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Is social media a conservative space?

Popular views about politics and social media

As we noted earlier, the initial media interest in the potential of social media for political activism led to a popular notion that social media was a liberating force that had a progressive impact on political participation. This was then followed by a counter argument that it has also been used for repressive purposes by nation states in identifying and suppressing dissidents[1]). But both these mutually contrasting perspectives share an assumption that social media is being used as an active, open, and collaborative space.

Why we don’t post

However, this was not the situation we found in several of our fieldsites. For most people social media is not really about politics, it is primarily about social relationships and the main concern is about how you appear to your family and friends. In places such as Mardin and south India, people are very concerned with how they appear in public and in front of their family since there is huge anxiety regarding issues such as honour and shame. An indiscreet individual can bring shame on the whole family.

The conflict between the personal and the political

The problem with social media is that much of what happens on it is more public than traditional offline life. People could meet in a café, college, or other places and talk about things that are kept private. They can go to places offline knowing that strict older relatives would not see them. But on public-facing social media sites such as Facebook, these same older relatives can inspect every single image in great detail. As a result, nothing that happens offline in these more liberal spaces appears online. For example, in Mardin, women pay a lot of attention to what might appear in a Facebook photo. Even when taking pictures at family gatherings, they prefer to post photos of the food that was served, rather of people, since being seen close to another person of the opposite sex can be sometimes a source for incessant gossip.

So, in the first instance, it would be wrong to think that social media accurately represents this conservative society. In fact, social media is far more conservative than would be apparent offline. It has become a kind of ultra-conservative space. If this applies to everyday life, we can also see how it might also apply to politics.

Political surveillance

In authoritarian countries such as Turkey and China, the State’s control of the Internet is reinforced and strengthened by surveillance of the people. In Mardin, those who sympathise with the Kurdish movement are worried that those friends on social media who support the government might report them to the police or make nasty jokes about them. As a result, opposing political views are significantly less visible than dominant political ideologies. In China, where corruption amongst politicians and state employees is a very important issue, people do not post comments about local corruption. Instead they use social media to discuss corruption in other towns or in other parts of the country.

Generally under these conditions most people prefer to remain silent and refrain from expressing any political opinions. So, in a way, the greater the importance of local politics the less likely it is to appear on social media. People don’t want to antagonise those who have radically different points of view. They fear that politics might lead to people becoming isolated or ostracised (what Noelle-Neumann calls the ‘spiral of silence’ [2]). All of this follows from the enhanced visibility that comes with social media. So the main reason Elisa could not follow her initial interest in the study of politics and social media was because she did not find that it dominated social media in her fieldsite.

Social surveillance

Even in very different contexts such as our fieldsite in south Italy, people did not want to be recognised by their Facebook friends as supporters of any particular political party. Although it is common to be friends with politicians from different political groups, individuals are extremely cautious about engaging with politics on such a visible space as Facebook. It would be highly unusual to ‘like’, ‘comment’ or ‘share’ any political post regarding a local politician. Social media has rather become the place where people express frustration and anger about politics in general, or vent about issues that most people agree on and feel powerless to change, such as political corruption.

Similarly, in the Brazilian fieldsite people were extremely reluctant to engage in local political discussions or to engage with local leaders online, because there is a genuine fear of negative consequence for oneself and one’s family if members of rival parties feel antagonised. Maintaining good relationships is a priority.

The use of humour

In other regions people share contrary opinions in a less explicit way or indirectly. This was particularly visible in the south Indian field site, where engagement with politics on social media was through humour and sarcasm. In England, political discussion on social media is mainly a part of online banter between friends. The most popular form is humour at the expense of politicians. Rather than politics exploiting social media, it is a case of social media exploiting politics, mainly as a source of entertaining memes and jokes.

Finding what you look for

Of course, if you look for politics on social media, you will certainly find it, and that is very valuable for journalists. But our project tried to see how far politics emerges as a part of people’s everyday use of social media. What we did not expect was that in several fieldsites social media would prove far more conservative than offline life.

Some Questions for you

Is social media in your region a conservative place, or a new open public sphere for debate? Have your own political views been changed by something on social media?

References

  1. Morozov, E. 2011. The net delusion. The dark side of internet freedom Public Affairs: United States.
  2. Noelle-Neumann, E. 1974. The Spiral of Silence A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication, 24: 43–51. 

This article is from the free online course:

Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media

UCL (University College London)

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

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