Monday, 14 October 2013

Scholarly post: Political Microblogging

One of the many consequences of the rise of social media has been the increased prominence of political microblogging. As defined by Kaplan and Haenlein (2011, p. 106), microblogs are mediums 'which allow users to exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, individual images, or video links'. To what extent, however, have such platforms had an influence on the political landscape throughout the world? Through analysing a number of case studies across the globe in recent times - in both Western and non-Western contexts - and where microblogging sites have been perceived to play a major role in advancing democracy, we evaluate the apparent achievements as well as highlight some of the exaggerations present when championing these mediums.

Twitter is a microblogging platform which has allowed
for political issues to be discusses and opinions to be
aired (Source: Twitter)
Arguably the most noted and influential of the microblogging family is Twitter, which has regularly been examined in recent years in order to ascertain the relationship between the medium and political discourse -- particularly, the role the platform plays in advancing channels of democracy.

One such study has been that of Larsson and Moe, who conducted a content analysis of Twitter use during the 2010 Swedish election campaign. Among their findings, which analysed close to 100,000 tweets, Larsson and Moe (2011, p. 741) concluded that 'Twitter contributes to a broadening of public debate: it constitutes a novel arena for mediated public communication, and the sheer number of tweets ... testifies to its use'. 
Indeed, one need not to look at only Sweden to recognise such a trend.
In Australia, Twitter has been increasingly utilised by mainstream television programs in order to foster interactivity between the shows' content and its audiences. Perhaps this is no more evident than in Q&A, a weekly ABC1 program featuring a panel of, usually, five political figures, with guests discussing current political affairs and answering questions from a studio audience.

Thanks to the Twitter hashtag function, which allows users to categorise topics (such as '#QandA'), audiences are able to interact and assert their opinions on the issues being discussed by guests on the program (Twitter 2013). On average, more than 21,000 tweets with the 'QandA' hashtag are posted each episode, with a selection of tweets published on screen during the live program (Olivieri 2013; ABC 2013).
Although this is a sign Twitter plays a major role in facilitating political discussion between a large array of citizens, one must recognise the medium's limitations. Larsson and Moe (2011, p. 741) do so in their aforementioned content analysis, citing a relationship suggesting the volume of tweets are dominated by a minority. 

Certainly, if microblogging platforms such as Twitter are to be seen as a trusted and legitimate arena representing the wider citizenry's views, then the mediums must be consistently and, arguably, evenly utilised by each member of the community.
Host of  'Q&A', Tony Jones (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Iran is another area of the world where microblogging has been seen to have influence over the political discourse in recent times. In 2009, following the Iranian presidential election, scores of local citizens heavily utilised mediums such as Twitter in their protests against what they saw as electoral corruption whereby Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected to the presidency.

As hundreds of thousands took to the streets to campaign against the alleged fraud, and as the situation quickly turned bloody, Twitter became a vital tool for Iranian activists to communicate with each other, as well as with the rest of the world. The Washington Times labelled the demonstrations as a ‘Twitter revolution’, editorialising at the time: ‘The immediacy of the reports was gripping. Well-developed Twitter lists showed a constant stream of situation updates and links to photos and videos, all of which painted a portrait of the developing turmoil' (The Washington Times 2009). So important was the perceived role of Twitter that the social media site rescheduled a ‘critical network upgrade’ in order to keep the platform functioning and to remain serving as an ‘important communication tool in Iran’ (Stone 2009).

In response to the use of Twitter and other social media sites to coordinate and encourage protests, the Ahmadinejad-led government moved to censor dissident voices, briefly shutting off the Internet service and blocking certain sites (Moscaritolo 2009). More than four years on, and Iran’s Minister of Communication Mahmoud Vaezi has been quoted as stating the social media ban will remain in place, though later denied making such remarks (Associated Press 2013). Evidently, the restrictions placed on these mediums by the Iranian government highlight the perceived power and, indeed, threat of social media to governments. Partly through the censorship of microblogging sites like Twitter, Iran has managed to maintain political stability and fend off growing discontent with the governing body.

However, the following question must be asked: To what extent does Twitter actually drive political change? Certainly, in the case of Iran, there are critics who believe that the role of the medium has been drastically overstated. Golnaz Esfandiari (2010) is one such person, dismissing the notion of a “Twitter revolution” and claiming that ‘good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity’. Evgeny Morozov is another to join the chorus of those downplaying Twitter’s influence in Iran, asserting that users of the site in the Islamic state were largely unrepresentative of the general population. According to Morozov (2009, p. 12), Iran’s Twitter users are ‘mostly pro-Western, technology-friendly … young people’ whom represent a ‘tiny and, most important, extremely untypical segment of the Iranian population’. Indeed, such assertions have weight. For a “revolution” to succeed, large and widespread involvement must be evident. Making claims of a “Twitter revolution” and attributing major credit to the site for pushing opposition activity, therefore, seem insubstantial and, ultimately, naive. Despite this, the blocking of the microblogging medium means that the site’s role must not have been insignificant, either.

