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Russian Political Parties Online

Day two at ECPR 2011 starts with a paper by Sarah Oates, whose focus is on Russian political parties online. Generally, Russian political parties don’t function like democratic parties; they are coopted by state interests, and this is true especially for the parties supporting the current regime. Does a presence on the Internet reflect or transform them, however?

United Russia is the largest political party in Russia, with 64% of the vote in 2007; minor parties include the Communists (12%), Liberal Democrats (8%), and A Just Russia (8%). Sarah coded these parties’ Websites for their approaches to providing information, as well as the nature of their content and their interlinkage with other Websites.

Politicians' Use of Websites in the 2010 UK General Election

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Rosalynd Southern, whose interest is in the UK general election. In the first place, this examined the Web presence of the various political candidates for the six largest parties (2424 in total), from profiles on their party sites through Web-in-a-box pages solutions organised by the parties to personalised sites. This provides an indication of the role the Web plays in each candidate’s campaigning.

What Forms of Political Participation Does Internet Use Predict?

The afternoon panel at ECPR 2011 starts with a paper by Bruce Bimber, whose focus is on the role of digital media in encouraging political participation in the US. Does digital media use lead to (or relate to) civic and political involvement? There appears to be a modest relationship, which is moderated by interest; interpretations vary about the substantive importance of that link, though. (Ultimately, effects of Internet use on engagement appear to be positive, but may not be substantial.)

Further, the association between the two may be growing with involvement over time – but that may not continue to be the case as the use of technologies such as Facebook becomes ubiquitous. Perhaps such time-based trends simply don’t make much sense any more.

What Drives Issue Spill-Overs from Online to Offline Media?

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Barbara Pfetsch, whose focus is on media agenda building in online and offline media. She suggests that research is needed to assess the impact of the Net on public debate: how could one go about this work? There have been hopes that the Net may lead to greater public participation and deliberation; also, however, what is the discursive opportunity structure which is provided by the Net? What is the potential for new civil society actors to enter the debate, and how may they be included in the process?

What theoretical and empirical approaches may be suited to researching these questions? First, there is an elite bias in traditional mass media; they tend to exclude ‘outside’, non-mainstream actors, and the hope is that the Net removes such biases. Second, media agenda building depends on local contexts: the political system, the media system, and the constellation of current conflicts in a country, for example. How does traditional media agenda setting change because of the Internet, as new challengers make their views heard?

Towards an Ontology of the New Hybrid Media System

The next paper at ECPR 2011 is by Andrew Chadwick, whose argument is that old and new media scholars often talk past one another, and that political communication scholarship as well as Internet studies need to draw on one another’s ideas more effectively. The interrelationship between old and new media, in particular, needs to be examined more closely. This requires system-level perspectives and a conceptual understanding of power which can be illustrated empirically.

So, we need a hybrid media system perspective, recognising the technologies, genres, norms, behaviours, and organisations of all its components. Power relations between them are based on adaptation and interdependence, and actors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit them.

What Determines the Impact of Digital Media Use on Political Participation?

The next paper at ECPR 2011 is by Carol Galais, whose focus is on the effect of digital media on civic attitudes. This was triggered by the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings in which Internet media have played a role; does digital media use affect political pattitudes and political participation? Carol’s study found that digital media can affect political attitudes, but that this effect is not the same in all contexts: Web 2.0 environments enhance autonomy and political interest; they can be used to build communities; and its users may be exposed to more political stimuli than others.

The Internet and Media Pluralism in Luso-Africa

From the very intensive ten-day workshop with our research partners in Münster which started this trip (more on this on the Mapping Online Publics site some time soon) I’ve made it to the ECPR conference in Reykjavík. There’s more parallel sessions here than could be comfortably wiped out by a single exploding whale, so my conference blogging from here will necessarily follow my own interests, more or less; don’t take it as an accurate representation of all that’s going on here.

I’m starting the day with a panel on comparing digital media and politics across regimes, which begins with a paper by Susana Salgado, whose interest is in the impact of digital media in African countries. What kind of democratic impact is there; is the Net promoting participation; is it repeating the history of other media? Susana’s focus is on Portuguese-speaking Luso-African nations (Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde); these are very impoverished nations, and Internet penetration is generally very low (Cape Verde was up to nearly 30% Internet penetration in 2010, Mozambique is below 3%).

Estonian Youths' Attitudes towards the Digital Environment

The first speaker in the next session at AoIR 2010 is Andra Siibak, whose interest is in the online practices of Estonian youths. The latest generation of users is often described as having a set of particular characteristics (independence, innovation, creativity, authority, control), but to what extent is this actually true? In Estonia, there certainly is a digital generation – 99.9% of 11-18-year-olds are using the Internet, many of them daily, but what are their characteristics, and how do they see themselves?

This study examined school essays by 16- and 17-year-olds on the topic of the digital generation, as well as surveys of 15-19-year-olds. Overall activities were divided into serious and fun activities, with their attendant motives (necessity, obligation, conscientiousness vs. free will). Users 15-19 were the most active age groups, compared to older Estonians; they also stated that they could not imagine living in a society without modern technology. They felt disconnected without such technology, and relied on multiple technologies for access.

The Emergence of Convergent Supersurfaces

The final speaker in this session at AoIR 2010 is Zizi Papacharissi, whose interest is in civic habits emerging around online media. She begins by noting the mythology of the new, which suggests that newer media can revive old democracy, the idea that technology can reconfigure public space, and the continuing public/private debate.

Contemporary democracies are characterised by a nostalgia for older forms of civic engagement, by a realisation of the limitations of representative models of democracy, by an overreliance on aggregate forms of public opinion (polls which transform nuanced opinion into yes/no responses), declining public participation and increasing cynicism about democracy. Against this, a new civic vernacular is emerging that suggests new modes of citizenship which reform older metaphors and increasingly take place in the private sphere.

Online Activists as a New Political Elite

The next speaker in this session at AoIR 2010 are Yana Breindl and Nils Gustafsson, whose interest is in networked digital activism. Such activism is not necessarily more or less inclusive or democratic than conventional activism. In democratic theory, there are the three strands of competitive, participatory, and deliberative democracy, and activism is often perceived through the lens of the latter two; online activism is seen as encouraging participatory or deliberative features in the democratic system.

Reality is perhaps more on the competitive side, where most people are seen as passive participants in a political system that is otherwise run by a small ruling elite that is legitimised and made accountable in elections, but left to its own devices between them. Factors which do influence the political process are other elites (business, political, social, and otherwise) – and in the Internet age, new elites (which are seen as less hierarchically organised) are emerging.


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