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Essay: Social network sites and the media

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  • Published: 22 September 2015*
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A popular belief exists between cyber optimists who state that the internet has a clear effect on both citizens and resource-poor social and political groups as they use it to gain information and expertise, through an increase in the availability in the range of information which is freely accessible (Bimber, 2002). The Mickensey Global Institute has predicted that the ‘internet has the power to transform Africa’ resulting from its urbanization and economic development as it has been a ‘catalyst for economic growth, previous MGI research found that it has contributed more than 10% of total GDP over the past 5 years in China, India and Brazil and its impact is accelerating” (Murphy, 2013); transforming financial services, education, health, agriculture, retail and government. The internet’s revolutionary capabilities are argued to diminish traditional power blocks, spreading freedom throughout the world toppling media, corporate PR and political parties (Schneier, 2013) (Morozov E. , 2011). This paper will focus upon the constraints of the transformative power of the internet by examining the relationships between social media, the digital divide, socio-demographic factors and democracy as a means of empowerment.
Civilian journalism in the form of social networking websites have claimed to break down barriers between the traditional public and private spheres of communication, by placing power into the hands of the user (the content creator), making the details of private concerns exist in a public presence, assisting the public domain of the official political and institutional realm to be easily monitored by private citizens (Papacharissi,2009). A variety of political events have contributed to public cohesion and collective action by using these advanced technology mediums. Castells (2009) argued that the pioneering quality of communication in a contemporary society was mass self-communication, as it extended the proclamation round the increased power of the individual. Therefore the personal content provided and created by social media shaped the ability to be publically private and privately public (Papacharissi, 2009) retaining the emphasis on oneself and on personhood as opposed to citizenship. Here, the private sphere (defined by the self) enabled people to connect with others on the basis of shared social political and cultural agendas, thus permitting the experience of mutuality which may have otherwise lead voices in particular those belonging to the repressed and marginal members of society to be unheard. The internet continued to create a space which is mobile and allows social media to serve as an alternative to face to face interaction, still enabling the connection to local, national, regional and global spheres of social capital (Wellman, 2002). Therefore it may be suggested that the public and private sphere are overlapping and are interlinked in an online world which would undoubtedly have political consequences (Fenton, 2012). This world created an ‘interactive production of meaning’ (Castells, 2009, p. 132) through a creative process’ which allowed the self to be discovered through this form of mass self- communication (Castells, 2009, p. 137). Here, traditional forms of access control do not apply as anyone can upload a video or a picture onto websites such as instagram, Youtube, Facebook or Twitter create other content on their own blogs as a result of creative autonomy (Fuchs, 2009).This bluring social dimension which is linked to democracy (Keane, 2009) and a variety of ‘post representative politics defined by the growth of power and a scrutinizing mechanism’ ( Keane,2009,p.15) are given a legitimate online space to grow and develop.
As a consequence it is believed that social networking brought forth a means of communication which is both by and for the public (Fenton, 2012) . Theorists have offered positive interpretations that referred to this online realm as person-to person media or mass self-communication (Castells, 2009) as it supported pre-existing social networks and further attracted strangers to connect on the basis of shared interests and views (Fenton, 2012). For these reasons ‘new media’ alongside the internet and mobile phones has certainly played a fundamental role in the way both modern political revolutions and democratization processes have occurred and how they have been witnessed (Sabadello, 2011). New online media forums have enabled communities to come together and exchange their idea, views and knowledge. For example Facebook was initially invented for the networking of university students, it now is acknowledged to be used to open dialogue for political communication and thoughts (Ellison,2007).These media outlets have created new ways to organize and run political elections for example Barrack Obama’s presidential internet campaign in 2004 placed a large emphasis on social media, enabling Obama to contact and connect with a greater demographic; many of whom may have otherwise not been involved in politics. The campaigns ability to embrace social networking sites which included MySpace and Facebook, was considered unique and added a competitive advantage to his campaign. The Obama administrations use of social media tools enabled the mobilization of younger generations; a group which according to the BBC has ‘traditionally been uninterested in politics’, for this reason, social media was once again used in the elections of 2008(Harfoush, 2009).
With growing numbers in the Western state where social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are used among the masses a larger majority of the world population only represents a small percentage that has access, or the ability, to use the internet and thus emerges the theme of a digital divide. However it must be taken into consideration in many countries where the internet is largely infiltrated with an increasing usage of social media networks on a day-to-day basis, it can act as a foreground for creating awareness which could, in the long-run, create such an enormous mass that cannot be ignored by any democratic country (Chatfield, 2011). The social media tools may prove to be harmful, this exemplified media myths surrounding the riots in London (Guardian, 2013); however, their effects are most dramatic in the countries where the public are already contesting their government’s actions as exemplified by the * revoloutions * Egypt lybia Tunisia)(SABADELLO).
