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How far does the social power of online social media go?

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A recent report from WIN Americas (Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research) made me think of some questions that are commonly asked when talking about a supposed “social power” of online social media. Even after nearly two decades of studies on the social impact of online socialization environments, it is still common to find some assumptions that, in my view, are too simplistic, techno-centric. I list here some of them based on the WIN report.

The citizen empowerment

The report states that in America, 53% of respondents agree with the statement that “The Internet gives more power to the citizens.” This rate reaches 66% in North America and falls to 40% in Latin America (note that we do not know exactly where Mexico was counted, as the country is part of both the North America, and Latin America). This is a question about the perception of respondents, and it is interesting that more than half of people believe that social media empower citizens. It would be even more interesting, however, to know exactly what power these people consider to have acquired and what they could change in their reality from that.

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I say this not by disbelief that social media can, in certain circumstances, allow citizen actions to be structured more easily, but above all by the need to separate a general perception of concrete results. The fact that people think that the internet gives them more power does not automatically result in the actual existence of this power, although it could be argued consistently that perception also influences the action.

Anyway, I believe that we have both concrete social examples to be analyzed, and the methodological and analytical tools to complexifying a little more this discussion and go deep in the analysis of the social consequences of the use of social media in politics and democratic life, especially in terms of participation and popular power.

Reduction of economic inequalities

According to the report, “There are controversies if the internet decreases or not the gap between rich and poor.” Well, it seems to me that the controversy should really be big, since I never heard of any social policy or distribution of income promoted or supported by the “internet” – whatever it is that the word placed in this way wants to say.

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Again it is important to emphasize that it is a question of perception. So the result that 34% disagree with the statement that the internet would have decreased inequality and 31% agree with it only reflects the views of the respondents and not any real data about their lives. I can, however, wonder if there is any sense to this kind of questioning. I can see a few ways how the Internet may have facilitated the training, information, and the search for employment and income for some people. Several studies have devoted attention to this problematic.

But it could be said that “the internet” reduces inequalities? I can not understand how a communication platform, a technology would have this capability. More than that, I worry that with the representative crisis that we live in various parts of the world, we just transfer our expectations that should be put in the political system for systems that, in my view, have the ability to respond to them.

Creation and circulation of alternative information

“Social networks today build a key source of information for most Internet users,” the report said. According to it, six in ten respondents report having read about political issues on social networks in the past 12 months. This is an interesting point and it concerns the actual use that people report doing in digital social networks.

It seems, in fact, that these socialization environments were consolidated as well as important information environments. The next question that needs to be answered is: what do people read in these environments? Often this conclusion that people are informed via social media automatically leads to a speech about the boycott to traditional media, loss of confidence in the large conglomerates of media and the search information considered as alternative.

All this seems possible and plausible. I believe that social media actually creates the possibility of emergence of alternative narratives, views of ordinary people who often are opposed to what the hegemonic media says. It is necessary, however, to know what is really circulating in these environments. Is it only the views of people who use this space to express or do much of what we read on social media is exactly the content of mass media only through another form of distribution?

Again, my goal here, not by far, is to reduce the social role that digital media can have. It is just that I beleive some issues are important to understand more deeply this phenomenon. It is necessary to separate the right to speak and the power to be heard. It is true that in these media everyone can tell their stories and expose their point of view, but that does not mean that these views will be on an equal terms with the news of the mass media, circulating with equal or greater ease in these media.

Increase in political activism

Finally, I want to talk about one last point: how to characterize the online political activism? For the report, the range of online actions that can be characterized as activism is large and ranges from liking a page of a politician on the networks to going to a demonstration organized through social media.

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I believe there are two important points to be addressed here. The first is the characterization of ativimm itself: is liking a page of a politician even a kind of activism? This activism is worth more, less or equal to going to a demonstration? On the one hand it is clear that new forms of activism are now structured, on the other seems to me that one must be a little more careful in what can be considered as such.

Second, there seems to be a persistense to see the online world as separate from offline when in fact I believe that there is increasing convergence between the two. What is a demonstration organized through social media? If a friend invites you in private, by Whatsapp, for the demonstration, this counts as a organized by the networks? Or only if it is done in public? And if a printed newspaper published a story about the demonstration? And if a traditional media company publishes an article about the demonstration on their site and this news is circulating in social media? It seems to me that the interrelations and overlaps between online and offline are so many and so diverse that such separation has increasingly less sense.

These are some points about the social impact of social media that I believe that currently deserve some debate. Without clearing and progressing in the formulation of these issues, the findings on the impacts of online social media tend to be, in my view, still very superficial and incipient.

Nina Santos
Nina Santos é doutoranda no Centro de Análise e Pesquisa Interdisciplinar sobre os Media (CARISM) da Universidade Panthéon-Assas. Tem mestrado em Comunicação e Culturas Contemporâneas pela Universidade Federal da Bahia e especialização em Comunicação e Política pela mesma instituição. Tem experiência profissional no campo da comunicação política, democracia eletrônica e mídias sociais. Durante três anos e meio foi Editora de Mídias Sociais do Instituto Lula.

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