The Value of Social Media for Promoting Democracy

// CGCS Media Wire and the Annenberg School for Communications bring us this reaction piece from graduate student Kate Zambon on the true value of social media for promoting democracy. Zambon examines the technologically driven narratives like The Twitter Revolution and the Arab Spring while taking into account the often overlooked stakeholders of the Western world.

The title of this post may sound familiar. Yet, this isn’t another entry in the battle over technological determinism. I won’t be writing about whether technology was or was not the key to success in the Arab Spring. Instead it is about the value of this narrative for the American press and the US government. Beginning in 2009 with the Green Movement in Iran, the press heralded the arrival on the world scene of the “Twitter Revolution.” Although the revolution trumpeted by this title failed to take off, the press found the narrative of technological democratization to be so irresistible that it wasted no time naming the 2011 Egyptian uprisings as “Revolution 2.0.” As Golnaz Esfandiari wrote in a Foreign Policy article challenging the Western media’s claims of social media determinism, “the ‘Twitter Revolution’ was an irresistible meme during the post-election protests, a story that wrote itself.”

As I said, this post is not to settle the issue of whether these titles reflect reality, but instead to ask what makes these technological narratives successful as well as their utility for US foreign policy. First, what is a technological democratization narrative? In broad terms, the technological democratization narrative is the idea that social media innovations will allow the people to overcome authoritarian barriers to free speech, leading to the organization of social action to both inform the international community of authoritarian oppression and pressure the government to accept the democratic will of the people. As a story that “writes itself,” it is easy to distribute and is particularly effective in gaining followers.

Another thing that makes them so effective is that there are several important parties who find them useful, including Western journalists, the US government, and even many activists themselves who know the value of having their story distributed globally, even if it is couched in a way that focuses on one sphere of activity (online) while largely ignoring others (face-to-face and other long-standing media forms including pamphlets and graffiti).

The most vocal stakeholder in this narrative is the Western media, which latched onto the story as a way to make distant events relatable to their readers. Organizing on social media makes intuitive sense to Western audiences who see the utility of such tools in their everyday lives. It also allows them to connect to events that are far removed from their experience through something familiar. In addition to audience appeal, the media is invested in this narrative for more practical reasons. With the difficulty and cost of reporting from inside unstable and potentially hostile regimes, reporting increasingly must be based on technologies enabling the spread of citizen journalism. In addition to the cost and security benefits, language-barriers can often pose significant problems for journalists not trained in local languages. That so many activists post online in English provides a major source of material for the Western media. Thus, the media has a major stake in supporting the legitimacy of technological democratization narratives.

At the same time, although the US government generally takes a less active role in the promotion of this narrative, it is extremely valuable for American legitimacy. As the birthplace of Twitter, Facebook and Google, the American government can enjoy borrowed legitimacy through its association with the creation of favorable environments for such democratizing technologies. It has the advantage of not being directly interventionist, which undermines the counter-attack by the governments targeted by the action that it is a result of foreign meddling and not a reflection of the will of the people. It also reinforces the assertion of Western governments that their brand of capitalist democracy (as embodied by Google, Facebook, Twitter) stands for freedom and is best at serving the will of the people.

So, why should we care whether technological narratives are overrepresented in the American understanding of democratic movements abroad? For one thing, it prevents us from seeing how social media technologies may be just as beneficial for authoritarian purposes as for democratic ones. They represent enormous new sources of information on activists and new tools for spreading their own rumors and propaganda. Also, it feeds an ethnocentricity that can prevent us from understanding the complex conditions of a given national context, which are homogenized and universalized in these narratives. But whether the narrative is true or false is here beside the point. The point is that the narrative itself enhances Western narratives of legitimacy, supporting the idea that the West and its intellectual and technological products benefit righteous causes globally.


Kate Zambon is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Her research interests include global and intercultural communication and the construction of national identity, particularly as it pertains to culture, race and immigration. Her current research focuses on the immigration and integration of Muslim populations in Europe.

Kate graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 2007 with a double major in Italian and German Studies. She subsequently spent a Fulbright year studying issues of immigration and identity in a multi-cultural school in Berlin, Germany.

Featured Photo Credit:Attribution Some rights reserved by Aramil Liadon

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