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An Explanation of Clay Shirky's "The political power of social media: technology, the public sphere, and political change."

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Ryanne Tiffany

on 10 October 2013

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Transcript of An Explanation of Clay Shirky's "The political power of social media: technology, the public sphere, and political change."

Clay Shirky - "The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change"
Benefits of social media

Robert D. Putnam discussed the theory of social capital in the early 1990’s and explained that “social capital refers to features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. Social capital enhances the benefits of investment in physical and human capital (Putnam). “ It would have been almost impossible for him to know that he was in fact describing the benefits of social media.

Shirky explains that as a result of social media making political participation available to the masses “there is an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.”

Social Media Skepticism
Shirky presents two arguments that are skeptical of the possibility social media making a difference in national politics

1) The tools are ineffective
2) "They produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent" (Shirky).

Examples of Success
Malcolm Gladwell cites the Woolworths sit-ins of the 1960’s American civil rights movement as a true activism success story compared to Moldova’s anti-communist revolution of 2009. The differences between the protests are according to Gladwell the tools. Moldova is defined by the social media that organized it while the “events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter” (Gladwell). Gladwell conveniently dismisses the role that television played in the Woolworth sit-ins.

Shirky on the other hand counts the Moldova a success because “the Communist Party lost power in Moldova in 2009 when massive protests coordinated in part by text message, Facebook, and Twitter broke out after an obviously fraudulent election” (Shirky).
Examples of Failure
Shirky lists the following protests as failures, each of which were ended by government crackdowns:
• Belarus in March 2006
• Green Movement in Iran in June 2009
• The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010

In closing, Shirky suggests social media is a form of assembly and that that freedom should be a higher priority in the U.S.’s attempt to promote internet freedom in other countries. Although Shirky does not discount access to information as being a priority as well. Slacktivism ultimately does not seem to hinder political activism as much as outdated methods of prioritizing levels of freedom that can help to do in weakened authoritative governments.
The Future
Works Cited

Feder, Barnaby J. "They Weren't Careful What They Hoped For." 29 May 2002. The New York Times. 4 October 2013 <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/29/nyregion/they-weren-t-careful-what-they-hoped-for.html?src=pm>.

Gladwell, Malcolm. "Small Change." 4 October 2010. The New Yorker. 4 October 2013 <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell>.

Shirky, Clay. "The political power of social media: technology, the public sphere, and political change." Foreign Affairs 90.1 (2011): 28. Academic OneFile. Web. 21 Sep. 2012.

Waters, TJ. "Social Media and the Arab Spring ." 14 November 2012. Small Wars Journal. 6 October 2013 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/social-media-and-the-arab-spring>.

Do digital tools enhance democracy?
Clay Shirky’s “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change" discusses the benefits of social media as a “tool for collective action” (Shirky), and gives examples of successes and failures in various countries. The question posed by Shirky is:
Do digital tools enhance democracy? Or as Malcolm Gladwell proposes, does social media promote slacktivism?
Perils of Internet Freedom
According to Shirky Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2010 that the U.S. will be taking an "instrumental approach to Internet freedom” which focuses on preventing censorship to sites “such as Google, YouTube, or that of The New York Times” (Shirky). It is Shirky’s opinion that by focusing on Western generated media content, simple tools like cell phones that can be used for organization are overlooked in favor of computers, which are not necessary for social media, led discourse and action (Shirky).
The Theater of Collapse
In the section, Theater of Collapse Shirky suggests that the spread of ideas in a literate connected society can help defeat a weakened government. The printing press, photocopiers, and now social media help to create spaces where the population can share grievances, which can contribute to an eventual collapse.
The Conservative Dilemma
The conservative dilemma is a quandary in which governments and business leaders find themselves in. For businesses and economies to flourish, access to the internet is necessary. When citizens unite against their government and organize online, the option to completely black out the communications grid is no longer there for authoritarian regimes.
The argument for ineffectiveness is made by Barnaby Feder in his New York Times article They Weren't Careful What They Hoped For in which he describes how good deeds gone viral can go awry with this statement “It's all fed by slacktivism, the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair (Feder).'' Shirky goes on to point out that “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively” (Shirky).

The Chinese government is an example of the second argument, an authoritarian state that uses censorship and surveillance in order to disrupt the politically synchronizing effects of social media by limiting access to information as much as possible (Shirky).
The Arab Spring of 2010 is an example of social capital merging with social media in order to effect change. T.J. Waters states that “Isolationism, a difficult strategy in even the best of times, is guaranteed to fail in an increasingly interconnected global world. News stories make for dramatic political pressure in both the Arab and Western worlds, a tactic likely to be repeated by other groups in the future” (Waters).
Moldova Protest 2009
In the article, the political power of social media: technology, the public sphere, and political change Shirky addresses the skepticism surrounding political change via social media. Though there are slacktivists who do not use the full potential of the internet for social change, Shirky points out that this has been the case with new technology since the printing press.
Full transcript