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VoterEcology Summary Report

As a new year just began, we thought it would be useful to look back at the one just past and put together a brief overview of our project’s findings so far. Given the relevance of Google searches to political communication scholarship as well as practice, the aim of this paper is to be informative but at the same time also concise and jargon-free. With examples from the U.S., the UK, Italy and Egypt, this paper points out both challenges and opportunities of embracing Google Trends as not only a platform for business analyses and economic forecasts, but also a ‘knowledge’ tool in much broader contexts.

To download a PDF copy of the VoterEcology Key Findings Report, click here.

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New Publication – Forthcoming Article in First Monday

Filippo Trevisan’s article “Search Engines: From Social Science Objects to Academic Inquiry Tools” was accepted for publication in the inter-disciplinary Internet studies journal First Monday. This piece addresses the challenges and opportunities involved in integrating online tools such as Google Trends in social science research. Publication is scheduled for November or December 2014 – watch this space for a link once the article is available online!

Abstract:

This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in incorporating publicly available search engine data in academic scholarship. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have started to include tools such as Google Trends (http://google.com/trends) in their work. However, a central ‘search engine’ field of inquiry has yet to emerge. Rather, the use of search engine data to address social research questions is spread across many disciplines, which makes search valuable across fields but not critical to any one particular area. In an effort to stimulate a comprehensive debate on these issues, this paper reviews the work of pioneering scholars who devised inventive – if experimental – ways of interpreting data generated through search engine accessory applications and makes the point that search engines should be regarded not only as central objects of research, but also as fundamental tools for broader social inquiry. Specific concerns linked to this methodological shift are identified and discussed, including: the relationship with other, more established social research methods; doubts over the representativeness of search engine data; the need to contextualize publicly available search engine data with other types of evidence; and the limited granularity afforded to researchers by tools such as Google Trends. The paper concludes by reflecting on the combination of search engine data with other forms of inquiry as an example of arguably inelegant yet innovative and effective ‘kludgy’ design (Karpf, 2012).

Context, context, context!

— To watch a short video extract of Dounia Mahlouly’s presentation at the Citizen Media Workshop that inspired this blog post, click here. —

Truly valuable analyses of the socio-political implications of new media technologies –including search engines – ought to be rooted in the local context of the country or countries under scrutiny, with particular attention to pre-existing media systems and the relationship that citizens have with them. While some of us have focused elsewhere on the need for the Internet not to be analysed in isolation from systemic and circumstantial contextual elements, we were reminded again of the importance of this approach when we gave a presentation at a workshop on citizen media hosted by the University of Manchester a few weeks ago. This was a great opportunity to meet other researchers exploring emerging forms of political expression and engagement in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, China, East Asia and the Arab world. Discussions at the event led us to consider some of the specific traits of the Egyptian case within the country case studies selected for the VoterEcology project, as well as on the usefulness of the comparative approach. Expanding our perspective on the use of citizen media helped us to reflect on the inadvertent assumptions and potential ‘ethnocentricity’ that often characterise comparative work on non-Western countries by Western – or more simply West-based – scholars.

Recent literature about the Arab Spring uprisings has veered increasingly towards a critique of Eurocentric and ‘Orientalist’ interpretations of the 2011 protests. Researchers such as Rabab El-Mahdi (2011) and activists such as the members of the ‘Mosireen’ collective have warned about Western analyses according to which social media and cyber-activism would constitute major forces for the democratisation of the Middle East. In their work, these alternative voices have criticised Western scholars for their deterministic approach to new communication technologies and for not paying sufficient attention to the context(s) in which the 2011 revolutions took place. In particular, they pointed out a tendency for Western accounts of the Arab Spring to promote a unilateral perception of democratisation and modernity based on the supposedly Western features of the ‘liberal’ youth in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. This approach – critics claimed – supported the rise of an ‘Arab awakening’ narrative that has influenced not only the ways in which traditional mass media reported the event, but also the discourse of Western governments, as exemplified by the speech that US secretary of State John Kerry gave in Cairo at the beginning of November 2013.

In our work so far, we found that a useful strategy to operate outside such constraints and account instead for fundamental cultural or ideological differences is to focus on how new media technologies are employed rather than asking which tools or devices galvanised the revolutions. While pretty straightforward, this approach has enabled us to avoid addressing the historical evolution of the Arab world by means of unsuited benchmarks and ‘foreign’ concepts. In other words, it is best to focus on the local particularities in order to avoid inappropriate assumptions when examining democratisation in the Middle East. Arguably, the notion of democracy that is prevalent in Western societies stems from a specific ideological framework and therefore fails to reflect the hopes and aspirations that motivate the Egyptian people in the quest for their own democratic development. Considering specific parameters in the study of search engine use helped us circumventing what Edward Said (1979) described as a distorted vision of the East as a ‘projection’ of the West.

Crucially, our study of key search trends in the Egyptian Internet during the presidential elections of 2012 and the coup of summer 2013, was consistent with the idea that democratisation involves the use of new communication technologies to raise issues that traditional mass media fail to express. Even more so, our findings suggested that – unlike in established democracies such as the UK and the U.S. – Egyptian citizens were especially likely to search for an alternative and emerging political discourse. This called for a reflection on the correlation between democracy and political awareness, as well as on the changing configuration of the public sphere in countries that have undergone dramatic regime changes and whose citizens used to be entirely reliant on state-controlled news outlets until recently. In other words, our comparative approach revealed that in Egypt Internet search fulfilled a profoundly democratic function by enabling informational practices aimed at overcoming the structural limitations of the local mass media context. In turn, such a context-oriented use of technology provided a new perspective from which to examine the question of citizenship in Western democracies.

