raises the same question: Is it business as usual or do we experience a whole new set of effects? In examining the effects of digital media on users, we should at least be conscious of communication research’s findings of previous eras.
We have started with two questions in mind: What are the ways in which digital media have influenced and changed politics? And how can we best go about identifying them? In other words, what are digital media doing to politics and how do we know?
Digital media and technology have created vast new datasets documenting behavior and traits of people. New analytical tools and increasing computational resources facilitate data access and analysis at low cost and with limited effort. The combination of the two has resulted in an increase in the use of data in various areas of politics and administration, building on the logic of state and organizational power, which requires, above all, making things countable. As with earlier cultural and technological developments – such as writing, the printing press, and archives (Goody 1977; Beniger 1989; Scott 1998) – digital media and technology have been used by governments to increase their ability to make more elements social life countable and, by implication, actionable. This trend follows consistent hopes in management, administration, and science that an increase in the available measurement of social life can enable managers, politicians, and scientists to identify underlying mechanisms and to intervene in order to achieve more efficient or normatively desired processes or outcomes (Porter 1996; Fourcade and Healy 2017; Mau 2019). After all, the goals of quantification have never been merely descriptive but are “part of a strategy of intervention” (Porter 1996, 42). The current hopes and fears for a societal transfiguration through digital data arise in this context.
Donald Trump, the Arab Spring, Brexit: digital media have provided political actors and citizens with new tools to engage in politics. These tools are now routinely used by activists, candidates, non-governmental organizations, and parties to inform, mobilize, and persuade people. But what are the effects of this retooling of politics? Do digital media empower the powerless or are they breaking democracy? Have these new tools and practices fundamentally changed politics or is their impact just a matter of degree? This clear-eyed guide steps back from hyperbolic hopes and fears to offer a balanced account of what aspects of politics are being shaped by digital media and what remains unchanged. The authors discuss data-driven politics, the flow and reach of political information, the effects of communication interventions through digital tools, their use by citizens in coordinating political action, and what their impact is on political organizations and on democracy at large.