You may want to sit down for this one, folks:
Contrary to popular belief, social networking sites and emerging communications technology are actually not as valuable tools of empowerment as we think!
The articles written by Tom Glaisyer and Pasek, et. Al. provide valuable evidence that disproves the mainstream association between the advent of online communications technologies and civil engagement.
Granted, Glaiyser does show a bit of a case for the opposition—arguing that the potential for digital activism is much greater in open and democratic societies. He claims that individuals in such societies have the ability to participate in policy formation, execution, and the monitoring of government practice. Additionally, the low-cost and accessibility of these tools facilitates the mobilization of large groups of citizens.
But in judging the overall effectiveness of social networking sites and online media technology, we must assess the situations in which this is not the case.
Glaisyer suggests that digital activism in repressive and authoritarian regimes has been less effective than originally expected. Instead, digital technologies have provided alternative opportunities for government control—such as additional surveillance, the ability to delay communications, the mapping of networks, and an increased ease of tracking and punishing dissidents.
Likewise, Pasek, et. Al. claims that just because an individual is connected to the Internet does not mean that they will be civically active. While most young people are already online, there has been little evidence to show that social capital has correspondingly skyrocketed.
Not to mention, the type of use affects the overall strength of online communications tools. It seems to be the case that individuals who use the Internet for informational purposes tend to have higher levels of civic engagement than those who use it for recreational purposes.
Overall, the study by Pasel, et. Al. suggests that the use of social networking sites relates inconsistently to measures of social capital. Although these users did show greater levels of civic engagement, they were less trusting than non-users. This upholds the theory that if citizens are less connected to one another and less trusting then democracy suffers.
In my opinion, I think that essentially what it comes down to is the type of person that is using the online media and how they choose to engage with it—rather than the tools themselves serving as some great form of empowerment.
As Pasek, et. Al. states: we “cannot discriminate between whether social networking websites are encouraging civic involvement or whether civically involved youth are simply more likely to join social networking websites (18).”
With that perspective, it is difficult to look at online communications media as some sort of game-changing invention. Of course, these tools are used to spread political messages and mobilize large groups of individuals; but it all depends on who is using them and for what purposes. Many people will only utilize the Internet for entertainment’s sake—and it is that demographic of individuals that alters the political potential of online media.
On that note, how would you characterize the majority of Internet use by your friends at the University of Michigan? Would it be informational purposes, social networking, or civic engagement?