The digital mess we’re in

social-media-icons-hanging-from-blue-string

Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, by Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri. Princeton University Press. 304pp. £19.95.

Whenever asked to comment on contemporary events, it’s usually historians, rather than social scientists, who tend to suffer from what one might call an epistemological twitch: they strive to demonstrate that what is happening now has already – mutatis mutandis and with all the specificities of the epoch – happened before. A good part of their intellectual prowess is devoted to uncover this sometimes uncomfortable truth, so effectively camouflaged under the patina of the ‘new’. This has a collateral effect: the 
underlying, unobserved assumption that – whatever the phenomenon being analysed – its deceitful novelty is bound to beach like an agonising whale onto the ever-suspect, ideological shores of ‘it’s always been like this’, or, ‘it happened before’.

But there is something that escapes such theorem, stubbornly refusing to undergo similar treatment: the Internet. It is now being used by approximately 34 per cent of the world population, and counting. Its impact on the lives of those who can afford a computer, a smartphone and a web connection 
is invaluable, and, when it comes to the coefficient of novelty in the reshaping of material life, cannot be compared with anything that came before. Its latest developments, including the web 2.0, with its questionable bottom-up structure, safeguarded by social media and the brave new world-sounding ‘Internet of things,’ are having undisputed repercussions on the way people interact economically, socially and culturally. These are particularly evident on political collective action, both in liberal 
democracies and in dictatorial regimes, where social media are put to the services of emancipatory as much as repressive purposes (and not necessarily in the same order).

 

Political Turbulence: how social media shape collective action, by Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri, is a study that courageously embarks on mapping these newly-reshaped horizons. It does so by trying to make sense, through a necessarily 
interdisciplinary approach, of the immense 
amount of data produced, year after year and on an hourly basis by a relentless activity on Google, Facebook, Twitter and the likes. These colossal ‘databergs,’ amorphous aggregates of trillions of clicks floating in cyberspace and bursting with self-representations, images, discussions, diatribes, conversations, videos, are better known as big data. Very much sought after by mega corporations and state institutions for commercial, security, and political purposes, they are also pivotal in providing a substitute for enquiries and polls as instruments of sociological research. By performing a function comparable to that of a telescope in astronomy, not only they revolutionise a discipline: they are singlehandedly creating a new one.

In what in Western liberal democracies is often referred to as a post-political age (in itself a very political statement) and despite its quite contemporary emphasis on the individual rather than the collective dimension, social media activity reverberates intensely on politics. Online petitioning, for instance, thanks to its impressive cost-efficiency, strongly puts forward its claim to be a substitute (some will say a surrogate) for political participation. Its mechanisms rely on factors such as social information, which tells you what others are doing online about a specific cause, and trigger emulative behaviours that may – or more often may not – reach a tipping point. The authors refer to them as ‘tiny acts of participation’, depending on a handful of typologies of the personality of the user that they identify. Yes, even the ocean is made out of little drops.

When the tipping point is reached, it can easily become a vehicle for social unrest, and spark major political changes. Events such as the Arab Spring; the Gezi Park protests in Turkey; the riots in Brazil ahead of the 2014 Fifa World Cup, but also the impressive rise of the populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement in Italy (25 per cent of the vote in the 2013 election); Podemos in Spain; ‘hacktivist’ groups such as Indymedia and Anony- mous (oddly overlooked in this book); and, finally, the much-vilified still irresistible ascent of an unlikely leader, summoned by the ‘post-political’ generation to breathe some refreshing utopianism back into the stiff carapace of the British Labour Party: they all prove the point.

Much of this entail what the authors call a ‘low-cost’ activity. Sticking to the ubiquitous monetary metaphor, a click of a mouse is immensely cheaper and far less time-con- suming than joining a demonstration or a public debate. But when the tipping points are not reached – and that is a rather common occurrence – then the reasonable charge of ‘slacktivism’ (obviously used in its pejorative sense) is raised. After all, the 2011, social media-triggered mobilisation in Tahrir Square in Cairo ended with the not so liberal Muslim Brothers plebiscitary takeover to be followed by a even less liberal military coup. And the absence of leaders – so often worn like a badge of honour by many militants in the name of their supposedly new and truly 
egalitarian approach to politics – ends up 
being a hindrance more frequently than not. That said, what the authors call ‘chaotic pluralism,’ referring to the unstable and often-unpredictable outcome of mobilisations does make a difference. As proved by the case of the Cambridge University Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, allegedly murdered in Cairo by the Egyptian regime secret ser- vices: the British government petitions web- site was flooded with requests to open an official enquiry, which it eventually did. Tiny acts of participation from below that will hopefully provide some traction toward the 
ascertainment of truth.

Sure, the overall uncertainty about the via
bility, effectiveness and, above all, predictability of myriads of these tiny acts – so often the result of conformist initiatives triggered by a social pressure the authors define as a tendency to ‘win praise and avoid chastisement’- remains. Just like the weather, it is digital initiatives will have in the next weeks 
or months, even more so whether they will become ‘viral’. Hence the authors’ usage of 
the notion of turbulence, (Latin for ‘full of 
commotion’) alongside an array of meanings 
in other disciplines, all converging around 
the notion of lack of balance, confusion, 
‘chaotic property changes:’ an unstable system whose unpredictability isn’t based on intrinsic randomness but on a degree of 
immeasurability.

This book heralds the dawn of a new field 
 of research. Its authors represent a rather new academic figure: social scientists whose 
toolbox is not anymore the old ‘analogic’ assortment of instruments to measure and assess political participation, but an interdisciplinary synthesis of sociology, physics, data and computational social science. A similar mutation has taken place in the world of journalism: let alone the deadly blow that the Internet has inflicted on the publishing industry, what used to be known as investigative journalism nowadays has become data journalism. One wonders what historical research will become once virtually every individual in the developed and developing world will have, like a comet, her or his own immense tail of (partly insignificant) digital karma to scrutinize.

Maybe the authors could have at least en passant made a reference to the huge issue of the private ownership of this colossal amount of data, on which the course as much as the narration of present and future history depends, and the already tense confrontation that is already emerging between such private ownership and the authorities of national states. One thing seems certain: Habermas’s public sphere, in itself a fairly blurred notion, is gone forever. Still, there could be an element capable of vindicating the historians’ tic mentioned at the opening. Perhaps, the feminist militants who coined the slogan ‘the private is political’ in 1968 were, although inadvertently and from an entirely different standpoint, not so far from prefiguring today’s dimension of digital activism. In a slogan like this, today’s political turbulence seems to resonate quite well.

(The Political Quarterly, volume 88, Issue 3, July–September 2015)

 

Autore: leonardo clausi

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