Just Because A Population Isn't Politically Active Now, Doesn't Mean They Can't Become Politically Active Quickly

from the predetermined-conclusions dept

We recently wrote about the Russian government's plans to ward off populist protests against the government by making service providers liable for what their users have to say -- an attempt to effectively get third party service providers to censor content. Clay Shirky has picked up on this story, with a fascinating discussion of the role of social media in these protests, coming down firmly in the camp of believing that social media clearly has a role, and Russia's response more or less verifies that. But what struck me as most interesting about his piece, was the part where he points out the folly of commentators assuming that people generally are inert when it comes to their willingness to be active in politics. He quotes an article about the Kremlin's plans, where it notes that:
Russia's 40 million Internet users -- the country's middle class and most active segment of the population -- have shown remarkably little interest in this political struggle. This means that the Kremlin's battle to prevent an imminent Facebook revolution will remain largely virtual.
But then he notes that this makes a major assumption that people who aren't showing interest right now won't show interest later -- perhaps driven by widespread communication on social media platforms:
The unpoliticized nature of Russian internet use is presented as evidence of its political inertness. The underlying observation is correct, of course; young people the world over typically don't use the internet for political activism, but to seek employment or distraction. This is then assumed to be evidence that these same young people are inherently apolitical. The second assumption doesn't follow from the first, however, as illustrated by the events in Tunisia.

Prior to December 18th, Tunisia's 2.8 million internet users--the country's middle class and most active segment of the population--had shown remarkably little interest in political struggle there either, and that country subsequently underwent as thorough a revolution as has been seen in the region since 1979, one in which the organizers both used and credited social media (principally camera phones and social networks) as effective in aiding Ben Ali's overthrow.

I blame academia for planting the notion that people either are or are not political, and that we can read that aspect of their identity from their daily practice. Because universities put the PoliSci department down the street from Economics and all the way across the quad from Media Studies, we encourage people to think these are actually separate things. Meanwhile, out in the real world, they are all mixed up; you could ask whether an unemployed protester joining her friends to march on Parliament is making an economic, social, or political choice, but the answer would be "Yes."

The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren't so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who donít like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.
I think that's a really key point. It still doesn't mean that these protests and government changes are entirely due to social media, but ignoring the role that social media may have had in helping to politicize people who were previously unpoliticized -- if not unpolitical -- should not be understated.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Bas Grasmayer (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 4:01pm

    In Al Jazeera's coverage of the revolution in Egypt, I heard many Egyptians comment on how amazing it was to them that it was happening, since the Egyptian people had been very apathetic to politics for many years, so I definitely agree with the point made here.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 4:06pm

    It is in Wisconsin that farmer trucks are joining the protests recently?

     

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  3.  
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    Whatis42? (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 4:10pm

    I thought the...

    Republicans figured this out at some point during Jimmy Carter's presidency?

     

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  4.  
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    Gumnos (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 5:27pm

    Instantaneous vs. average

    While you may be discussing the instantaneous sampling and finding moments of strong political action in a sea of inaction, the multi-year terms of politicians suggest that the apolitical average will apathetically maintain the norm. Even if spikes of activity occur they often have no significant or lasting effect. C.f. Obamacare outrage, Bush's war for oil (uh, I mean, "on terror"), Clinton's philandering, ad nauseam.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:14pm

    Re: Instantaneous vs. average

    I think that is the wrong way to try and understand the situation.

    The average truth is that people only take action if it affects them, not by what others say or do, there needs to be a trigger a very real trigger that will fuel their actions then rhetoric is used to justify those actions.

    I have been noticing that for a decade now, people don't pay attention to theoreticals, apparently there needs to be something that touches them for something to spread.

    When copyrights was just about companies suing each other nobody took notice, now that it is affecting them negatively more people pay attention to the issue.

    What you probably call inaction is a natural social mechanism where people dismiss hearsay and only pay attention to what happens around them because is the only thing they can confirm.

     

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  6.  
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    Atkray (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:32pm

    Investment

    People tend to be selfish and only want to invest in things that have some value to them.

    Where the social media comes in is now, instead of someone sitting at home and crumpling the newspaper up in disgust, or yelling at the television, they can connect with others.

    Few people want to go to the courthouse steps and start yelling about how bad the current system is, but provide them with the support of a few thousand people and things change very quickly.

    People are no longer saying "I'm just one person I don't matter" they are saying "Where do I find others who agree with me".

    Those in positions of power (any kind of power) should be concerned.

     

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  7.  
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    Donny (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:36pm

    Re: Instantaneous vs. average

    This sounds very depressing but very plausible. Would North Africa/Middle East be going through such upheaval if the people thought that in 4 years time it'd all be ok again?

     

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  8.  
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    Gumnos (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:18pm

    Re: Re: Instantaneous vs. average

    I think that (in North-African/Mid-East upheaval) a threshold was crossed that demanded immediacy because there was no near event-horizon in which the hope of change could happen. If Egyptians knew that in 2-4 years they could vote the bum out without risking lives or imprisonment, would the rebellion have reached such a crescendo? I doubt it. And would platitudes from the president and laying-low have appeased the masses in the hope that apathy could allow him to regain the "whatever, I'm fine with the status quo" vote when elections next rolled around?

     

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    Chargone (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:29pm

    Re: Re: Re: Instantaneous vs. average

    that's my biggest pet hate with representative democracy really. most of the time it changes Nothing, no matter who's theoretically in power... but it gives the general public a perpetual illusion that it will. meaning they never get active enough to actually cause necessary change.

    exceptions exist, naturally, but representative democracy's big thing is not actually, liberty, justice, the people having a say, th ewill of the people, or anything of the sort. the one and only thing it does well is stability. which is fine as longa s everything works...b ut the moment something breaks it just makes it massively harder to fix again.

     

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  10.  
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    6, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 9:05pm

    lulz

    "The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren't so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who donít like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts."

    "even people who donít like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts."

    "even people who donít like discussing politics in can turn out when the serious business starts."

    "people who donít like discussing politics turn out when the serious business starts."

    "people turn out when the serious business starts."

    "serious business"

    lulz.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 10:42pm

    Mike, the only thing to remember is that your FUD and misleading, misleading headlines, and one sided hatchet jobs won't motivate them to be politically active. It may cause some of them to fall of their chairs laughing, but not much more.

    Sorry!

     

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  12.  
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    The eejit (profile), Mar 9th, 2011 @ 12:09am

    Re:

    You have a huge hate-on for Mike. Do you have a crush?

     

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  13.  
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    abc gum, Mar 9th, 2011 @ 5:19am

    Re:

    Haters gonna hate

     

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  14.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Mar 9th, 2011 @ 6:49am

    Re: Investment

    Welcome to the "Party of We".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 9th, 2011 @ 7:28am

    Re: Re:

    Mike is, in my opinion, being more and more dishonest or misleading in his posts. Right now, he is trying to stir up "political activism" in his readers. My feeling is that his meeting with that politician the other day got him thinking. If he can get the people who come here to all do his bidding, writing letters or perhaps staging some sort of online protest, perhaps some change could happen.

    At bare minimum, perhaps one or more media sources would pick it up, and turn techdirt.com into a "star" property.

    In my opinion, his goals are incredibly transparent at times. It's fun to watch him start to try to build momentum up to see how people feel. This story, with only a handful of real comments, has got to be a downer for him. He uses commentary levels as his measurement of success. If he can find the button to push to whip up the troops, he will push it over and over again (see the TSA stories). It's his apparent modus operandi.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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