In a way we’re talking about similar things but in different ways. We’re both interested in the place of social media in political deliberation, especially in the context of Israel, where we live and work. We’re both interested in the negative trajectory that political talk seems to be following in Israel, as elsewhere. In other words, we have both been looking at social norms for discourse on social media and wondering what the role of social media is in shaping them. There are clearly pre-internet rules of etiquette that determine which topics can be discussed in public; on the other hand, the algorithmic ranking of social media feeds rewards engagement but tends to be agnostic regarding content. You ask, how can we encourage better political discussion? I ask: how limited is our understanding of such efforts? I think that these questions maybe converge when we see that the features of social media that maybe have deleterious impacts on the quality of talk (an emphasis on engagement, virality, spreadability) also determine the limits of our knowledge about social media, which do not give access to data about negative feedback.
I agree we’re both interested in the place of social media in political deliberation, but wouldn’t necessarily sign on on the idea of a ‘negative trajectory’ that political talk is following, nor necessarily that social media have deleterious impacts on quality of talk. It may be a bias in the way I select cases for study (see some of my thoughts on the matter here), but I can find myself encouraged by social media political talk. I’ll give two examples.
One is the case study I mentioned briefly in my opening statement - two large-scale Israeli WhatsApp groups devoted to informal political talk, created by Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider. In this group, a heterogeneous group of Israelis from a variety of ages, including secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews; a wide range of political views from extreme left-wing to extreme right-wing spends their time debating Israeli politics. What amazes me about this group is not only the extent and excitement around political talk (they’re all self-proclaimed political junkies) but the fact that this varied group is able to discuss the most controversial topics in Israeli politics while (usually) maintaining civil discussion.
In a less extreme case, my colleague Ioana Literat and I examined youth political expression around the 2016 election in a range of online affinity networks. We found that youth were using creative practices to express themselves politically around the elections, using it as a way to reclaim agency towards the political process, to offer support towards others in light of the election results, or to reimagine an alternative political realm. Online spaces provided young people with important spaces to exert their political voice and to find their way around the complex political reality.
In these cases, I wouldn’t say social (or digital) media were deleterious to political talk. Perhaps we can tweak our question to, under what conditions can different contexts (including social media) enable constructive political expression and discussion? And, to respond more closely to the important points you raise, to what extent are we able to constructively study and analyze these spaces, given constraints created by social media platforms?
I don’t think I would want to make the argument that social media are bad for political talk. I mean, they might be, but that question is slightly outside what I consider to be my field of expertise. I would certainly not want to argue with your claim that we can find fantastic examples of productive political talk that is computer/smartphone-mediated. After all, you’ve found them and studied them (to our considerable edification). However, these examples could be the exceptions to the rule that proves the rule. They certainly prove that the technologies of social media do not necessarily have to lead to polarization and a breakdown in civility, and there is something optimistic in that.
But I think that I’m more of a pessimist than you are. Right now I’m writing up findings from interviews with 20 Palestinian citizens of Israel who unfriended Jewish Israelis on Facebook against the background of the Israel-Palestine conflict. These acts are important--certainly for the people who carry them out. Yet they are invisible to researchers for reasons, I argue, that sit in a kind of elective affinity with the commercial objectives of social media platforms. We cannot measure unfriending and we cannot see it by ourselves. We can talk to people about it, but we cannot collect data in ways that we have learnt to do from social network sites. This is because we are studying an absence, and not a presence; a nothing, and not a thing. This is not to take anything away from the fascinating examples of productive political expression that you have identified. It is to say that there are invisible phenomena that we should also study.
Ha, yes, the optimism/pessimism question is one that often crops up around my research (I believe am in good company there with my advisor and mentor Henry Jenkins :) ). In our 2016 book By any Media Necessary, we explain that our perspective to examining youth participation is one of “cautious optimism” (p. 9). Even with the political, social and technological developments that have happened since 2016, I do still stand behind that approach--to me, cautious optimism is important both empirically (in being open to seeing the positive aspects of participation) and ideologically. After all, the questions we’re dealing with here are ones that affect our everyday lives and future, and I insist on maintaining some optimism regarding these aspects!
That being said, I benefit a lot from having difficult and challenging conversations with great colleagues like you, as well as imaginary conversations vis-a-vis the work of many fantastic scholars, not to mention simple reality, that forces me to grapple with many serious and grave concerns regarding the future of (youth) participation (online). Being more aware of the role of social media platforms in making some data invisible--data that is crucial to our understanding of the phenomena we’re studying--is one such important take-away.
Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.
Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is Assistant Professor of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work focuses on civic and political engagement in the context of the changing media environment, particularly among young people. Neta has published work in leading communication journals, including the Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, International Journal of Communication,Social Media + Society, and Computers in Human Behavior. She is a co-author of the book By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism published by NYU Press in 2016. Neta received her Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.