The St Antony’s International Review (STAIR) is proud to announce the publication of its 16th issue, “Power, the State, and the Social Media Network”. The issue is available on IngentaConnect. The launch event will take place on 6 March at 6.30 pm in the Oxford Department for Politics and International Relations. More information on the event can be found here.
In the themed section of this edition of STAIR five authors seek to shed light upon the contemporary relationship between power, the state and social media, perhaps the most pronounced and widely disseminated digital social technology the world has encountered. Supporting and affecting political movements from New York’s Zuccotti Park and Egypt’s Tahrir Square, “Facebook revolutions” and “Twitter revolutions” are conceived of as borne out of social media networks; they oscillate between the Charybdis of an anarchic freedom and the Scylla of surveilled repression, utilized by both citizens and the state. With such power, social media now holds the potential to empower and propagandize, secure and surveil, to create, and to destroy.
The first article in this edition by Pamela Shearing looks at how “the clock of technology” is affecting international norms through social media networks. Shearing cleverly gauges how deeply permutations within the discourse of social media reverberate on the international stage by turning to the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Though noting that social media is a double-edged sword that serves, depending on the user, both freedom and justice or tyranny and oppression, Shearing’s ultimate conclusion is perhaps more optimistic than other authors in this volume. Through establishing a mechanism for the creation of collective discussion that would otherwise be prohibited, she argues that social media networks can serve as a voice to the voiceless and call for international assistance in crises that would otherwise go unheard.
Vicente Chua Reyes highlights in his article the tension between the maintenance of tradition and the modernizing effects that the wave of social media technologies have on the cultural stasis of some states. The article is a timely contribution that highlights how Singapore’s use of “tactical globalization”, or the attempt at funnelling technological flows of communication associated with modernity through state-approved channels, meets resistance at the level of its citizenry. Reyes illustrates how social media networks have the potential to act as “liberation technologies” by facilitating free and anonymous discussions around political events, during crucial periods, such as elections, that would otherwise go unreported.
In her article, Cara Robinson asks where the values underpinning the democratic sentiment proffered through social media networks arise. Are social media networks tools for free speech, functioning as deliberative spaces for enlightened discussion about policy and politics? Robinson answers this question by looking at the internet and media culture during the run-up to the 2012 US presidential elections. She discovers that online discussion boards, supposed havens and incubators of free speech, discussion and even political education, are in actuality not the bastions of freedom that their adherents claim. In fact, they are prone to ominously and subtly replicating dominant and hegemonic American values, without users even being aware that they are becoming instilled with particular and partitioned types of thought.
In his article, Eric Novotny addresses the relationship between social media and the state from both a scholarly and a policy-making perspective. It is a detailed and insightful account of governmental responses to social media mobilization. Novotny addresses three cases – in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia – where social media has been important in fermenting the mobilization of the political opposition. The empirical record suggests, he argues, that the role of social media in supporting and maintaining political opposition should not be underestimated, concluding that regimes have learned the hard way about how power social media networks can be used against the state apparatus.
In our final article of this themed section, Kristen Meredith examines the role played by social media in Russia’s “white revolution”, which began in 2011. Meredith argues against the ”cyber-utopianist” view that social media engagement promotes democracy and political liberalization. She suggests that social media is now a “battleground” between the state and civil society. Rather than seeing social media as a solution for a broken civil society and defence against political repression, she recommends viewing it in a more purposive, instrumental sense – as a tool for increasing the organization, interaction and collaboration between citizens.
Each of the contributions to this volume grapple with thorny normative and explanatory issues, and each offer a different take on the subtleties of their interrelation. The authors in this edition utilize both cyber-utopian and cyber-sceptic perspectives to answer questions about how power, the state and the social media network intertwine in unpredictable ways. Detangling their symbiosis is indeed not an easy task. What unifies each contribution in this special edition, however, is not simply a focus on social media networks, but an implicit establishment, or recognition, of a new ontological plane of discussion on which politics can now occur: the digital-political, in which technology affects, and is in turn being affected by, the materials, bodies and politics of the citizens living within the state. For better or for worse, these digital networks have become a real and impactful manifestation of politics. Together, the contributions featured here under the theme of “Power, the State, and the Social Media Network” help us address fundamental and prescient changes in the global political environment.
This issue of STAIR furthermore features three articles in the general section, Willy Oppenheim addresses the issue of girl schooling in Pakistan in his article “Why Should Girls Go to School?: Qualitative Aspects of ‘Demand’ for Girls’ Schools in Rural Pakistan”; Kari Roberts discusses US-Russian relations; and Paul Kadetz takes a closer look at Chinese health politics in Africa.