Social Media, The New Public Sphere?

Mabelle Abbas
Mar 14, 2018 · 6 min read

Politics. Politics is an eight letter word, and those eight letters have turned the world upside down. From ruining countries to creating new ones, this term has had so many definitions that it is impossible to please everyone with a simple explanation. It is a head turner. The Merriam-Webster dictionary even has five different definitions for it. What if we were to add to the chaos of politics by introducing social media to it? Let’s take a few steps back in time and think for a moment. Would the downfall of the French monarchy have happened sooner if the people had Instagram accounts? What if Joanne of Arc had a Twitter account? Or even would the world have reacted differently if the genocide of native Americans was spread on Facebook? This brings us to the last question: Nowadays, is social media the new public sphere?

Habermas’ (1989) normative view characterizes the public sphere as the formation of public opinion, the easy access to all citizens, the conference in unrestricted fashion about matters of general interest and the debate over the general rules governing relations. However, just like everything else, it had its fair share of critiques such as it being male dominated and so on. Is that the case? Social media has altered the way people go on with their lives and so it has altered politics along the way. How? Social media changed the people in charge of controlling and consuming the information; how and which information is being spread; and finally, the quality of the information. Let’s take a more detailed look. Who is controlling the information nowadays? Us or algorithms? Algorithms, in a very simple explanation, are used by most social media outlets. They track our likes and dislikes, they recommend pages and so on, they study the population and help the social media platform understand us. If I put it this way, it cannot be that bad. What if I said: Algorithms are the reason Donald trump became president? How? I am quoting myself from another paper which I wrote about algorithms and I am saying: “In the documentary Trumping Democracy, the Robert Mercer scandal was shined upon. He bought Breitbart news and put Steve Bannon as the manager of Trump’s campaign. The outrage that happened was due to the fact that this company used data from Google, Facebook, banks and so on in order to identify which voters would vote for trump and which weren’t. This data was the result of algorithms studying and analyzing our every move. They also used a hidden Facebook feature named “dark post” in which they showed manipulative and personalized messages to millions of people, but the messages would disappear later on.” This was a very bad use of social media in politics, but just like in everything in life there is a good side and a bad side.

“Social media would make it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact” (Gladwell 2010, 49). Let us take for instance the arab spring incident. The Arab Spring is set apart by a progression of revolutionary demonstrations and anti government dissents starting from Tunisia and spreading to parts of the middle east and North Africa. Everything started on December 17, 2010 when a police officer confiscated Mohammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor’s cart. She allegedly spat all over him and offended his dead father when he was not able completely pay his fine. When he got turned down by the authorities and the corrupt government, he set himself on fire. His act is currently regarded as the promoter of the Tunisian Revolution, as well as the rest of the Arab spring. Where does social media fit into all of this? The web is contended to have helped support the rebellions in many ways. Starting with Tunisia, the country has been for some time known for its oppression of mainstream media. Individuals with no choice but to revolt out in the open because the censorships and criticisms particularly originating from bloggers and columnists were persecuted. Any production or news site which involved resistance or depicted the government’s injustices were quickly blocked, everyone was being watched. Amid the revolution, Facebook was mostly blocked and hacked by government officials. People were quick to fire back by hacking the government websites. Moreover, at the season of the revolt, wikileaks spread around the Tunisian web about the Ben Ali’s lavish lifestyle. Despite the fact that these wikileaks were blocked, it had been past the point of no return as they had just been seen by numerous and this too supported the revolt and wrath. Since conventional media had been controlled by governments, Tunisians turned to their phones, Facebook and Twitter. Recordings of conflicts in the road had been quickly transferred on YouTube. Egypt likewise took after a similar way. Social media was valuable for circulation, gathering news, association and coordination with protester gatherings, taking photos with cell phones and satellite TV for worldwide broadcasting about the entire circumstance. Traditional media which was censored and controlled didn’t stand a chance in front of social media. This all goes back to what Henry Jenkins calls “spreadable media, consumers play an active role in “spreading” content” (Jenkins, Li, Krauskopf and Green, 2009). In this manner, Arab and International groups of onlookers could take in more about the happenings through Social Media. The use of Facebook and Twitter helped protesting groups meet and get ready on the best way to fight government powers and the teargas assaults. Other countries of the arab spring weren’t as lucky, because of how fast the protests in Egypt and Tunisia exploded, other countries such as Yemen, Syria, Libya and Bahrein suffered the consequences. Since their governments were afraid of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, they kept a very close eye on all social media and were even spying on their people; for that manner outburst was stopped before it even happened or in the worse case immediately after.

The second version of the Arab Social Media Report uncovers that almost nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians utilized Facebook to sort out and advance dissents and all protests aside from one occurred. Moreover, the report found that Facebook usage expanded or multiplied amongst January and April of 2011. The general number of users had expanded by thirty percent to almost twenty-eight million contrasted with the eighteen percent expansion in 2010. The Bahraini usage was raised by fifteen percent just in the initial three months, Tunisia seventeen and Egypt twenty-nine. Libya’s usage declined by seventy-six percent, most likely because of the protests. Amid the time of dissents in Egypt and Tunisia, eighty-eight percent of Egyptians and ninety-four percent of Tunisians said they had been getting their data from social media. The Egyptian hash tag “Egypt” acquired 1.4 million says in three months (Arab Social Media Report, 2011).

All in all, social media was not the reason the Arab Spring happened, but it did have a strong impact on how fast things got out of hand and how fast the protests were happening. Social media helped the revolutions spread all across the MENA region. Sadly, it also helped people like Donald Trump rise to power. When all of our information is not ours to keep anymore, companies acquire that information and sell them to advertising companies, research studies and worse, Donald Trump.

References

Bloomerg. (Producer). (2015, February, 9). How Much of an Impact is Social Media Having on Politics [Video file]. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLBxvj-BeLA

CBS News. (Producer). (2017, September, 7). Social media’s role in the 2016 election [Video file]. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3FrNR7PWqc

Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Huchon, T. (Director). (2017). Trumping Democracy [Motion picture on Online]. United States Of America: Spicee.

Jenkins, H., Li, X., Krauskopf, A. D., & Green, J. (n.d.). If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part Two): Sticky and Spreadable — Two Paradigms. Retrieved March 14, 2018, from http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p_1.html

Ted Talks. (Producer). (2016, February, 4). Let’s design social media that drives real change | Wael Ghonim [Video file]. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiwJ0hNl1Fw

Twitter.” Arab Social Media Report Vol. 1 2nd Edition. (2011)

www.arabsocialmediareport.com.

Time Magazine “Bouazizi: The man who set himself and Tunisia on fire” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2044723,00.html. Retrieved March 13, 2018