Universität Bielefeld

Social Media

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  1. Definition

The adjective in 'social media' describes types of media different from prior forms of 'new media'. It hints at enacted relationships between not only the medium, its providers, and the users but also between users and other users of that medium, who - by means of their interaction - create 'social' content on the web. Calling Web 2.0 'the social web' is thus based on the popularized understanding of the web as an interpersonal resource rather than an exclusively informational network.
Social media include digitized forms of various 'old' media such as images, video, or text as well as different aspects of 'sociality'. While some primarily foster the cognition of its users (such as websites) or their communication (e.g. e-mail), others form the basis for community building and collaborative work (such as wikis or actual social networking sites), following the 'social networking logic' as a logic underlying all our social organizing (see: Manuel Castells´ 'network society')
Newer technologies, subsumed under the term 'Web 3.0' (also called the 'semantic web'), further diverge from actual (inter-)personal uses of social media to the generation of new data by means of 'intelligent' technologies in, for instance, cars or households. This data, often in form of advertisements and 'suggestions', is mainly created through personal input and data previously generated by the users of social media.

2. Development of Social Media Use in the Americas

Recent years have shown a significant development of collaborative social media due to the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, wikis like Wikipedia, or microblogs such as Twitter. Along with their 'collaborative' functions, these types of social media have integrated 'social practices' into the medium. Among the most popular are those websites that allow their users to post various new items or links and encourage 'voting' and ranking this content. The key to these social networking sites is that they are integrated platforms that combine many types of media and communication technologies, such as webpage, webmail, digital image, digital video, discussion group, guest book, connection list, or search engine. Many of these appliances are social network tools themselves, creating numerous meta-levels within one particular social medium.
For years, the U.S. has been the most advanced market for Facebook - the (still) most popular of all social networking sites. 89 percent of all internet users in the United States use Facebook frequently. In recent years, the number of Latin American users of Facebook has surged considerably, doubling from 19 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2013, and again increasing to 42 percent in 2015 (cf. Gainous, Wagner, Gray 2016: 712). By 2015, in almost half of the states in Latin America (i.e. Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela), 50 percent or more people used Facebook. Only four states of the region accounted for less than 30 percent of Facebook users (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (717, 725).
Part of this increase can be traced back to extension of broadband connection in the region. In 2015, Latin America ranked third in the level of internet penetration (after North America and Europe). Still, only five states have more than one-third of their population using the internet (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica). This means that only about 1 in 10 people of these countries have a broadband connection, raising the issue of accessibility and widely spread social inequalities worldwide. Chile has the highest internet penetration rate of all Latin America (61%), while countries like Honduras or El Salvador reach only 20% (Pérez Álavarez 2016: n.pag.). Key problems lie mainly in infrastructure and socio-economic differences.
Studies show that well over 150 million Latin Americans use social media applications, yet they tend to be wealthier and better educated than their non-user counterparts (Salzman 2015: 845). From a global perspective, this problem seems even more urgent, as 60 percent of the world's population still remains offline to this day. While sheer accessibility to information and communication devices has always been a problem, new forms of 'digital divides' such as 'quality' or 'speed' are emerging about as quickly as the development of technology, highlighting concomitant lacks in opportunity: Not only can those remaining offline not make use of new developments, they also face the problem of acquiring the necessary skills and capacities to actively use them. The gap between rich and poor widens even further, as the internet becomes increasingly relevant for economic revenue (in Europe, about 90 percent of all jobs already require some kind of 'digital literacy') (cf. 2015: xxi-xxiii). Further, the 2014 United Nations e-Government Survey highlights that digital divides affect developed and developing countries alike and are, first and foremost, multifaceted. At the intersection of gaps in 'income', 'education', and 'location', divides along 'age' or 'gender' come into play. Age, for instance, divides younger from older generations, despite the emergent necessity for elder generations to navigate between online health care services. Similarly, women partly lag men in terms of connectivity due to the economic, social, and cultural barriers they face (cf. xxi; xxiv; xxv). Consequently, while internet penetration has technically increased and is yet increasing, other gaps are widening in turn.
Among those communities that have access, the usage and creation of social media content is steadily developing, too. So-called 'viral content'-peaks in circulation, blogs, and networking sites create a constantly-changing public discourse about these texts (cf. Aguayo 2011: 364). Jenkins, Ford, and Green classify social media content according to 'spreadability', a term denoting the "technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kind of content than other, the economic structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community's motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes" (2013: 4). 'Spreadable' social media content tends to be more sensational and travels faster than its more mundane variety (cf. Salem 2015: 185).
Notably, the relative ease with which to publish and participate in social media reinforces "fluid, flexible, ad-hoc movements and initiatives" (Hrdina 2016: 39). Online hate speech, for example, has steadily grown and developed into "an extreme variety of new, rapidly evolving modes of political communication as such" (38). Notably, online hate speech is often directed at particular groups of people (such as migrants or refugees) and produced in combination with other activities on the web, such as an extremist group's propaganda on Facebook. The development of legal sanctions against this kind of hate speech is still lacking worldwide, and particularly so in Latin America (cf. Hernandez 2011: 807).
'Whistleblowing', a mechanism closely related to hate speech as it also intends to harm other participants in cyberspace, denotes the "disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action" (Lewis, Brown, and Moberly 2014: 1). Here, the interest of the public rather than the individual is of primary importance, while the whistleblower, on the other hand, is exposed to a moral dilemma and social / legal sanctioning.
The link between social media and politics - here broadly defined as patterns of action and organization that challenges the mode of production and struggle for collective control over a nation's development in all its facets (cf. Gilroy 1994: 405) - is evident: Studies that surveyed the relationship between people's change in political opinion in Latin America, for instance, have shown that the increase in social media use has a "negative influence on citizens' attitudes about their national political conditions" (cf. Gainous, Wagner, Gray 2016: 712).
The U.S. elections in 2016 have unleashed a similar discussion on the effect of social media on people's attitudes. While political uses of social media seemed to have been evaluated positively during the last election campaigns, 'fake news' were increasingly used to influence people politically by spreading hyperpartisan, provocative, and mostly not- or partly-true content that was shared massively on social media. Part of this spreadability of social media content is not only because of its political agenda, but also its profitability. Cyberspace, as all other spaces, is economically constructed to optimize and maximize profit, making use of the personal and political data of its users.

