Two takes on the internet and politics

The use of Facebook, Twitter  and Youtube in the uprising of ordinary citizens in Egypt is a fascinating example of the role the internet is playing to rally sentiment and organise individuals into a powerful force for political change. But examples of the internet inhibiting change are evident within the context of the Australian media landscape and political reform agenda, argues George Megalogenis.

First, to Egypt:

Within five days of his death, an anonymous human rights activist created a Facebook page — We Are All Khaled Said— that posted cellphone photos from the morgue of his battered and bloodied face, the video of the corrupt police officers and other YouTube videos contrasting his corpse with pictures of his bright and smiling face from happier days. By mid-June, 130,000 people joined the page to get and share updates about the case.

It became and remains the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt, even as protests continue to sweep the country, with more than 473,000 users, and it has helped spread the word about the demonstrations in Egypt, which were ignited after a revolt in neighboring Tunisia toppled the government there.
Jennifer Preston, “Anger and a Facebook Page That Gave It Voice”, New York Times

Of course, Egypt’s is not the first example of the internet facilitating political change. Clay Shirky, in a 2009 TED address described the impact of the social internet in comparison to traditional media.

“The internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation  at the same time … as all media gets digitized the internet becomes the mode of carriage for all other media … media is increasingly less just a source of information and increasingly more a site for coordination because groups that see or hear or watch or listen can now gather around and talk to each other as well”

I encourage you to watch the whole TED video.  Recent events in Egypt, past events in China and elsewhere certainly exemplify the power of the internet in politics. The impact isn’t only to be found in countries where dissenting voices and media are usually supressed. The Obama campaign was the poster child of social media advocacy. But what of the Australian political landscape?

In Issue 40 of the Quarterly Essay George Megalogenis (of the Australian and Meganomics blog fame) makes some interesting observations on the effect of the internet on the rhythms of traditional media publishing and consumption. The essay itself is about the end of the Australian political reform agenda but Megalogenis also has a critical discussion on the role the internet has played in quickening the news cycle and shortening our attention spans. He attributes the decline in standards of traditional media to “the information revolution” and while he acknowledges that the internet has improved journalism he presents the current situation as one where considered policy debate that contributes to political reform is not being had because the previously drawn out news cycle has now been compressed.  It is a nuanced argument but in short the following points are made:

  • Technology has lowered the barrier to entry of lobby groups and other opposing voices. What can seem like a mass movement, may not translate into real votes.
  • The internet (where short form opinionated writing prevails) has made print news more aggressive and encouraged TV news to continously broadcast in order to compete with the internet’s speed and currency.
  • The decline of traditional news revenues has meant staff cuts to the number of journalists while more is expected to be produced by those that remain. Many make up the content shortfall with commentary at the expense of investigative news.
  • Political leaders, with the omnipresence of the medium, must now be everywhere at once. This lessens the occasion when they do speak, and any announcement they may make towards long term reform gets lost in their own noise.

In short, Megalogenis argues that complex writing and complex debate cannot be had when the electorate, the politicians and the media all have A-D-D.

“The past decade has diminished the influence of both leader and reporter. No one media group is dominant because the market is fragmented, but the media as an insitution is more powerful than it should be because the never-ending news cycle has imposed a level of distraction on government that hobbles its ability to raise issues with the electorate. There is no tolerance for a long argument anymore because the public has been taught that every new day carries the promise of a blizzard of unique content”
— George Megalogenis, “Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the end of the reform era”, Quarterly essay, 2010

The internet no doubt enables individuals to rally collectively into a powerful force, or as Clay Shirky puts it, allow groups to converse. What happens when groups are having different conversations is a little less clear.

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