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A-Ha Moments

Political Discourse in a Digital Age: Part I

Written by: Bill Sherman on Tuesday, 16 June 2009, 7:40 AM

Typically, I write about social capital on the individual level (micro) or the community level (meso).

However, today’s news focuses heavily on social capital on the macro level.

Political discourse has changed through digital social media tools, and it’s not just happening in today’s democracies. Every government and nation must accept the fact that they cannot fully control the media anymore without disabling every mobile phone, every camera, and every portal to the Internet.

Consider these two posts made from candidate MirHossein Mosavi’s Twitter account:

@Mousavi1338: We have no national press coverage in Iran, everyone should help spread Mousavi’s message. One Person = One Broadcaster.

@Mosuavi1338: @twitter Twitter is currently our ONLY way to communicate overnight news in Iran, PLEASE do not take it down

The second post refers to the fact that Twitter was scheduled for regular overnight maintenance on Monday night (US time). These posts were likely not written by the candidate, so they’re a media blast between a politician and his constituency–similar to how Obama used Twitter during the 2008 presidential election. On its own, that’s nothing new.

Social media gives a naked, almost voyeuristic look, into individual human moments. In the past 48 hours, we’ve seen many bloggers and tweeple from Iran posting by-the-minute reports. I used to wonder whether you could say anything of value within 140 characters, but many of the tweets have revealed moments of bravery, fear, and raw humanity.

  • @Change_for_Iran: “it’s worth taking the risk, we’re going. I won’t be able to update until I’m back. again thanks for your kind support and wish us luck”
  • @PersianKiwi “people are running in streets outside. There is panic in streets.people going ino houses to hide. #Iranelection”
  • @Tehranbureau “shooting resulted in killing. at least ‘one young man’ she saw shot in the mouth. she said it was NOT police. says it was Basij.”

When we look at social transformation through the lens of social capital, we recognize two different effects:

1) an individual can communicate with more people (a broader social network) and draw them closer into the events of the moment. Videos taken at street-level by mobile phones show students being beeaten. This humanizing effect produces a peer-to-peer response (without a mediating presence through media).

2) the whole network’s capacity for communication has increased. While there’s certainly been a lot of noise in the twitterverse, more raw information has come out to an information hungry world. A government cannot just eject international reporters and assume that events will not be seen on a global stage.

So much information has been tweeted in-the-moment, that it’s likely some contains mistakes and inaccuracies. In fact, you’ll probably find many breathless accounts, overstatements, and perhaps even misinformation.

However, in the short-term, a social network can function without trust. Over time, low-quality or disreputable reports may be revealed. Trust becomes a requisite for a long-term social network’s functioning.

These ad-hoc networks are short-lived and transitory. Most people will shift their attention elsewhere before long-term factors of social capital become requisite.

Today, you don’t have to open your newspaper or watch CNN for news, you can read reports written by people who are geolocated within the situation itself. However, you may feel like you’re being hit by a deluge of often-contradictory (and confusing chatter.

There’s a tangible and real darkside to this political discourse, and I’ll explain more in my next post.

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