People often point to the Arab Spring as an indicator of the unifying power of social media, and there is no doubt that social media sites played a serious role in helping organizers make announcements and plan rallies. But too often in America we are lured by the ease of “participating” in important decision-making processes via the Internet. Special interest groups have proliferated to such an extent that they now resemble a formal industry, thriving off donations from average Americans who have no say in how the money is spent. Thus, we may feel that donating to a campaign fund or advocacy group contributes towards a public good and/or our own desired political ends. Our donations, however, also serve to prop up professional money-making enterprises concerned primarily with their own flourishing. We may even believe that signing an on-line petition or posting a politically charged meme on Facebook connects us to an ongoing political struggle.
These types of connections, however, are largely illusory. Scratching checks to special interest groups renders one voiceless and does not influence how that particular group will proceed. Further, “participating” in politics from the comfort of an individual internet bubble isolates us from the vital task of negotiating meaning in a public forum via dialogue. In his article, “Rhetorical Pedagogy and Democratic Citizenship” J. Michael Hogan writes, “Not only do blogs and chatrooms lack the personal accountability of face-to-face interactions, but they tend to attract only like-minded participants and reinforce rather than challenge existing beliefs” (79).
Human communication is incredibly complex. While there is serious debate amongst psychologists and communication specialists, we can safely say that a significant percentage of communication occurs non-verbally. Geoffrey Beattie, for example, has argued that unconscious hand movements made during speech add meaning to narratives. We should not, when considering how to respond to the important issues that face us as communities, substitute online discussion forums for the complex negotiation of meaning that occurs between human beings in a shared space.
Thus, we (concerned citizen-scholars) must make a distinction. On one hand, we can see the people-organizing potential of social media and how access to global information can help raise awareness of serious issues. On the other, we see that stifling forms of political “participation” are fostered by idealizing the internet as a tool that will lead to an informed electorate, and that the isolating nature of discussion boards, blogs, and mainstream media news consumption too often serves to divide and distract. As Hogan points out, Americans were told that television would broadcast “public interest” programs and even allow citizens to somehow speak directly to their leaders; alas, television has instead become a public-interest desert, filling the airwaves with meaningless trivia, endless sports coverage, celebrity gossip, and entertainment masquerading as serious news. Hogan goes on to compare TV to the Internet:
“In the 1990’s we heard similarly optimistic predictions that the Internet would revive grass-roots democracy by providing ordinary citizens with unprecedented information resources and a powerful new tool for interacting with their fellow citizens. Instead, the Internet has become too often a refuge for for purveyors of political misinformation, bizarre conspiracy theories, and the rhetoric of hate. Even mainstream political websites reek of ideological parochialism and rhetorical excess.”
Coming together in public spaces to talk is what drives action, and in the age of the Internet we need to think seriously about what constitutes the kind of public spaces appropriate to discuss matters of social importance. Nancy Fraser critiques Habermas’ well-known analysis of public spheres and notes that Habermas makes unrealistic assumptions about public spheres as places that are equally accessible to all groups, or equally hospitable to all points of view. Fraser argues that public spheres “consist in culturally specific institutions” which “may be understood as culturally specific rhetorical lenses that filter and alter the utterances they frame; they can accommodate some expressive modes and not others” (Fraser 69). This type of social arrangement of the public precludes equal participation. Participation, Fraser says, “means being able to speak in one’s own voice, thereby simultaneously constructing and expressing one’s cultural identity through idiom and style” (68). While the Internet does offer a platform for cultural expression, those expressions are not likely to be heard by political leaders who are charged with deciding matters of great social importance, and it is a platform not equally available to all groups.
What is needed, then, is an understanding of how digital tools are used to to both promote and suppress democratic action. Access to global information can raise awareness of issues previously unnoticed by mass publics, and social media sites can indeed help organizers run successful “grass-roots” movements. Yet, digital tools are frequently used to divert attention, divide and conquer, and generally silence the democratic instincts of average Americans. I hope this paper can help determine to what extent the rhetorical style of collective bodies is influenced by digital technology, and analyze ways in which digital tools are used to promote and suppress democratic activity.
Beattie, G. Visible Thoughts: The New Psychology of Body Language. East Sussex: Routledge, 2003.
Hogan, J. Michael. “Rhetorical Pedagogy and Democratic Citizenship.” Rhetoric & Democracy: Pedagogical and Political Practices. Ed. Todd F. McDorman, David M. Timmerman. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere” Social Text 25.26 (1990): 56-80.