Digital Politics

New media technologies and techno optimistic views, the ecology mix and mediated politics has made it difficult to disseminate facts from fiction. The impact of social media on cultural practises.

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(Post submitted in 2015 to Birkbeck College University of London)

In the last decade, social media has transformed the enigmatical process of communication with profound implications on political activism. Twitter and Facebook are social networking sites. By, allowing messages posted on these sites reach out to “global audiences.” For example, on Facebook an event created by a group instantly. The ultimate aim is getting as many people into the group as quickly as possible. Including total strangers as, witnessed in the protests of London riots to the riots in the Arab spring revolution. Alternatively, flash mobs allow people to turn up for these events ranging from professional protestors as well as people who just want to be part of the event. However, all those who attend are not violent some are talented people. Therefore, messages posted on these sites reach out to potentially “global audiences” instantaneously. For Castells, this “scope of the process” of “mass communication of the self” is described as “communication power.” This philosophy of networked interactive media is possible on the internet. There are different forms of communication such as interpersonal, mass communication, mass self-communication and societal communications are “complementing” each other on the internet rather than “substituting”.(Castells 2009,p.55).In societal communications traditionally, the message goes from one to many such as newspapers, broadcasting and narrowcasting. However, the limitations of mass communication are that they can be selective and alienate audiences or imagined audiences. (Castells, 2009, pp.64-65) However, for Castells networked communications of mass self- communication is more amiable than societal communications because a social network is open to all and it is immediate and dynamic. In addition, ordinary people are given the power (soft power) to produce and distribute their own content (Castells, 2009, p.70).

Communication Channels

The heterogeneity of communication flows “linking alternative and mainstream media” is complex with blogosphere, Indymedia, Twitter and Facebook are getting the vying attention for the dissenting voices. On one hand the symbolic power structures of information regulated by “top-down communication” and do so by insinuating a horizontal system of communication. Whereas, mass media that contains a socially activated potential which disorganises the flow of information regulated by “top-down-communication.” Therefore, the new media technologies and the new communicative components on the internet have added a new media “ecology mix” which highlight the possibilities of a new configuration of “politics and mediatized protest.” (Cottle, 2006, p.50-53). All these complexities make it difficult to disseminate between fact and fiction. Traditional news values separate fiction from reality. However the problem for Sandoval and Fuchs (in Fenton, & Barassi, 2011, pp. 180-181) was the blurring of lines between social media and mainstream media. News relies on accountability accuracy and balance. However now, in the current scheme of things, this has become harder and (electronic media) has had to put filters in place. The other question is how fact disseminates to fiction online where bloggers and activists can give their views as opinions. Thus, opinion can masquerade as fact on-line and worse still, propaganda can masquerade as fact on-line.

The balance of power was switched from the news producers to the masses as exemplified in the uprising, in Egypt. However, the new form of communication tends to exaggerate events by drawing attention to the protest, and this can lead to chaos. There is ample of evidence that there has been “hybridity “in the news flow process. (Papacharissi, 2012, pp.277-279) In this sense, the mundane incompatibilities of Twitter as a news platform and conventional journalism have been emphasised. (Papacharissi, 2012, p.267). Papacharissi shows the “interplay between social networking sites Twitter, Journalism and political engagements.” If, senses are diverted to the Egyptian uprising in 2011 where there was an influx of repetitive instantaneous tweets. In the West, the tweets were Ok’d and retweeted subjectively and spontaneously without intellectual input. They got mistaken as news and furthermore those informed citizens who expressed their views and opinion as facts and tweeted were not comparable with “western paradigms of journalism” as they combined opinion and emotion. The “Popular tweets” treated as “affective news stream” were purely subjective. (Papacharissi 2012, p.277-279). The ease with which the Web 2.0 technologies, has empowered customers to embed own content with the help of smart mobile phones is a case in point. Protest movements – know who their potential audiences are and the readers of the tweet have different participation statuses relative to the tweet. Social communications on Twitter also involve participatory framework, and another factor is the ability of Twitter to “re-embed tweets into the situational space of another” Twitter user (through retweets) generates wholly new audiences. (Murthy,2011,p.1067).

Social Media

On the other hand, when people’s voices have been silenced by the political establishments -the masses have now found alternative methods of challenging the establishment and the government by using the new technologies of social media. Citizens want to make informed decisions as they require choices of frames and counter frames to analyse. For Journalists, the balance of power is one directional and although the reporters own opinion may be conventional as it is overridden by professionals who all share the “core hegemonic assumptions of the class.” The decision making process remained biased (Castells 2009, p.160). Fang (In Cottle, 2006, p.43) demonstrated how governments across the world control how newspapers report protests and demonstrations vary differently. Also, the different frame devices used are trivialization, polarization, marginalization, disparagement by numbers, and emphasis on internal dissension. (Bob Gitlin , in Cottle 2006, p.37). Furthermore, David Waddington’s model (In Cottle, 2006, p.40) shows that media coverage of the disorder has consistently found similar patterns that contributed to public disorder. Factors like, exaggerating the violence, decontextualization and depoliticizing violence.

