In his essay This Time It’s Personal: Social Networks, Viral Politics and Identity Management, Nils Gustafsson argues that “viral politics” (i.e. the rapid online dissemination of political activist material) as well as social media’s growing importance could mean the emergence of a new kind of political elite.
A number of things struck me about Gustafsson’s thesis. The first of these is his disinterested stance; Gustafsson displays no particular optimism about social media’s ability to alter existing political power structures. This is refreshing, and several years after his essay was published and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that – politically speaking, and from the point of view of totalitarian and anti-democratic states – social media is a paper tiger.
The Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia in 2011 before spreading rapidly to Egypt, Libya and Syria. Six years have now passed since the so-called Facebook Revolution began and the Middle East has experienced massacres, wars, coups, jihadism, and a body count in the hundreds of thousands. Social media was perhaps a catalyst for those events (not everyone agrees about this) but few could honestly argue that things in the region have improved since Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in late 2010.
Gustafsson acknowledges that “social media is deeply related to existing social structures and ideologies in society” and that it is “produced by and for certain types of people – stereotypically young, web-savvy, able-bodied people”. This is a telling observation and sheds some light on why the Arab Spring may have failed. The western media, which was overwhelmingly optimistic about the uprisings, focused too heavily on relatively liberal, young, tech-savvy Egyptians and Tunisians, while ignoring the inconvenient reality that Egypt is a country in which over 80 per cent of the population supports the death penalty for apostasy and 82 per cent consider stoning to death a suitable punishment for adultery. How could anyone be so naive as to think liberal democracy would flourish in such a fundamentally religio-political environment?
Late in the essay Gustafsson says that participation in online political campaigns fills two functions. The first is that it builds a certain kind of “public or semi-public identity by expressing political views and concerns”. The second is that it functions as “an excuse [for not] taking a more active part in a [political] campaign”. What Gustafsson has done is essentially describe in their embryonic forms both “slacktivism” (which Malcolm Gladwell coined – or at least popularised – in 2010) and “virtue-signalling”, which was coined by James Bartholomew in The Spectator in April 2015. Kudos to Gustafsson for mapping part of the social media littoral as far back as March 2009. (The coastline as metaphor here is intentional – we are entering unfamiliar territory, like conquistadors run aground in the new world. What future awaits us beyond distant mountain ranges in the cyberinterior is infinitely vast and terrifyingly unknowable.)
The final point to be made about the essay (and also the introduction, and presumably the rest of the book) relates to the sloppy editing and seemingly non-existent proofreading. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the author uses words like “equality” and “inequality” as if they are empirical realities and not nebulous concepts in a sociological context that require clarification and perhaps even definition, there were a number of spelling and grammatical errors that made it very hard for me to take his work (or the book itself) seriously.
Nils, Gustafsson. “This Time It’s Personal: Social Networks, Viral Politics And Identity Management”. Emerging Practices In Cyberculture And Social Networking. Daniel Riha and Anna Maj. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 3-23. Print.