3. Political Participation vs. Limitation on Social Media: Theoretical Debate

The influence of people's opinion formation on social media calls for a critical look at the relation of participation in social media, internet freedom, and governments who actively decrease the odds of this dissidence building by controlling the flow of information (cf. Gainous, Wagner, Gray 2016: 712). This shift, from a positive evaluation of political engagement in social media to the implementation of more severe skepticism in the public debate, is not per se a new one. In short, a strong binary has evolved from this discussion: cyber-optimism and cyber-skepticism
Cyber-optimists stress that social media help movements to overcome long-standing restrictions and limitations for protest traditionally needed for building and sustaining social movements, such as time and space. The internet acts as a critical device that enables information, co-ordination, communication, and co-operation of protest movements (Fuchs 2011: 291), as it is an "easy and economical tool for organizing, especially for global activism" (Aguayo 2011: 363). Protest via social media is said to not only have become easier, faster, and more spontaneous but also "ultimately more decentralized, horizontal and participatory" (Dencik and Leistert 2015: 3; Hands 2011: 18). Social media create a base layer for activity, facilitating the connection between individuals and the movement.
Studies have found, for instance, that the use of social media in most Latin America regions can to a very small degree be linked to the reduction of gaps in protest behavior associated with resources (such as education, time, and money), psychological engagement (e.g. political interest), and recruitment networks (voluntary organizations such as community groups or churches) (cf. Valenzuela et al. 2016: 696). Recently, Latin America has been the grounds for many newly emerging pacific protest campaigns that heavily use social media, such as the massive protests that took place prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Despite violent police repression and negative media coverage, the movement grew very quickly into the country's largest protest movement in more than two decades (Porto and Brant 2015: 181). The movement made intense use of digital platforms that facilitated mass aggregation of individuals with concrete locations through viral communication flows, yet generated "crowds of individuals" rather than stable organizational networks (183).
There are examples of social media uses for politics that address traditionally marginalized groups, such as the 'new Indigenous movements' across the Americas (cf. Salazar 2011: 253). For Mapuche activists, media-makers, political leaders, and intellectuals, for instance, the publication of videos online has become an active instrument of intervention in Chilean national politics. An intricate network of websites has made possible the circulation of informed ideas, debates, and public opinion (257). Other groups directly affected by digital divides show similar effects: On social media sites such as YouTube, young people use popular culture as a resource for political struggle, organization, and action; witnessing, analyzing, and commenting on political affairs (cf. White and Wyn 2008: 217). These kids participate in discourses on a wide range of issues, from contemporary civic to world politics - discourses that have traditionally excluded kids. Similarly, the new millennium has found undocumented youth in the U.S. to re-form the legacy of immigrant rights activism in the U.S., using social media to organize and motivate national audiences into support and, first and foremost, to create visibility for people usually hiding in 'the shadows' (cf. Quakernack 2016: 43).
Here, cyber-skeptics point to the nature of political output as inherently defined by the affordances of social media communication that typically "starts and ends with the individual and its mediated self-expression through i.e. hashtag solidarity, postings of updates and images, datafied emotions and relations" and resolves in a "continuous quest for more and more visible forms of participation" (cf. Dencik and Leistert 2015: 4-5). Viewed critically, this type of political participation has nothing but led to mixed-result transformations of activism based upon processes of 'mediatization'. In this debate, mediatization is understood as the result of a long-term "meta-process on a par with other transformative social change processes such as globalization and individualization" (Esser and Strömbäck 2014: 4). Accordingly, movements do not only act in line with their political logic but include media logics into their actions. Sooner or later, the "politics of algorithms" manifest itself at the point of ideals, organizational patterns, and dynamics of political groups (cf. Dencik and Leistert 2015: 4).