Media Networks

The viral success of these technologies and platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, my space may be emerging as critical connecting points between media networks, autonomous mass communication and political players (Castells,2009, pp. 96-97). No society is opened to direct observation, but the potential of these platforms to present oneself through impenetrable networks and to conjure up a crowd from nowhere can provide the audiences with networks of power. However, when the Egypt revolution witnessed a momentum on Twitter and sympathy from the public was pouring in. The government was concerned about the protest movement activism on social media networks and “blocked” Twitter and Facebook on January 26, 2011 five days later Cairo’s Aljazeera shut down (Murthy, 2013, p.97). For Hassanpour, ( 2011:2 In Murthy,2013, p.96) and this sparked the revolution more and acted as a “catalyst to the revolutionary” unrest process. By “blocking Twitter” and Facebook and “disrupting the tweets,” the Egyptian government increased the users on Twitter. Thus, the “politics of refusal” has moved into the social domain and united a whole range of left-wing activists all over the world.(Negri A, Merrington T, Allum J & Persy, voice recording). In London, these networks of power unleashed the capital’s global reach where protest movements such as Occupy London and United Egyptians in London were able to collaborate and solidify the movements among different cultures with dissenting voices of intellectual diversity. Twitter users experienced enhanced connectivity experience by helping the activists to share geo location and strengthen ties. The new platform of communication has also allowed the people to air their views against the oppression and bring “public figures to accountability.” For example, the Jubilee debt campaign was putting pressure on the government in UK to seize Mubarak’s assets in Mayfair and give back to Egypt where there was unemployment (McNair,2003, p.550-551). Rather than blaming networked media and shutting it down. A “civil discourse” between public figures on governance and extremists is essential for a democratic society. (Murthy, 2013, pp.96-97).

Imaging distant suffering

Nonetheless, we live in a democratic society people want to express their “emotions” and give vent to their feelings (Castells,2009, p.191).Social media allows uploading of images and videos and the Images can act as sensational tools to highlight a protest. Images can show emotions of anger and fear and those images can have an effect on the astuteness of people’s minds and leave an impression. An example by DeLuca and Peeples in their article in 2002(In Cottle, 2006, p 48) explained that WTO Seattle protest in 1999 made tactical use of images to highlight the violence. The symbolic movement was mediatized, and it established that alternative to public spheres; public screens were a better place for communication. In the same vein, this was further reinforced “Image bites were replacing sound bites” (Castells,2009, p. 233) as campaign tools. De Luca and Peeples (In Cottle, 2006, p.47) coined the word public screens as a viable alternative to public spheres. As a result of this both placed emphasis on putting politics on the screen in the form of “image event” as it did not undermine the protest movement. They also argue that mediatized public spheres and “mediatized spectacle in alternative venues” such as public screens allow the participation of politics to flourish. In this sense, social media activism facilitated neoliberal globalization and also internationalized the participation through these networks.

Internationalising protests

Protest movements can be local, national or international. Influences vary from country to country. In Egypt, for example, twitter acted as a medium for “Internationalising” what would have been a national revolution as it had a global audience. At the same time, Twitter came into prominence as the site enabled political implications and mass collaboration for democratic engagements. “Citizen Journalists” in the Middle East provided the public with “real- time interactive experience” as they neatly untangled the “hermetic separation” in their own countries (Murthy, 2013, p.112). Political campaigns also require a tight hierarchical control and the loose networks on twitter cannot provide the structured, organised leadership although twitter “enabled mass movements” and acted as a medium of information. Twitter was not the “cause” of the revolution. The cause of the revolution was because of the brutality of the army, unemployment and poverty. (Murthy, 2013, p.98).

Creative autonomy verses collective ideology

However, collective ideology and individuality of the self are opposite dimensions because there is a disconnection of the two in mass self-communication. Social media promotes the “creative autonomy” of the individual. However, traditionally, collectivism involved a real investment of energy, effort and time but sceptics argue social media is too easy and undermining collective action as it is effortless because people are not giving up their sense of individuality. In addition, they also argue that it is fragmenting the process of protest movements and stop’s the formation of political movements. (Cottle,2006, p.47). On the surface for Steigler and Castells there is a direct link between communication autonomy and “social and political autonomy” and they agree that the mass communication can bring about social change. (Castells, 2009, p.414). However, Steigler argues that the social media is a space for individuation and digital singularity (Fenton, & Barassi, 2007, pp. 182-183). Thus, the ambiguity as Hadl (In Fenton, & Barassi, 2011,.pp.180-181) explained due to collective groups at grass root level composing collective messages but the communication on social network practise inculcates autonomy of the self. Therefore, the internal politics of collective groups can be affected by the social media platforms on the internet that use Web 2.0 technologies. In addition to that the ‘ I’ concept of self-portrays narcissism culture on social media has a predictable pattern of showing individuality that allows for Rosen to describe Facebook as a “dull sea of monotony.” (Rosen,2007,p.24)

