Understanding the role of digital media in the challenge to institutions

4.5. Understanding the role of digital media in the challenge to institutionsΒΆ

In this chapter, we have discussed the ways digital media enable challenges to institutions. We have also seen that this enabling does not guarantee success. It is also important to note that digital media enable both challenges that arguably can be seen as aiming to strengthen democracy as well as those aimed at weakening it.

These observations point to a set of important take aways for the scientific work on digital media. First, we need to improve our understanding of how digital media are actually used in support of challenges of the status quo. This includes work focusing on the uses of digital media in organizations and associated adaption process. But this also includes work that focuses on digital artifacts of challenges, such as content posted on social media. Especially the second type of work invites contributions using methods from computational social science.

Going further, the varying fates of digitally enabled challenges to the status quo also show that we need to increase our understanding of the contextual conditions for successful challenges. Some of those might be connected to digital media directly, others might not. Still, getting a better grasp of the necessary conditions for successful challenges of the status quo will also allow us to get a better understanding of the contribution of digital media to these successes.

This future work will also have to extend our analyses to include long-term fates of challenges. For example, for a few months it seemed like the events of the Arab Spring were successful in sustainably changing the balance of power in the countries concerned. A few years later, though, these changes proved to be short lived and often illusory. Work on the political effects of digital media can sometimes appear rather short of breath, with a strong focus on the short term and select cases of apparently successful uses. These studies can be highly instructive but often fail to fully account for the long-term effects of the use of digital media described. From these studies then it is easy to get the impression of the power of digital media while a longer term view might indicate their limits.

Given the multiplicity of challenges to the status quo, we currently experience, we need to deploy a clear normative framework in their discussion. Some challenges to the status quo are justified and their success might arguably end up strengthening democracy or even the very institution they challenge. Others, might end up weakening institutions and democracy. In discussing these challenges, our normative assessments must follow clear criteria in order for us not to end up celebrating challenges we happen to support and critiquing those we do not. In this chapter, I introduced one such framework.

The intermediary institutions democracies rely on are far from perfect. For years, the social sciences have pointed out the various ways these institutions fall short, fail to represent all people, or perpetuate injustices. To find these institutions challenged comes therefor as no surprise. Clearly, digital media play a role in enabling the current wave of challenges. Especially, the current prevalence of digitally enabled reactionary challenges from the extreme or populist right makes it tempting to write of digital media as a tool for political expression or coordination. But this would be a mistake. While some digitally enabled challenges are aimed at rolling back citizen representation and rights, so are many challenges that try to increase both. So instead of damning digital media in support of the first, or celebrating it for their support of the second type of challenge, we need to develop a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and subsequent conditions for success. Only this will ensure that we are able to use digital media to strengthen democracies and better societies instead of falling prey to those using them to weaken both. Here, there clealry remains much to do for social science.