For some, the Internet is a tool with great potential to bring about social change, mobilization of people and revolutionary movements. Contrasting to this, others argue that political engagement of people on social media cannot be considered activism and real participation after all. Is a new digital democracy evolving or is this idea of revolutionary change through opportunities of mass mobilization on social media just a myth and we have ‘politics as usual’ and the illusion of participation? Dr. King-Wa Fu, Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Associate Professor at the MIT Media Lab, originally teaching and researching at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, addressed this timely issue in a guest lecture at St. John’s University.
Dr. Fu mainly explained how social media use and politics are connected. Referring to the social media use during the past presidential election in the US, Dr. Fu provided examples indicating that digital media can be used by anyone with an ambition to start a “social movement”; Twitter and Facebook can theoretically serve as revolutionary tools. Theories such as the cascading effect and the concept of the six degrees of separation show from a technical perspective the promising networking potential of social media. Further support for this framework of using social media to start social movements can be drawn from the social perspective: freedom of expression and participation have become core values in society that are increasingly of higher importance to people than financial return – the visiting Fulbright scholar referred to this development as the emerging of the critical citizen.
On the other hand, he pointed out how difficult it is to actually reach mass audiences on the Internet. Additionally, Dr. Fu showed statistical data proving that digital media only reconfirm the discrepancies that have always been existent. While the social divide might have decreased with new media, there still is a big gap in intensity of political engagement between people with high income and education compared to those with lower standing in both. Dr. Fu called this a new digital divide. Therefore, the Internet should be seen critically and not solely optimistically, the scholar argued.
After challenging the validity of either one extreme or the other – revolution or business as usual – he concluded that today’s media landscape is more complex. Dr. Fu continued explaining that we need to consider the new conception of a hybrid media system, meaning that there are not only old media such as television channels anymore. Instead, understanding the relationship of the media and politics requires looking at complicated interactions between old and new, digital media, and players such as whistleblowers, who can be considered another form of media outlets. Thought-provoking questions from the audience brought more factors into the discussion: How can the controversy of young citizens’ high political engagement on social media and their low participation in the ‘real world’ be explained? Does ‘real’ political activism, for instance in the form of protests, even have any meaningful outcome? Finally, it is important to be aware that mobilization can serve progressive movements just as well as right-wing movements or the recruitment of terrorist organizations.
The Division of Mass Communication Journalism Program and the Institute for International Communication at St. John’s University hosted this special event. Dr. Fu is going to hold another guest lecture open to all students of St. John’s on Wednesday, March 22, addressing “How Millennials Use the Internet” and “Health and the Media”.