Throughout the past several decades, people around the world have marveled at the rapid pace with which the internet has become central to daily life. This phenomenon is especially true in the Western world, but is increasingly the case in many developing countries as well. The internet’s encroaching universality is demonstrated through the remarkable extension of broadband access around the world, the rapid growth of e-commerce, the interest of Rupert Murdoch and other “traditional” media broadcasters in acquiring broadband and other internet companies, the increased use of the web as a medium for publication by public authorities, the spread of Wi-Fi in public spaces and the growth of the iPhone and other tools that allow people to access the internet from almost anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. As the internet transforms into a commonplace part of nearly every facet of human life, from engagement in romantic relationships to business deals, it is only natural that this phenomenon would also affect party politics. The way the internet is transforming the development of public opinion, civic engagement and interaction in the public sphere, however, is still a topic that is grossly understudied.
Despite this fact, understanding the role of the internet is becoming increasingly necessary if one is to fully comprehend the connections between media, citizenship, politics and political engagement. People are now able to livestream political rallies and protests, tweet their opinions on politicians and political events to hundred or thousands of followers in record time and spread information on the issues faced by their communities across countries and continents with the press of a button. New media, facilitated by the long reach of the internet, is having an effect that many would not have predicted twenty or even ten years ago. It is giving a voice to previously marginalized people and groups and allowing for the articulation of alternative political discourses to a wider audience than ever before. Heretofore silenced narratives are being frequently expressed through new mediums such as blogs, citizens’ journalism projects and new media tools like Twitter and Storify.
Whether one believes that these tools have a positive or a negative influence on the quality and accuracy of shared information, it is undeniable that they are changing the nature of political engagement as we know it. So what are a few examples of the way citizens’ engagement with new media is changing the face of politics?
1. Even the Syrian Rebels are Using Social Media As an Organizing Tool: The importance of the Internet was demonstrated to the world by the way social media tools were used during the Arab spring to mobilize entire populations against unpopular regimes. Threatened political leaders reacted quickly by monitoring the Facebook and Twitter accounts of well-known activists, and in some cases, even banning internet access during tumultuous times. These reactions demonstrated recognition on the part of these leaders of new media’s important role. It also demonstrated their fear that offline dynamics would mirror online dynamics, leading to popular mobilization and the possible ousting of targeted politicians and regimes. Currently, reports have demonstrated that rebels opposing Syria’s Ba’athist government are using social media for everything from fundraising to the exchange of military tactics.
2. Citizens Livestreamed Electoral Fraud During the Recent Elections in the Ukraine: The October 2012 Ukrainian Parliamentary elections were fraught with strife as opposition members accused the incumbents of electoral fraud and thousands took to the streets in protest in the country’s capital, Kiev. The final results of the elections were left unpublished for weeks after the elections took place, and opposition parties threatened to declare the new parliament illegitimate. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the results to be announced, however, citizens took the matter into their own hands by documenting what they believe to be electoral fraud. Many claim that the failure to properly document the 2004 electoral fraud that led to the country’s Orange revolution, allowed those responsible for the fraud to stay in power. Comments on Facebook and other social media outlets demonstrate that the Ukraine’s population does not plan on making the same mistake twice. The footage taken by ordinary citizens may end up being what determines the political future of this country.
3. An Online Platform Allows Activists and Community Groups to Plan Shared Activities and Initiatives in Jerusalem: The online platform ‘Grassroots Al Quds’ brings together different activists and organizations that work for human rights all over Jerusalem. The platforms claims to allow Grassroots activists to pose solutions to problems that politicians are either ignoring or creating, demonstrating the ability of new technologies to be utilized as problem solving tools that give a voice to otherwise voiceless populations. The platform also allows its users to share their activities and the progress being made in their communities with a wider audience. Due to the often-urgent nature of the activities realized in Jerusalem, the platform works to accommodate the needs of its members by making use of advanced technologies including Frontline SMS and Crowd Mapping. These tools allow activists to document events in real-time on a shared map of Jerusalem.
As these are just a few examples of the new media initiatives that are spreading across the globe, it seems like a safe bet to assume that more and more people will begin to take notice of the way the Internet is altering traditional forms of civic engagement and building bridges between policy makers and citizens. If things continue the way they are going, it’s possible that the next generation will be unable to imagine a truly democratic political system without this type of online engagement.