Facebook and Twitter are argued to have aided in toppling governments (Kaufman, 2012) (New York Times, 2013) . During 2011 we witnessed a number of political revolutionary movements in the Arab world (New York Times, 2013). Debatably they extended from civilian internet and became an integral part of life bringing societal change (Kaufman, 2012) through shared values, causes and strategies for civil resistance, which resulted in the ‘Arab Spring’ (Ramadan, 2012). From a media perspective these movements were referred to as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ or ‘Twitter Revolution,’ implying a cyber-era as a means of democratic expression (Dahlberg, 2001) and consequently suggesting a positive correlation between social media and internet services as they were used by both activists and their authoritarian governments (Morozov E. , 2011). There is no doubt the Arab Spring was aided by the mobilization of citizens, however the mass public were in fact not associated with it and therefore appeared ‘offline’. During the ‘spring 2011 Facebook had a penetration rate of 7.66% in Egypt, and 22.49% in Tunisia’ , ‘twitter had an infiltration rate of 0.34% in Tunisia, and 0.15% in Egypt’ (Sabadello,2011,p.12). The wider public may have therefore received news of the events through word-of-mouth or through more traditional media such as news papers or the radio (Dubai School of Government, 2001) (Sabadello, 2011, p. 12). This suggests a constraint on the transformative power of the internet. The digital divide is an existing global, social and economic concern (Wakefield, 2010) and there is a widening gap between people who have access to the resources to use new information and communication tools (i.e the internet), and people who do not (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2013). The gap between countries on the same continent is also growing larger (Wakefield, BBC News , 2010) and the ‘scale of a countries divide reflects the conditions of its economy’ (Wakefield, BBC News , 2010). This gap exists between those living in rural and urban areas, educated and uneducated, between economic classes, and on a global scale between more and less industrially developed nations and as a result it is prominent that a greater proportion of the world is in fact ‘offline’ (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2013). The Arab Spring brings light to the first and second level of the divide which is associated with socio-demographic factors, motivations and internet skills. It also illustrates a digital and democratic divide (Wakefield, 2010) and thus indicates the differences between those who actively use the internet for politics and those who do not. This further implies a democratic divide exists where political internet users are computer literate individuals with strong political interests (Hall, 2013).
The term ‘Twitter Revolution’ exemplified by the ‘Arab Spring’ proposed that ‘new media’ developed as a weapon to overthrow authoritarian regimes (Trew, 2013). Scholars have argued that such terms may appear misleading as they overstate the role and use of technology (Morozov, 2011). The internet is believed to have brought revolution; through greater access to information, global supply and demand, reshaping conventions as well as destroying old world ideologies and interconnecting societies, all of which have been a global engine transforming people and societies (Kaufman, 2012). The internet’s transformative power was best typified in Tunisia by the use of social media in the forms of Facebook and Youtube to spread images of the riots in SidiBouzid of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 (Grira, 2010) (BBC, 2001). With the existence of ‘resentments towards the government for unemployment, corruption and restricted civil liberties’, such publicity was disputed to have fore grounded the outbreak for the revolution (Sabadello,2011,p11). Activists used social media websites sites in Egypt including to create a group named ‘We are all Khaled Said’; with the objective to increase social consciousness and produce greater sympathies for Khaled Mohamed Saeed, a victim of death by the police in 2011. This was portrayed as the most fundamental event which led to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (Sabadello, 2011).The use of new media in the Arab Spring was arguably portrayed as a novelty (Trust, 2012), however, its uses of new media had a more prominent role than in the past. In order to examine this, it is important to consider the extent to which ‘new media’ such as the internet is available.
It is imperative to note that activists do not always have access to the internet and other media in political movements. Furthermore the state may be responsible for the operation of communication infrastructures which include both telecommunications companies and Internet service providers. As a consequence political movements which are directed against an established government authority may often find themselves endangered. This may be accomplished by force though societal hierarchies of power such as police force, the army and the internet, which governments regularly monitor, and censor (Morozov, 2011) , consequently resulting in an imbalance of power. Sabadello (2011) stated that this inevitability created ‘authoritarian regimes’ which maintained their power by controlling broadcasting of information, and thus ‘information and communication technologies become powerful arms for both the government and those governed’ (Sabadello,2011,p.12). This is exemplified by the states complete censorship of the internet in Egypt in 2011 for both citizens and internationals. Movements which therefore relied on the Internet for the organization of public outreach are damaged through destabilising this infrastructure; further examples of this may include selective censorship of web content, complete internet censorship and the tracking of activists as well as sympathizers. This argument is exemplified and made evident by the Libyan government through the censorship of social media sites. Complete censorship can also be interpreted as the states recognition of the extent to which these media tools act as a voice and a form of mobilisation in the public sphere (Ahmed, 2011).The government may not entirely censor the internet but may uses it to strategically to create an ‘information vacuum’ to gain greater awareness of rural or national social problems. In such cases the internet can be used to legitimate regimes, by ‘encouraging the civil society into the discussion surrounding the climate as opposed to human rights (this is evident in china)’, in this instance ‘the state creates the illusion that it is open to the consideration of civil ideals’. Saudi Arabia may be used as a key example, the kingdom encourages society to report Youtube videos that may offend Saudi sensibilities, the freedom of civilian journalism on Youtube becomes constrained as videos are forced to be removed (Morozov,2011).

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