Our observations add to a growing body of evidence that has shown how the main contribution of social media and cyber-activism in the 2011 protests was to facilitate logistics, circumvent censorship and draw the attention of the international community to citizen-powered change in the MENA region (Breuer, 2012). In addition, authors such as Gerbaudo (2012) argued that the online activist campaigns that brought down authoritarian leaders in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia were highly interdependent with street activism and constituted but one of the channels through which citizens recovered their freedom of expression. Another useful example is that of the role of Twitter in the Tunisian revolution. Whereas Western news media narratives enthusiastically portrayed the Tunisian revolts as a ‘Twitter revolution,’ Salem and Mourtada (2011) demonstrated that in fact the number of Twitter users in the country was lower than other social networking platforms. Since then, however, Howard and Hussain (2013) have noted that social media use has been on a steep rise following the revolution. Overall, this is testimony to the fact that, far from operating on a blank canvas, new media always grafts itself onto specific elements of the existing cultural, political and historical context.

Exciting cross-media transformations have occurred since the Arab Spring protests, with dissident bloggers such as Slim Amamou being appointed as a junior minister in the Tunisian interim government of 2011 and YouTube satirist Bassem Youssef offered a programme on a mainstream TV channel in Egypt. Having said that, in order to fully understand the pace and significance of this change, researchers ought to be wary of their own perspective, alert to the assumptions that come with it and capable of breaking free from the dominant narrative if necessary.

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References:

Breuer, A. (2012). The role of Social Media in Mobilizing Political Protests, Evidence from the Tunisian Revolution, Bonn: German Development Institute.

El-Mahdi, R. (2011). Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising. Jadaliyya. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1214/orientalising-the-egyptian-uprising [10.02.2014]

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.

Howard, P. N. and Hussain, M. M. (2013). Democracy’s Fourth wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. London: Vintage Books.

Salem, F. and Mourtada, R. (2011) The Role of Social Media in Arab Women’s Empowerment. Arab Social Media Report. 1(3). 1-26.

Viswanathan, G. (2004). Power, Politics and Culture, Interviews with Edward W. Said. London: Bloomsbury.

Egypt and the Symptoms of a Global Revolution: Alternative Politics

Last October, we presented some preliminary findings from our Egyptian case study at the Political Studies Association’s (PSA) “Challenges to Campaigning” conference at Edinburgh University. A key theme that dominated much of the event was that of low election turnout and decreasing interest in politics among young voters worldwide, especially in “established” democracies such as the UK and the U.S. In turn, this highlighted the uniqueness of the Egyptian case, suggesting that successful youth mobilisation in Egypt could outline the conditions for future manifestations of political engagement elsewhere in the Middle East and, possibly, further afield too.

In particular, our study of search trends during the 2012 Egyptian presidential election revealed that Google use at such a key political juncture was hardly correlated to the content of traditional mass media (i.e. established print and broadcast news providers). Instead, search engine users showed greater interest in alternative political agents such as famous activists, youth organisations and young martyrs of the revolution during the entire period of the Egyptian political crisis, from the 2011 revolt against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime to the army coup that ousted Mohammad Morsi earlier this year. Without being involved in a traditional political structure, these new opinion leaders tried to reach a significant audience by using blogs, digital footage and social media platforms. Crucially, this case study showed the potential outcome of a proactive application of social media and digital technologies by opposition movements when national mass media outlets and traditional political institutions are no longer regarded as reliable.

Internet use in Egypt as well as elsewhere in the Middle East increased exponentially over the past decade, connecting a new mass of radicalised youth. Indeed, online communication flows have not only provided opposition movements with the ability to share ideas and ideologies, but also enabled young users to circumvent social taboos (Wheeler, 2006) and experience unconstrained relationships. In light of this, one could reasonably argue that the Egyptian youth has become the most prolific and proactive contributor to the nation’s newly formed “online public sphere,” relaying street protests and promoting opposition movements when traditional mass media outlets were restricted by the government as well as the military.

These trends resonate with broad strands in communication and media theory. In particular, one of the common assumptions shared in contemporary media studies lies in the fact that participative digital technologies confirm Lazarsfeld’s theory of the two-step flow of communication (1955), which states that every individual acts as a potential opinion leader within their social circle. As they rediscover the significance of interpersonal relationships (Lazarsfeld: 1940), social scientists examine whether participative and connective interactions enable new forms of political engagement by increasing the influence of alternative opinion leaders. Such a hypothesis appears to be particularly relevant in the Egyptian context, as social media and digital technologies succeeded in leading the opposition against Mubarak’s former government and achieved efficient political action. Given that the Internet is applied as an alternative source of information and a tool for resistance, the use of search engines in Egypt is consonant with citizens’ interest for a new range of political stakeholders that clash with traditional representative structures. More broadly, this reveals the opening of a new type of political space that is extremely fluid and at the moment seems unlikely to become stabilised any time soon.

Check for updates here as we develop our Google Trends data analysis and further compare the role of search engines in shaping emergent versus established democracies. If you wish to read more about our initial considerations on Internet search in the new Egyptian media ecology, click here <Mahlouly_Google and Egyptian Elections> to download Dounia Mahlouly’s paper for the “Challenges to Campaigning” PSA conference.

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References:

  • Berelson, B., Gaudet,H and Lazarsfeld, P.F. 1944. The people’s choice: how the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Kats, E. and Lazarsfeld, P. F. 1955. Personal Influence. New York: Free Press.
  • Wheeler, D. 2006. ‘Empowering publics: Information Technology and democratization in the Arab World-Lessons from Internet cafés and beyond.’ Oxford Internet Institute (11), pp. 1-18.