This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.
The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.
Twitter-Gewitter and Facebook Fads?
Network platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube reach an online community of millions and have been growing at an exponential rate. Twitter has shot up to become one of the fastest growing Internet sites since its inception in 2006 – the possibilities for global connections and mobilization seem endless and chime somewhat with studies that have shown that an increased use of the Internet facilitates civic participation. Specifically in the contemporary context, where a decline in political engagement among young people has been diagnosed and much documented, the potential of social networks to reignite shared social and political interests seems potent. Indeed, as some have noted, the Internet has widely been hyped as the ultimate, if not only, channel that holds the potential to garner young people’s interest in politics and public affairs today. However, it seems that studies offer mixed evidence and opinions are highly divided as to whether online social networks have the capacity to spur people into political participation or not. While some consider the mobilizing capacity of Facebook and Twitter an indispensable asset for political action in today’s web-oriented social and political context, others maintain that it cannot lead to an increase in political action proper as the consequences of assembling in a virtual realm for a social or political cause rarely translates into offline action. In other words, it is not entirely clear how virtual online activism affects the reality that is to be acted upon in an offline context. All too frequent, perhaps, the conflation of political information exchange with political action per se in this context.
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, social networks have been attributed as instrumental factors in the removal and / or overturn of dictatorships and bringing about democracy in its basic shape – as technology scholar Evgeny Morozov sardonically puts it: “Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = Democracy. QED.” It is often suggested that Facebook and Twitter have played not only a peripheral but indeed a pivotal role in the uprisings in the Arab world, in line with Wael Ghonim’s claim that the “power of the people is greater than the people in power” in Revolution 2.0. Egypt is the case in point, where the power of social networks is said to not only have initiated but also facilitated the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in 2011. In this view, the very roots of the revolution stem from demonstrations and are linked to the use of online social networks, based on the sheer numbers of socially networked potential participants. Social networks, and Facebook here specifically, thus crystallize as a proxy realm for a free public space, occluded in a totalitarian regime. Within this proxy realm of communicative freedom, social network users in Egypt (and beyond) have developed ties and relations with one another in solidarity for a shared struggle for change. But not so fast.
As the name suggests, social networks are primarily used for social purposes. Facebook specifically aims to connect people that have already existing relationships, as peripheral as they might be, and where a distinct social association is already in place. Twitter, on the other hand, has the capacity to connect hitherto un-associated and unaffiliated people from a much wider spectrum and without the explicit demand of reciprocity. Research has also shown that social networks are chiefly used for entertainment and staying connected with existing affiliations. A 2009 PearAnalytics study suggests that the core content of Twitter feeds is personal with either conversational tweets (37.5%) or ‘pointless babble’ (40%). Informational tweets follow at a distance with 8.7%, self-promoting tweets made up 5.7% and only 3.6% tweets relate to news – almost as many as spam tweets with 3.75%. Granted, the speed with which these platforms and their reach develop render them inherently tricky to capture statistically. Nonetheless, the ratio is indicative.
All this to say: based on existing studies and research, it remains obscure what online social networks can do that does not rely on offline social networks, specifically in the context of creating political action and power.
Enter: Hannah Arendt.
Arendt in the Cybersphere, or what of Revolution 2.0?
By looking through an Arendtian lens, I am focussing on some of the key aspects in the formation of political action and power: plurality and the existence of a global public sphere. At first glance there are a considerable number of characteristics constituting social networks that naturally seem to fall into the often-strict categories that Arendt assessed in the context of the human condition: they offer a public space within which an essentially plural (global) humanity can come together in difference, they work essentially through the medium of speech, which is the constitutive character for political action in the widest Arendtian sense and, in their character as a meeting place, carry the potential for people to actualize power in a political pursuit. But we’d be amiss in taking these congruences on face value without looking at least a little more closely into the nuances.
Twitter et al as a Global Public Sphere
On a cursory reading it would seem that social networks, as a human artefact, are a natural extension of what Hannah Arendt would approvingly consider as a human made world within which all aspects of the human condition can unfold. Arendt attached great importance to this: humans are unlikely to be fully human unless they live in a duality of human-made worldly facets and the natural aspects of the earth as an environment. This human-made world of artifice also provides, in a quite literal sense, the space (as in distance as well as in sphere) for humans to interact, take up different positions and reflect in plurality upon the common world from varying perspectives. It is only in this artificial world that people, in their togetherness, can gain a “grasp of reality that nobody can achieve on their own” – Arendt’s words. The artificiality here is crucial as it provides a structure upon which the human narrative of a shared world can unfold and, unlike the perpetual cyclicality and circularity of nature and life processes, creates shared meaning and ties to a common world. In the broadest sense, social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, built by and on human-made artifice, do just that. They offer an artificial architectural structure within which humans can trade different views, perspectives, and experiences and come to constitute new beginnings for a shared world. It serves as the inter-esse, the in-between for speech and action upon which the web of human relationships is built. Furthermore, this virtual realm can serve, as we have seen in the Egyptian example, as a proxy realm to resort to when the physic public sphere has been tyrannically restricted.