Dramaturgy‘ and changing news frames

Many cases have been highlighted by the media on the dramaturgical aspects of protests and leave to question how theatrical they have become. Doug McAdam explained on dramaturgy that protest movements’ frames can receive a positive or negative media attention. Dramaturgical framing can show particular protest movements as more powerful and prominent in the contemporary global order if they are in the interest of public good. (Cottle, 2006, p.43)King and SCLC were able to frame the events in Birmingham it was a “dramatic confrontation” between the good and evil system. (Cottle,2006,p.44). Added to these new geopolitical interests, the crucial and imperative use of dramaturgy as well as the increasing use of the “repertoires of protest” all point to altering “fields of mediatized contention.” (Cottle, 2006, p.52). Networking sites use images, photoshop, video’s, mobile phones, camcorders also event framing locations these can carry the inherent risk of reducing the demonstration to a public spectacle and can stray the public opinion by emptying out its political message (Cottle,2006:p 48)

For example, the musical group of the infamous gig organised by Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral who were speaking about the lack of freedom of speech in Moscow is an example of how meaningful political messages can lose their potency. In the beginning, the band got much political attention. To the extent that people began to embrace the idea of boycotting the winter Olympics in Sochi. Unfortunately, the performers made a theatrical spectacle through the very location of their performance. The initial underlying message got diminished because the protesters (Pussy Riot) decided to integrate their message freedom of speech with theatrical performance in Moscow Cathedral. In the case of Pussy Riot, they framed themselves and deliberately got themselves into trouble. The dramaturgical aspect of news depends on frames that chosen by professional journalist who supposedly acts for the public good. The aesthetic of journalists also lies in recognising ideological screens operating within their field. News frames can be repackaged to make it look news worthy. This is called the phenomenological approach which can incorporate the human angle. The other type is the Event-centred news approach which “reflects, or mirror’s the actual nature of the world.” (Gitlin, 1980, p.250). It is an editorial decision whether a certain scene can make newsworthy event. It is then dependent on the capability of that reporter to decide the scene as laudable or not. It is the final decision of the editor how that story will appear or how it will be treated. (Gitlin, 1980, p.258).For Habermas they (Pussy Riot) should take their case to traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television. For this camp the “public sphere” is the national media and parliament. (Cottle, 2006, p47)

The enlightened and post enlightened groups have opposing views on public spheres. The stand for taking the message into the public sphere the enlightened camp call it as “public knowledge.” Their argument is to lobby to the local MP to take up the question in the House of Commons. Whereas, the latter argue for expressive relativism that is much more relative to people’s perception on an everyday level that affects them. In recent times, mass protestors have used “dramatic images” and “spectacular forms of action” helped by network media technologies. For Cottle the “mobile phones, video-cams” and social media facilitated the political aims of the dissenting voices. The other development in a networked media was the symbolic use of “costumes and stunts” to draw attention to the protest movements. (Cottle,2006,p.49).For Cottle, the fluid –non –hierarchal structure of the internet overcame the obstacles of time and space making the protest- transnational in such open public spheres. (Cottle,2006, p.50) However for the enlightened premises by doing this, the other threat is reducing a political campaign to a slogan- to a spectacle and emptying it off any real serious significance. As aforementioned the point of contention for Habermas’s argument.

Clown party protests

Another example of a recent protest movement in Nottingham is the anti-budget cut rally against the treasury where the protestors were coming to the rally dressed up as Robin Hood. To the older camp dressed up as Robin Hood for a rally – as mocking the whole deliberative process. If the movement has political objectives then to what extent should one try to play the media so that the political objectives highlighted, and the protest taken seriously? Dependant on subjective and cognitive factors or political nature of the process. Delucca and Peeples agree that Public screens are a better place for politics. (In Cottle 2006, p.48). Activists are encouraged to come for a peaceful protest with their families dressed as Robin Hood or one of the merry men. For Quant trust in social networks has replaced face-to-face communications and for Castells (2000, In Quadnt 2012, p.13) as societal development has moved into “networked society” the collective trust is bigger. Therefore even if one person had put the wrong information yet people would turn up anyway because of “network trust” (Quadnt, 2012, p.14).
In conclusion, networked media has helped overcome fear and challenge the powers despite dangers. The effectiveness of the ‘new power’ includes organisations by way of moral intervention to produce a prefiguration of world order. They have acted as forums for the freedom of speech and opportunities of political activism and networking to support the organised plan and execute peaceful protests. There are all types of media some tell lies and leave out critical information. It is, therefore, dangerous to generalize. Ideological underpinning of media must be understood. Direct communication avoids suppression and exclusion. Sometimes it is not wilful suppression but exclusion.


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