Tag Archives: Research Methods

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.

Turning the Pyramid Upside Down

By Filippo Trevisan, 6th Aug. 2013

Joe Trippi, campaign manager for U.S. presidential hopeful Howard Dean in 2003-4, once explained that in the era of online campaigns “What you’ve got to do, is you have to have two-way communication. It’s the bond, to be able to talk to each other about you, that is important.” At the time, such words may have sounded like heresy to those used to traditional “top-down” campaigns. Ten years on, they make instead for basic textbook remarks on democratic electioneering. Campaigning has come a staggeringly long way in a very short amount of time. Politicians want citizens to get in touch through online media because it helps them build a winning campaign. Yet, can we be sure that citizens are equally as eager to hear from politicians as Trippi’s remarks seem to imply? Couldn’t it rather be that today’s voters, with so many online resources at their disposal, are building their own “election agenda” instead of relying on “managed” campaign information? After all, one could be forgiven for thinking that being able to track Barack Obama’s favourite dining spots in real time can only prelude to a better-than-ever-informed citizenry.

The idea of emancipated voters who make the most of their technological proficiency to break free of electoral information hegemony is a captivating one, but the truth is that we still don’t quite know whether this actually happens. In fact, doubts on the pluralising effects of online campaigning started to emerge in the very early days of Web 2.0 technology. Shockingly for cyber-enthusiasts, scholars such as Philip Howard (2006) pointed out that by “redlining some constituents and communities and then narrowcasting political content, hypermedia campaigns diminish the amount of shared text in the public sphere” (p. 183). In other words, personalised information feeds and tailored messages would restrict, not enhance, pluralism and participation. From a pragmatic point of view, this is perhaps not as much as a surprise as it may seem at first. As Kreiss (2012) explained in his work on the Dean and Obama campaigns, “campaigns simply are not designed to be the training grounds of radical democratic participation that many desire” (p. 183). Thus, “many supporters not only accept but embrace this, given […] the objective is to defeat rivals, not remake democracy” (ibid.). That said, our knowledge of information flows at election times remains confined to what Lilleker and Vedel (2013) have termed “supply-side studies,” which focus on campaign messages rather than asking where else citizens get their information from before heading to the polls.

To use a metaphor, it’s time for researchers to turn the pyramid upside down. That means, start by asking how voters navigate and interact with the virtually limitless “sea” of online information, as well as mapping those practices against campaign messages and traditional news coverage of election issues more broadly. To this effect, some have analysed how people use Twitter before, during and after televised debates and current affairs programs. That has yielded some interesting results, but at the same time it’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse or preparing the icing before even looking for a cake recipe. Despite increasing in numbers, being particularly vocal and arguably influential, Twitter users remain a minority among internet users. What, then, about the broader picture? Some have sounded internet users through traditional surveys, but one has to wonder whether there are better ways of capturing informational practices in the digital age. We believe that a good place to start in this process could be mapping user-interests using Google Trends: What types of information do voters search for in times of elections? How do they search? Are they guided by established mass media templates and official campaign messages, or capitalise on the relative freedom provided by search engines to create their own “search agenda”? And finally, what role does search occupy in the nascent “new media ecology”?

As search contends with email to be the most popular online activity in the U.S. and remains the primary way through which British users access information on the internet, acquiring a detailed overview of search patterns would ensure as representative a base as possible for comparing the interests of online citizens to the agendas of both politicians and traditional mass media outlets, which can be mapped using more traditional methods. For example, Google Trends suggests that British internet users became increasingly interested in knowing about a “hung parliament” as the 2010 general election approached despite politicians doing their best to avoid talking about this issue.

Fluctuations in search volume for “hung parliament” on Google.co.uk, March-April 2010

Fluctuations in search volume for “hung parliament” on Google.co.uk, March-April 2010

Was it traditional mass media coverage that inspired voters to search for information on this possible scenario, or were they rather using search to remedy the lack of information on this issue in mainstream channels? Indeed, unravelling this type of issues is bound to throw up some important methodological challenges, as I discussed recently in a dedicated paper, and require an inductive approach, as search trends are likely to be uncovered by testing for a wide range of potentially relevant keywords rather than merely anticipated on the basis of theoretical assumptions. That said, this promises to be an exciting journey in which, once overarching trends as well as standout search “events” have been identified through Google Trends, multiple methods can be employed to map how key messages are generated, shared, and re-framed across different media platforms in times of elections in a process that could be conceptualised as “nexus analysis.”

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References:

  • Howard, P. (2006). New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kreiss, D. (2012). Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lilleker, D. and Vedel, T. (2013). “The Internet in Campaigns and Elections,” in Dutton, W. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 401-420.