The final presentation in this "Compromised Data" session is by Mary Francoli and Dan Paré, who focus on the question of engagement and mobilisation in a time of rapidly evolving social media use. One initial observation is that these terms lack definitional clarity - there are some very high-level definitions (e.g. building on UN definitions), but these remain vague; political and civic engagement are conflated, and specific forms of engagement are not necessarily defined in detail.
Simply voting is a form of engagement, for example, but is clearly different from other, more complex forms of political engagement. The literature increasingly links these types of activity with social media (and with the Net more broadly) - and the extent to such such forms of engagement occur, and how they interrelate with forms of offline political engagement, need to be studied in greater detail.
Some studies explore the time spent on engagement, assuming a zero sum relationship between social media engagement and other activities; some focus on the homology between online and offline engagement; some assume that online engagement can involve groups which are often excluded from other forms of participation.
The underlying assumptions behind these studies need to be queried and critiqued; sceptics which examine the former sometimes merely count the time spent, but fail to evaluate the quality of engagement, for example. Some of these counting-based exercises are ultimately very simplistic - counting is fine in itself, but we must also ask what we are really learning from these projects, and how their findings need to be interpreted.
What we are starting to see here is a pattern of overreliance on quantitative and empirical approaches - anempirical muddiness that offers little insight into more complex questions. How do we account instead for nonlinearities in current research, and how do we investigate the complexities of modern life in a social media-enhanced environment?
There is a paradox in assessing democracy - by some criteria, participation has clearly increased; by others, a crisi of participation is looming. Simply equating access to social media with democratisation is highly problematic; it tells us little about how social media platforms contribute to engagement and politicisation, and at worst takes a naive approach to the role of technology. Our model of democracy also needs to be queried - from elite through deliberative democracy to the monitorial citizen.
We also need the tools for situating social media platforms in their wider societal contexts. Dallas Smythe has suggested that technology is a myth: bureaucracy, science, capital, engineering, ideology, and propaganda all shape technology and the myths around it, so technology is always socially constructed rather than existing in a vacuum or proceeding under their own logic. Technologies like social media are inherently political and proceed in highly politicised contexts. Human agency must not be ignored in researching them.
Data-driven research should not be replaced with qualitative work, but qualitative perspectives should be used to disentangle terms such as mobilisation and engagement. Mobilisation and resistance should not be conflated with organisation - social media platforms are very good at facilitating mobilisation, for example, but not necessarily at facilitating formal political organisation. If social media are seen as drivers of change, we are potentially suffering from historical amnesia, as similar claims have also been made about other 'new' media technologies in last decades.