Book examines role of social media in civic life

Zizi Papacharissi

Zizi Papacharissi, UIC professor and head of communication (click image to download)

Storytelling energizes online social movements, but social media exposure does not equal political influence, a new-media scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago explains in her new book.

Zizi Papacharissi, professor and head of communication at UIC, reports in “Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics” (Oxford University Press) that social media provides useful visibility to emerging political movements and underrepresented groups, but it doesn’t bring with it enough influence to produce instant change.

While Twitter, Facebook or Reddit will not launch a revolution, any of them can serve as an important tool for news reporting, political expression and group affiliation to inspire and expand solidarity, Papacharissi says.

“Revolutions are slow, and change is gradual,” she said. “So it is our expectations about what social media do that need to be adjusted.”

Focusing on three contemporary case studies – Arab Spring movements, Occupy Wall Street, and archives of trending topics on Twitter – Papacharissi used big data and qualitative analyses to study the role social media plays in uprisings, movements and everyday political expression.

Key findings include:

  • The impact these movements can effect through social media is mainly symbolic, but it lets people change the terms and manner in which a cause is being presented
  • People feel empowered because they can influence the public agenda and tell their own story
  • The power people access through social media is of a fleeting nature due to the democratic nature of the platforms

The movements examined in the book, in addition to recent examples in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, have one commonality:  online and offline forms of expression work in tandem to bring visibility to underrepresented publics, viewpoints and stories.

“Every movement has its own digital footprint. In addition, you can’t separate offline from online actions,” Papacharissi said. “They may occur in different planes of expression, but they are all part of the same ‘universe.'”

The new forms of expression don’t necessarily give citizens and underrepresented groups a stronger voice, but they gain greater recognition.

“They get the ability to tell their own story, in their own terms. And this is key, especially for developing movements,” she said.

“Through the developing discourses on Twitter, people contributing to the #Egypt tag were able to frame the movement as a revolution well before it resulted in regime reversal and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.”

Papacharissi concludes that, in the end, “Technologies may network us, but it is our stories that connect us to each other, making us feel close to some and distancing us from others.”