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Political Participation via Social Media, Blogs, and Online Petitions

by on November 4, 2013

It is widely disputed whether the internet has positive impacts on democracy and if it enhances political participation. Even empirical evidence on issue is contradictory. There are many forms of PIU (political internet use) and it is often unclear what aspect of the internet can really enhance citizen participation and democracy. The article “Unraveling the effects of active and passive forms of political Internet use: Does it affect citizens’ political involvement?” by a team of researchers from the University of Amsterdam sheds some light on the impact of PIU. The scientists argue that active forms of PIU such as actively participating in social networks or online discussions and signing online petitions have a greater impact on political participation than passive forms of PIU such as reading blogs, and following others on Twitter and Facebook.[i]

Political blogs, the social media, and online petitions are forms of active PIU. However, they can have fundamentally different impacts on political empowerment. During the Arab Spring all over the world people followed the blogs of Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, or Iranian activists. The local bloggers informed the global public about the crimes of their governments that were previously ignored by global mainstream media. “We the people” is a United States government website that gives “all Americans a way to engage their government on the issues that matter to them.”[ii]

The Arab Spring was the first Revolution that the whole world could follow in real-time, thanks to bloggers and the social media. However, blogs played a completely different role than Facebook or Twitter. Philip Seib writes “Social media users do not necessarily reflect the larger population, which includes millions of poor, rural, illiterate, or semiliterate people who have little in common with young, well-educated activists.”[iii] (2012: 48) He furthermore argues that “the people most victimized by the economic inequities of the Arab regimes were the poorest, and many of them poured out of the slums because of what they saw on a “community TV” in a neighbourhood coffee shop or what they heard by word of mouth […].” (2012: 50) The percentage of people who used forms of social media was just above 7.5 per cent of the whole population of the Arab region in April 2011.

Facebook ant Twitter were tools to organise many protests, but it shouldn`t be forgotten that Al-Jazeera and many local call-in radio shows also informed the population about protest times and locations as well. (Seib: 2012: 52) Bloggers, on the other hand, helped to send the spirit of the movement into the living rooms of the West. Even though they might not have had a big clout in the Arab World, they certainly gave the Arab Spring a human face by telling their personal stories and by providing videos of the protests. This shaped international civil society support which pressured Western governments into supporting the protesters.

However, Philip Seib reminds us that countries with a far higher rate of internet and cell phone coverage than Tunisia could not built a successful revolution based on the new connectivity of the internet. Unity, he argues is what is needed to build a revolution. Looking at this information, we must consider that bloggers didn`t have as much of an impact on the movement within the Arab world as one might have thought. In a global context, however, they were crucial to building “international moral solidarity”. (Seib: 2012: 58) This definitely helped the momentum of the Revolution and supported the rebels in pursuing the overthrow of their governments.

Political blogs are an integral part of the media in Western democracies; however, the first tool activists turn to when starting a political campaign is the creation of an online petition. Last spring I was one of the presenters at the Human Rights Conference at San Francisco State University. Every one of us had to finish their presentation with a call for action. Online petitions were seen as legitimate choice and watching the conference proceed, hearing calls for numerous petitions left me wondering if online petitions are really as effective a tool for political change as suggested. I felt that it seems just a bit too easy to click on a button to fulfil your part in the support of Human Rights.

Change.org lists four elements of a successful petition. Its aim must be “compelling and achievable”, it should be “delivered directly to the decision maker”, social media should be used to promote the petition, and the petition should be accompanied by “offline action”.[iv] However, many petitions only feature one of these elements and are therefore unlikely to be successful.

The petitions on “We the people” feature aims from “open all chapters and participant lists of the TPP trade agreement for public review and open Congressional debate” to “(Nov #1 of 3) Prevent White Genocide by building reservations for Whites”. Initially, every petition that got 25,000 signatures had to be answered by the government. After petitions as incredulous as building the death star reached the 25,000 signatures, the benchmark was lifted to 100,000 signatures. All in all, the crazier the petition the more signatures it is likely to receive on “We the people”. There are numerous websites that feature the possibility to create and sign petitions on all kind of causes and sadly the absurd ones often gather the most signatures. There are only very few online petitions that will bring about factual political change.

The big difference between an online petition and a blog is that the online petition will only function as complementary part of a greater political campaign. You still need to address policy makers and the public in the traditional ways to make sure the petition will succeed. A petition only works as proof that you have a clout. A blog can be a campaign in and of itself. Blogs can promote a cause and gather support on their own. The social media can be used to promote a cause and built a clout and to organise people. Furthermore, it offers the possibility to create a page and gather “likes” which is a form of online petition itself.

When everything has been said and done all of these forms of online activism still need offline political clout and support to change politics or society, no matter whether the playing field is democratic or autocratic. Futhermore, the impacts of online political participation suprised the world during the Arab Spring and it should be expected that there is a lot of potential that has not been harnessed yet.


[i] Sanne Kruikemeier, Guda van Noort, Rens Vliegenthart, Claes H de Vreese; “Unraveling the effects of active and passive forms of political Internet use: Does it affect citizens’ political involvement?”; Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam, 11/07/2013

[iii] Philip Seib, “Real-Time Diplomacy – politics and power ion the social media era”; palgrave macmillan; 2012

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2 Comments
  1. the social media as every thing in the life has two sides the negative and positive.However ,the positive is more than negative. it gave us the chance to communicated with our politician express our view and knows more about what harping the world politics. i think that is very good explain about the role of social media and how it has been effective the political

  2. dac0662 permalink

    You’ve raised some really good points and have been really analytical. I particularly agree with you’re concluding points. As it is people are still integral in making things happen it cannot just happen online, but I think the part social media and networks play in politics will continue to increase. Will this have positive or negative ramifications though?

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