Cyber-skeptics further claim that social media do little to support movements in practice (Dencik and Leistert 2015: 3). Organizing via social media has shown to be much less effective in grassroots organization and political campaigning due to other forces at play that simultaneously undermine some of the very possibilities that social media offer. In particular, questioning the notion of a 'free' web and 'new protest culture' has fueled the discussion. Cyber-skeptics emphasize that power structures, leadership, and hierarchy mechanisms are not discarded or replaced by newer, more liberated structures: Social media rather adhere to social structures, bodies, cultures, and knowledge that serve existing hierarchies and power structures. Newly formed structures require movements to additionally negotiate challenges and dangers, both in the online and offline context. Despite the 'positive' examples mentioned above, digital divides are persistent in most western democracies, primarily those related to generational difference, gender, and economic status. Political participation has always happened at slightly higher levels for people with better income and education. Critics argue that for Latin America, more than for other democratic regions, social media still are the "weapon of the strong" and internet access and use in Latin America has developed in rapid but uneven terms (Valenzuela et al. 2016: 696).
There is a fast-growing community of contentious bloggers in Cuba, for instance, determined to be the 'new civil society' aimed at breaking down the socialist regime (Geoffray 2013: 1). Here, cyber-optimists stress the democratizing aspect of social media uses such as blogging, cyber-skeptics warn of the abilities of authoritarian regimes to use technologies for economic development and to control and repress. While social media serve as new communication venues that disseminate information antagonistic to the state narrative, activism is conditioned by the level of filtering that the government applies to the public access to this information on the internet. Throughout the Americas, this level varies across states based on the extent and effectiveness of their filtering schemes (cf. Gainous, Wagner, Gray 2016: 713). While Latin America has generally been one of the least filtered developing regions, the 2010 Freedom House internet freedom ranking finds that there are significant self-censorship practices, especially in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela (cf. 717). States such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay are categorized as more 'free', while the states that offer only partially free access to and use of social media websites are Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela (cf. ibid.: 725). In Venezuela, for instance, journalists more often than in the other countries tend to have anonymous Twitter accounts that enable them to circumvent guidelines on reporting. As political opposition grew in 2014, the government reportedly blocked Twitter users' online images or the entire access to the platform.
Worldwide, censorship and surveillance is increasing rather than decreasing. The Freedom on the Net 2013 found that 35 of the 60 countries assessed have broadened their technical or legal surveillance powers since 2012. A central form of policing tactic became visible in the context of the Toronto G20 protests in 2010, for instance, which relied heavily upon social media data as a way to inform police so as to devise strategies that limited the size, length, and impact of protests (cf. Dencik and Leistert 2015: 7). Concern with surveillance on social media platforms, too, prevailed within the #YoSoy132 students' movement in Mexico in 2012-2013, for instance. It eventually manifested itself after the Mexican police arbitrarily violated people's human rights, leading many activists to quit social media entirely (8).

4. Outlook

The discussion and the persistence of problems such as digital divides, social structures and hierarchies, surveillance, or censorship in the offline as well as online context highlights that the notion of participatory web 2.0 remains "merely an ideology" (Fuchs 2011: 290). We not only need to contest and reflect on the employment of the term 'participation' when we consider social media as a tool for political activism, we also need to (re-)consider the new limitations and challenges that go hand in hand with the potential changes. However 'user-generated' social media might be in theory, the study of the users, their demographics, their individual behavior, and their political affiliations and oppositions is necessary before we can simply proclaim social media to permeate all our social and political life.

Stefanie Quakernack


Please cite as:
Quakernack, Stefanie. 2018. "Social Media". InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/s_social_media.html.

5. Works Cited

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Dencik, Lina, and Oliver Leistert. 2015. Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protests:Between Control and Emancipation. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

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Quakernack, Stefanie. 2016. (Re-)framing Testimonio on YouTube: Multimodal Performances of Dispossession in Digital Narratives of Undocumented Youth. Bielefeld: Universität Bielefeld.

Salazar, Juan F. 2011. "Indigenous Media in Latin America." In Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media, ed. John D. H. Downing, 253-57. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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Valenzuela, Sebastián, Somma, Nicolás M., Scherman, Andrés, and Arturo Arriagada. 2016. "Social Media in Latin America: Deepening or Bridging Gaps in Protest Participation?" In Social Media in Latin America 40, no. 5: 695-711.

White, Rob, and Johanna Wyn. 2008.Youth & Society: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Youth Experience. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.