However, as with most things, it’s not as easy as that. For Arendt, a shared world of human-made artifice is much more cultural than technological. She relates the artifice to its original root – art – as a model for human fabrication, rather than the scientifically rooted constructions of technology. This stems in part from a deep skepticism toward an increasingly technocratic modernity that she saw as highly problematic in a political and social context. So, as a feature of a man-made world within which humans can fully unfold, such artifices as social networks don’t meet one of the key requirements she stipulates for artefacts as constitutive of a shared and common world: durability. The ever-fluctuating and dynamic nature of an online social network architecture, may come and go in various incarnations and remain entirely intangible. Arendt has something much more graspable in mind when she considers this public sphere of human exchange and inter-action. She would be critical of the temporary nature of this realm – it is erected for the here and now, the speed with which this realm develops, enters and leaves the realities of men makes it inherently non-transcendent, it is planned for the living only. In her words: “Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm is possible”.
Another aspect might be problematic in this context: the actual scope and ability of social networks to truly connect people on a larger scale. Recent studies have shown that despite carrying unlimited potential for possible connections, both Facebook and Twitter actually appear to have immanent limitations that relate to our limitations as humans to connect. The apparent unlimited scope of social networks as global networks thus stands in question. As Chris Taylor highlights, even social networks tend toward tribalism. A study conducted by the University of Indiana has shown that Twitter users can only maintain between 100-200 contacts in order to not get overwhelmed – despite being theoretically connected to thousands more users. In other words, Twitter users only converse meaningfully with a few hundred other users before it becomes simply too much. Furthermore, as the Pearanalytics study, among others, shows, the number of people contributing within and to the global public Twittersphere is considerably less than those who consume the tweets, with 5% of Twitter users contributing 75% of the tweets. This raises the question as to how equal, egalitarian and political (in the Arendtian sense) this sphere can possibly be. It furthermore calls into question the condition of plurality in this context.
Social or Political: The Problem with Plurality
When considering social networks as potentially political power creating (or facilitating) structures, we should remember that they are primarily social platforms, and not political ones. To conflate the two does not do justice to the potential efficacy (or lack thereof) of social networks as instruments. As we have seen earlier, the chief use of social networks is for entertainment and to connect with friends and acquaintances. When considering plurality in this context we must keep this distinction in mind. In society, people gravitate toward association, in a discriminatory (in the most literal sense of the word) manner, equality is not granted but rather people seek to associate homogenously – like with like.
For Arendt, perhaps controversially, there is an inherent right to discriminate in the social realm. Arendt’s argument to the right to discrimination in the social (public) realm is based on her understanding of the individual uniqueness of each person as a comprehensive ‘who’, not merely a ‘what’. This plurality in the public realm is, as I have outlined, the very cornerstone of politics in the public sphere for Arendt – it is not required for the social spaces. Only if we are to understand the social realm as a pre-political condition does her argumentation remain in line with her priority for plurality. In the social sphere, we tend to gravitate toward sameness. A social realm dominated exclusively by the drive toward association with the homogeneous thus must be primarily considered as not belonging to the political sphere per se and carries the potential to become the most treacherous realm in modernity as, in its extreme potential for conformity, difference is always in danger of becoming diminished, leaving those natural attributes that can not be made ‘conform’ an obvious parameter for inclusion/exclusion practices in societies. It is in the conflation, or perhaps confusion, of the social with the political that an inherently exaggerated assumption of the political potential of social network lurks. In other words, when heterogeneity (or plurality) is not observed and homogeneity dominates, behaviour is substituted for action and true politics can thus not emerge, in Arendt’s account. Given that, as we have seen earlier, social network users tend to have a more active exchange among a homogeneous group of people, the efficacy of social networks for political purposes remains doubtful. But even if plurality is not entirely ensured in the social network sphere – what of social networks as a channel to appear and reveal oneself to others through speech?
Could Tweets be Considered Speech?
Speech is a key aspect of politics and political action in the Arendtian account. In her writing she frequently refers to speech as essential and as action as constituted in word and deed, however, the content of what constitutes speech as political action remains obscured and we could only guess at what Arendt might think of tweets as speech acts. The social networking sphere as a disembodied realm for humans to come together in a revelatory capacity would perhaps be appealing to Arendt, while the restrictive nature of confining oneself to ‘speaking’ within 140 characters would almost certainly have fallen on def ears in the Arendtian account. Given that the majority of tweets relate to personal, conversational or trivial issues, located entirely in a social sphere, it is likely that Arendt would have considered such content not to constitute revelatory speech at all. Facebook as a medium is perhaps even less appropriate to consider as constituting true speech acts. While ‘speech’is a much broader category than action, and could or may comprise social aspects, Arendt had no time for speech acts as self-expression as contributing anything to the creation of a shared world. It is precisely this aspect of self-expression that is central to the use of Facebook and, to a degree, Twitter.
