Digital Media and Political Movements

In The Role of Digital Media, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain write extensively about the impact of digital media – the Internet, cell phones and social media – on political change in the Middle East. The authors claim that, “using these technologies, people interested in democracy could build extensive networks, create social capital, and organize political action with a speed and on a scale never seen before,” (36). The article reflects on the Arab Spring in order to analyze how digital media can lead to political activism in authoritarian governments. This example shows there was a serious increase in civil disobedience occurred due to digital media technologies. The article offers this explanation: Although people in the Middle East and North Africa may have been experiencing dissent for years, “digital media helped to turn individualized, localized, and community-specific dissent into a structured movement with a collective consciousness about both shared plights and opportunities for action,” (41).

What is most interesting about this article is how it clearly demonstrates the impact that digital media can have in politics. I have gone back and forth between whether or not I believe that social media has the power to increase political activism, and this article pushes me once again to feel that the Internet and social media are very powerful political tools. When looking at the role of digital media in the Middle East and Northern Africa, it is interesting to note that we are reading about a case of social media leading to civil disobedience campaigns against authoritarian rule. Previous readings from this semester have focused on whether or not social media has the ability to help a candidate in a democratic nation gain supporters, and ultimately votes on Election Day. This particularly makes me think back to the Dean campaign – how the Trippi and Shirky articles made me question whether the campaign was too focused on creating a movement and less about getting votes. While the emphasis placed on “creating a political movement in which people mattered again” (Trippi, 149) may have been the downfall of a democratic campaign, the use of digital media in the Arab Spring may have succeeded for exactly that reason. This could be because rather than helping the government, digital media in authoritarian states causes political uprising against the government. What can we make of the difference between the role of digital media in democratic and authoritarian nations? Do you think the reason digital media is so successful in creating political activism in these countries is because it is more important to create a movement?

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