Certainly, it is worth discussing the idea of the fascination and emphasis on Twitter’s role in places such as Iran as being little more than technological determinism. Developed by Marshall McLuhan, technological determinism is a theory which sees media technology as shaping how individuals in a society ‘think, feel, act, and how … society operates as we move from one technological age to another’ (University of Kentucky 2001). Such philosophy ties in with the notion that the world is entering a stage of ‘networked democracy’, whereby globalisation and cultural advancement is troubling traditional forms of democracy, and so new interactive technologies and social media are providing opportunities for the evolution of a ‘more informed populace and a more direct, involved democracy’ (NetworkedDemocracy 2007).

Whilst, as mentioned earlier with the case study of the Swedish election, mediums such as Twitter allow for a broadening of public debate, is their influence in this field being largely exaggerated? According to some writers, it is. As Tilly (2004, p. 98) argues, ‘most new features of social movements result from alterations in their social and political contexts rather than from technical innovations as such’. Indeed, whilst modern technology may allow for faster mobilisation through, for example, microblogging sites, much of the overall contours mirror earlier social movements from past centuries, in which citizens published challenges to authority and planned for civil disobedience. As a result, it would be incorrect to assert that microblogging platforms and similar technologies are the central, driving force behind political movements. However, these new mediums have certainly altered the methods of organisation, where protesters can gather faster, as well as ‘attack’ government resources through a so-called ‘cyber-war’.

In conclusion, the role of microblogging sites within the political arena is a complex one. In the cases of Sweden and Australia, as has been shown, usage of such platforms have proliferated and arguably contributed to the public debate by allowing people to easily and instantly publish their political opinions to a large audience. Moreover, this practice has been advanced by the integration of such microblogs into mainstream television, where some messages can be displayed “live” on-screen as the program is broadcast. The popularity and extent of such participation can be seen by the sheer quantity of ‘QandA’ messages posted on Twitter for that particular Australian program each episode.

However, at the same time, one must be objective and acknowledge that much of the political content posted on sites like Twitter tend to be dominated by a minority. Consequently, making claims that new social media is a driving force behind the advancement of democracy seems to be a weak and premature claim.

Few places is this more evident than in non-Western states such as Iran, where in recent years microblogs have been hailed as revolutionising society and advancing government opposition. Yet, much like in Sweden and Australia, Twitter users in these countries are largely unrepresentative of the overall populace, and so their anti-government posts, for example, are extremely unlikely to generate political upheaval. It should be mentioned, though, that the decision by the Iran government to block such social media sites demonstrates fear towards the power of the medium to instantly disseminate information to a large, worldwide audience, and so the influence of microblogs should not be seen as totally obsolete.

Furthermore, much of the credit provided to Twitter-like sites tends to be overstated, and ignores the changing political and social contexts within a society that leads to democratic uprisings.

Whilst microblogs are innovative and have had success by providing a new arena for political discourse to take place, it faces many challenges before it can be heralded as a cornerstone to democracy. Notably, its mediums must be widely accessible and utilised by the populace if the views expressed are to be deemed legitimately representative.


ABC 2013, 'Q&A's moderated twitter feed', retrieved 2 September 2013, <>. 

Associated Press 2013, ‘Official: Iran won’t unblock Facebook, Twitter’, Yahoo News, 7 October, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.

Esfandiari, G 2010, ‘The Twitter Devolution’, Foreign Policy, 7 June, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.

Kaplan, AM & Haenlein, M 2011, 'The early bird catches the news: Nine things you should know about micro-blogging', Business Horizons, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 105-113.

Larsson, AO & Moe, H 2011, 'Studying political microblogging: Twitter users in the 2010 Swedish election campaign', New Media and Society, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 729-747.

Morozov, E 2009, ‘Iran: Downside to the “Twitter Revolution”’, Dissent, Fall 2009, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, pp. 10-14.

Moscaritolo, A 2009, ‘Iran election protesters use Twitter to recruit hackers’, SC Magazine, 15 June, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.

NetworkedDemocracy 2007, ‘About’, 18 October, retrieved 15 October 2013, <>.

Olivieri, N 2013, 'The real stars of Q&A: the faces behind the faceless tweets', The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February, retrieved 2 September 2013, <>.

Stone, B 2009, ‘Down Time Rescheduled’, Twitter, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.

The Washington Times 2009, ‘EDITORIAL: Iran’s Twitter revolution’, The Washington Times, 16 June, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.
Tilly, C 2004, Social Movements 1768-2004, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, pp. 95-98, 108-113.

Twitter 2013, Using hashtags on Twitter, retrieved 2 August 2013, <>. 

University of Kentucky 2001, ‘Technological Determinism Theory’, Spring 2001 Theory Workbook, retrieved 14 October 2013, <>.