Being with others takes places only remotely and in a mediated fashion and constitutes often predominantly a broadcasting rather than an in-depth engagement – granted, there are exceptions. This begs the question: in a virtual existence, are we truly among humans? Can we be among humans in the virtual realm? Is not the scope of appearance so vastly limited that it cannot possibly be considered as a public/political act? And is not the radical selectivity as to how much we reveal (and are able to do so) inherently an obstacle to politics proper and authentic political action in contemporary society? And with all these limitation, can power truly be created through social networks? I imagine Arendt would answer these questions with a resounding “Nein”!
The Problem with Virtual Power
As with the public sphere, there are some obvious matching features of social networks in light of Arendt’s understanding of what constitutes power. Social networks are inherently contingent, exchanges are ephemeral and power created through and within social networks is actualized and only appears to last momentarily. The seemingly unlimited scope of the social network appears to be boundless, supporting the boundlessness of power as such. Activity generated through such networks appear to have a basis in potentiality as well. They adhere to dynamics that are in themselves contingent and ephemeral. During high profile events, such as sporting events or a celebrity misfortune, Twitter use skyrockets, causing servers to crash and online services to slow down. Twitter use, for example, shot up disproportionately when the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death broke. A similar phenomenon can be observed with Facebook. Similarly, as we have seen with the #Kony2012 campaign, activity can flare up in flurries, raising awareness and perhaps mobilizing people to become engaged and active in a relatively short period of time, yet dissipating almost as quickly as the phenomenon occurred.
However, the creation of power among people coming together in a virtual realm is severely dependent on access to the platform. This in turn may very well be influenced by governments who have an interest in limiting the scope of virtual assembly and the gathering and dissemination of information, as has been the case in Egypt, China and other societies on the cusp of popular flare-ups. It is also a platform that is not independent of interests – not only can governments shut down or censor or otherwise interfere with the “freedom” of this particular virtual space, but with an endless potentiality of information flow we only ever receive a selection of issues that are intended to be highlighted. The alleged limitless freedom of the cybersphere may, then, be somewhat deceiving.
The fundamental role of social networks in the creation of popular power for political revolutions may not be entirely clear at this stage. It remains questionable whether online activity in the political context can possibly translate into veritable offline activity and therein lies the crux and misunderstanding in the use of social networks for political activity. What transpires is then essentially not a coming together of equals in a political cause but rather a flashpublic, a term Jack Bratich has coined, whereby the entertainment value and the initial “great ecstasy of fraternity”, to quote Arendt, outweigh the actual political act. Such a flashpublic relies, to a certain extent on both, homogeneity and mimicry, thus occluding the possibility for politics proper as Arendt would have it. With its call to action, the #Kony2012 flashpublic campaign resembles, here I quote Bratich, a “funhouse grotesquely exaggerating the proportions of the body politic involved”. Why? Bratich answers, “because the mobilization for action is one already determined as an instrument for someone else’s goals”.
It becomes increasingly clear that social networks and the political campaigns that are run on social network platforms can facilitate the information flow related to political events, but are, and can only be by their immanent limitations, one aspect, one tool in the bringing about of political proper and power. There is a difference between using social networks such as Twitter and Facebook for planning a revolution and executing a revolution. As Morozov argues, while the internet broadly is instrumental (in the most literal sense) for bringing about power and revolutions, it is merely that: an instrument, a tool. Social change, on the other hand “continues to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions and reform movements”. And for that, it requires more permanent structures as a public sphere than the virtual realm has to offer – this would most likely be Arendt’s argument.
In conclusion, I venture to claim that Arendt would certainly have had an appreciation for the medium as a political channel to inform, transmit knowledge and information and mobilize the power of the people and would find some redeeming aspects in social networks in that they serve as a proxy realm in which freedom may come to pass and humans can engage in speech acts for the exchange of information and appearances. But: within limits. It is a realm that is characterized by the potentiality for multiple pluralities to come together and exchange in word and create narratives. However, as a public sphere that binds human in a shared and common world and that facilitates politics proper the virtual realm is insufficient. As it related to the social aspects of human interaction much more directly than the political realm, such networks would have been albeit of limited interest and I suspect that, in the context of revolutions Hannah Arendt would have wholeheartedly concurred with Morozov that: “Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go”.