The impact of Facebook (groups) on political discussions

Esialgu avaldatud Tartu ülikooli inglisekeelses blogis.

The essence of human beings, biologically and psychologically has not changed much throughout the past 50 000 years. On the other hand, during the same time, we have changed our own world dramatically – from inventing agriculture to the industrial revolution and the creation of the Internet.

The way we have been adapting to these changes (as we can’t change our biology and psychology) has been through social and political institutions. Institutions are, quoting from Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour” – in essence, the rules that shape human behaviour. So, every time the world changed, be it because of changes in climate or in technology or something else, humans have changed their institutions to adapt.

We went from small hunter-gatherer bands that constantly moved around in small groups to agricultural tribes that stayed mostly in one place and cooperated with a larger community of people to even larger states with division of labour and centralized leadership. All of these processes have taken thousands of years and that is the time-scale to use when we are thinking about human development.

Technological change is challenging democracy

Today we are living at a time of ever more rapid technological change. From creating the first computers to having half of the population of the planet be connected through the Internet – and doing this within a period of less than half of a century. This is unprecedented and has already had a huge impact on our world and our everyday lives.

The problem is that while these incredibly fast changes have been happening, our (mainly I’m talking about western countries) social and political institutions have not changed much at all. We still expect the model of democracy that was created 250 years ago to function in this new situation. We expect our parliaments to represent “the people”, we expect our journalists to hold politicians accountable and we expect our national states to solve the problems we are facing (despite the global origin of them). Yet we see ever more clearly how inadequate these old institutions are in the light of the recent changes.

One of the mayor changes and the one I researched in my master’s thesis is the emergence of social media and especially Facebook. This platform, with now more than 2 billion monthly users across the planet, has given a voice and an active part in political discussions on a level that has never been seen before in human history. As most of human history has really been the history of the elites and the overwhelming majority of uneducated, poor and unorganized peasants have mostly been left out of the political processes or just used as cannon fodder. This is no longer true. The “peasants” of today are more connected and visible than ever before. And it comes with enormous impacts and shock to our democratic institutions.

This is why I looked at the different ways to make sense of political discussions on the Facebook platform. More specifically – what is happening in Facebook groups? Groups are closed or semi-closed environments inside the Facebook platform, that allow communities of people to engage with each other in a more private setting.

Political discussions in Facebook groups

My research is very initial and limited by the Estonian context, so no large-scale conclusions should be made from it. But, there are some interesting findings that I will now introduce shortly.

My main question of interest was if the discussions in the Facebook groups could be leading towards a better democratic discussion through mutual learning and socialising. I started writing this thesis because of my personal anthropological interest in what might be happening in certain Estonian Facebook groups that I’d heard of from the media and seen signs about in the social media. Along my initial observations I read Jürgen Habermas’ book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” and I saw some similarities between the descriptions of the early salons in France, UK and Germany and what was happening in the Facebook groups I was observing.

So I chose three Facebook groups to observe more closely and systematically and started mapping out the theoretical frameworks that have been developed academically, that could help me analyse and conceptualize what I saw in the groups.

What I found was that in those groups dominating in discussions through status was to be found, but mainly through the large volume of posts from one person, through status (fame) outside the group and in some ways by being an expert inside the group. I did not find domination through gender, nor did I find any trolling, which was quite surprising to me. There was quite a lot of manipulative communication and over-communication.

Then there is the issue of (computer) mediated communication and how it differs from live discussions in a physical salon. For in the mediated discussion a lot of information goes missing – the signals of the body language, tone of voice, clothing etc. This makes internet discussions prone to flaming – an aggressive way of communicating, through de-individualization – a group situation in which individual persons feel less responsibility for their behaviour and act according to group influence. The effects of computer mediation were also to be found in these groups – I saw a lot of flaming. But I also saw people making use of the new ways of communication that the internet provides – from emoticons to gifs, videos and hyperlinks – to communicate more clearly.

But I also saw in these groups the way a minority group can come together, discuss ideas and formulate its political aims, organise events and campaigns and have an impact outside the group. I saw how thousands of people partook in actual discussions of complex policy and helped each other understand the world a bit better. This gave me hope.

In conclusion I can say that despite seeing quite a few forces that are pushing towards the opposite side, there are also processes happening in Facebook that should give us reason for optimism about the future of democracy. But I’m also quite sure, that these processes will only have the large-scale impacts towards the larger developments of our democratic institutions, when more of us will participate. Because positive change does not happen by itself, it happens only when people make an effort to realize it.

A great deal of the article is based on the excellent book by Francis Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Profile books, 2011.

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