Book Review: Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics

Loader, Brian D. and Dan Mercea, eds., Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics. New York: Routledge, 2012. 288 pages. $150.00 (hardcover). ISBN-10: 041568370X

Social media sites provide users with outlets for entertainment, sharing, and games. But can social networking sites influence, or even encourage, digital democracy? Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics, edited by Brian D. Loader and Dan Mercea, looks at the relationship between social media, democracy, and citizenship.1

Loader and Mercea’s introductory chapter provides essential background information about the Internet and democracy. In the mid- to late-90s, scholars held an optimistic view of the Internet and its democratic potential. Virtual public forums, claimed researchers, would give each citizen a say in political matters. The editors note that the fledgling Internet may not have lived up to such hopeful predictions. However, the advent of social networking sites caused some to re-examine democratic possibilities on the web. This context helps the reader understand the collected works that follow. The editors include a brief summary of each chapter before turning the pages over to the authors themselves.

Part I, “Pushing the Boundaries of Digital Political Participation,” concerns social movements. This is the shortest section of the book, with only two chapters. In the first, Lance Bennet and Alexandra Segerberg focus on social media and political protests. They compare and contrast communication on two G20 Summit protest websites. The authors claim that the rise of individuality has infiltrated the collectivism of political causes and issues. Online activists seek to define issues in their own terms rather than accept blanket mission statements. The authors determine that one of the protest sites effectively used “personalized communication strategies”2 to mobilize activists while still maintaining a degree of control over the message.

Part II of the book provides the reader with four chapters on the intersection of traditional and social media. Chapter 4 analyzes how news sources in the United Kingdom and Canada frame poverty. In chapter 5, Cristian Vaccari investigates how traditional Italian media outlets use social media and finds that they use online networks to promote their own political agenda. Vaccari claims that, rather than promoting free and open politics, these companies use online engagement to extend “the media’s own political leverage.”3

The authors of chapter 6 look at online reactions to political commentary on traditional news outlets. Viewers often supplement or critique expert opinions using social media. For example, Twitter users will often tweet hashtags (keywords attached to a post) related to topics of interest. This takes the reader into chapter 7, in which Tamara Small studies the nature of the Canadian political hashtag #cdnpoli. Her investigation found that political hashtags provide information more than they promote political debate.

The overall theme for part III is a disconnect between young people and political processes. Most of these final chapters focus on various ways the Internet can improve youth participation in politics. In chapter 8, Bengtsson and Christensen find that the Internet can provide access to marginalized groups and activate a segment of the population that would not otherwise engage with political affairs. The authors also conclude that online participants are just as competent as the offline citizenry.

The juxtaposition of chapters 9 through 12 provide the reader with different points of view on young people, social media, and politics. Chapter 9 looks at the web strategy of youth organizations in the United Kingdom from the organizations’ point of view. Janelle Ward finds that these websites do not adequately utilize social media. Chapter 10 studies how youth themselves perceive the features of civic websites. Roman Gerodimos concludes that several factors, from design to content, influence how teens see these sites.

Chapter 11 also finds youth-oriented civic websites as a topic worthy of scrutiny. Ariadne Vromen analyzes several Austrailan websites and discovers that most use a top-down approach to connect with young people, leaving little room for interaction. And in chapter 12, Giovanna Mascheroni finds that, overall, Italian youth use social networking sites for non-political purposes. Divisions between active and non-active offline citizens are recreated online.

The closing chapter does not fit into the theme of youth and political participation but provides insight into the Internet’s ability to provide voice to networked groups. Authors Jodi Cohen and Jennifer Raymond observe communication among women on pregnancy-specific Internet forums and find them an outlet for dialogue, peer support, and self-empowerment. In a society that can often downplay women’s concerns over pregnancy, the forums play a central role in pregnant women’s lives. While the results of this study are interesting, the link between this study and participatory politics is not as cut and dry.

Social Media and Democracy would likely interest undergraduate students from both political science and communication studies programs. One caution, however, is that some chapters are more concept-dense than others. For example, several chapters reference ‘networked individualism’ and the idea of ‘web 2.0.’ These ideas may be foreign to those outside of the communication field. The writing style in most chapters is intended for a more academic audience. The reader should also realize that the book is international in scope. Studies are conducted across the UK, Canada, Finland, Italy, and Australia. One looking for a variety of studies based in the United States, or on US-specific political affairs, may wish to search for other sources. Nevertheless, Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics proves a useful tool for the student interested in learning more about how and to what extent social media influences the political landscape.

Notes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Brian D. Loader and Dan Mercea, eds., Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012).
  2. W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action: Social Technology and the Organization of Protests against the Global Economic Crisis,” in Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics, ed. Brian D. Loader and Dan Mercea (New York: Routledge, 2012), 36.
  3. Cristian Vaccari, “The News Media as Networked Political Actors: How Italian Media Are Reclaiming Political Ground by Harnessing Online Participation,” in Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics, ed. Brian D. Loader and Dan Mercea (New York: Routledge, 2012), 88.
William R. Smith

About William R. Smith

William R. Smith is a graduate student in the Arts, Communication, Technology, and Society program at Clemson University. His research interests include technology's impact on fitness activities, specifically how GPS applications influence recreational mountain biking experiences.
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