I want to take the opportunity of this conversation series to think through a thought I've been playing with for a few years now around participatory politics, that has to do with my own research and personal trajectory.
My work on participatory politics started in my PhD program, when I was working with Henry Jenkins and later became part of the Youth & Participatory Politics network (which I'm assuming Sangita Shresthova and Joe Kahne mentioned in their conversation a few days ago). At USC, we were interested in the ways young people found their way to civic engagement through popular culture interests, and the case study I came to work on was 'the fandom case,' which included theHarry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters- which were all groups that built on young fans' passion towards popular culture content, and mobilized that interest towards engagement in and around social issues (You can read more about that work, much of it co-authored with USC colleagues,here,hereandhere).
One of the things that characterized our work was the basic premise that young people (in the US) as a baseline are not very civically/politically engaged (though of course this varies between civic and political engagement - many young people are active in volunteerism or 'social justice' issues, but shy away from partisan politics that is seen as divisive and dirty), and so we were looking for pathways that got them more interested and involved, and that got them to see the relevance of politics to their everyday lives. The general idea was, more engagement = more social good.
While at USC, I also collaborated with Kjerstin Thorson and Emily Vraga to look at young people's political expression on Facebook, in the context of the 2012 election. We found that the young people we talked to tended to see Facebook mostly as a social space (one to share cute cat photos and stories about your latest vacation), and - based on that perception - were hesitant about expressing political views, that were seen as divisive, on Facebook. They preferred social harmony over political discussion, transferring onto Facebook the idea that "You don't discuss politics or religion." The few people who did post political opinions on Facebook were seen negatively, as 'ranters', who deviated from the (preferred) social norms.
In 2015, I finished my PhD at USC and was very fortunate to join the Department of Communication & Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Besides getting great new colleagues, the move back to Israel confronted me with a different relationship between young people and politics, which made me question some of my working assumptions from the US context. In Israel - as I know well enough as an Israeli - politics is perceived very differently from the generally political avoidant-norms I encountered in my work with US youth.
(And a word of caution here. Of course it's a gross over-generalization to talk about 'US youth' - or 'Israeli youth' for that matter - as one common entity, but this is a blog conversation, so humor me... I'll deal with justifying these large-scale comparisons when I respond to reviewers ;-) ).
So in Israel, in general, talking politics is perceived as a valuable and even enjoyable activity, and people do it all the time, at the check-out counter at the supermarket (happened to me just this morning), with colleagues at work, over beer with buddies. And a very similar pattern occurs on Facebook. Working with doctoral student Yifat Mor and my senior colleague If at Maoz, we found that young Israelis held very different norms around talking politics on Facebook: They saw Facebook as an appropriate venue for political talk, enjoyed using it to share their views (and to sound smart). They were, however, aware that they may have diverse audiences, and that in some contexts what they say can be misunderstood or used against them, so they employed impression-management techniques to balance saying what they wanted about politics without offending or annoying those who don't see eye-to-eye with them too much...
So it seems that in Israel the picture around young people and politics was quite different. Young people didn't need to be 'persuaded' or 'pushed' towards politics - they were already quite interested and engaged in politics, had quite clear opinions, and were not very hesitant about expressing them. So what do I do here as a scholar of youth political participation - am I out of work?
The thing is that politics in Israel is also - and increasingly so - characterized by properties that are hardly beneficial for democracy. Over the years that I spent studying in the US (2008-2015), Israeli politics became not only more right-wing oriented, but also less tolerant and civil. People - including politicians, opinion leaders, and everyday people on social media - allow themselves to say malicious things towards other social groups (left-wingers, Arabs, settlers) that wouldn't have been acceptable in the public sphere a few years ago. The peak of that was in 2014 during the Israeli-Gaza conflict - which I'm sure you'll mention, Nik, in relation to your first unfriending study - but the aftershocks of it were still highly visible in 2015 and beyond when I returned to Israel. The two clearest indications of the political malice online is the Berl Katznelson 'hate report,'that monitors hateful and inciting speech towards different social groups online; and the Facebook page of Israeli ex-rapper 'The Shadow,' which includes not only his own racist and inciting content, but comments from regular users (identified on Facebook, with their picture and link to their own profile and everything!) so unseemly it makes you lose faith in humanity.
So in Israel, it seemed, the problem is not - how do we get young people more engaged in politics, but rather - how do we encourage the kind of political participation and expression that is beneficial towards democracy? That includes listening to the other side, and acknowledging their right to have views I don't agree with, without disrespecting them as human beings and fellow members of a democratic nation.
In the latter installments I'll talk about one group I found in Israel (surprisingly, taking place on WhatsApp!) which somewhat encouraged me that such participation is possible, but first... back to the US.
Enter the elections of 2016, and particularly the immediate post-election context, with the new political reality represented by President Donald Trump. As I first witnessed, and later studied (with my colleague Ioana Literat), some of the reactions of (mostly liberal-leaning youth) around the election of Trump, as well as the reactions of their Trump-supporting peers, I felt I was seeing a picture that resembled much more closely the Israeli political reality. These young people didn't need to be persuaded that politics matters to them or is relevant to their everyday life - this was perfectly clear to them. They had political views and they expressed them very clearly. But again the question was, is all political expression and participation good political expression and participation? Or may we be seeing the rise of youth political expression that is characterized by a disconnect from 'the other side,' that may make it increasingly difficult to talk across ideologies and function together as members of a democracy?
In short, is US politics post-2016 plagued by similar problems as Israeli politics?
If so, perhaps the question shouldn't be how do we get young people more politically involved, but rather - what kind of political involvement is beneficial towards democracy, and where and how can we encourage it?
In the last couple of years I have been finding myself increasingly interested in questions about the scope and depth of our knowledge about online political participation and civic engagement. The more I look into these questions, the greater my discomfort with the growing gap between the quality and quantity of knowledge held by different stakeholders: social media platforms, politicians and their institutions, the public, and academic researchers. However, it is not simply that the public, for instance, is not interested in knowing about how politicians are using social media to shape debates and opinion; it is that there are mechanisms that prevent the public from attaining such knowledge. It is not the case that academics, for example, are not interested in gathering knowledge about the role of bots in political discourse; it is the case that in many instances they lack access to the data that would enable the production of truly useful knowledge.
I came to this realization back in 2014, during the war between Israel (where I live) and Hamas in Gaza. At some point, the press started reporting on waves of unfriending between Israelis from different sides of the political map. I naively approached Facebook’s research team to ask for data—aggregated, anonymous—about the rate of unfriending among Israeli Facebook users during the weeks of that war. It seemed obvious that Facebook could provide that information. It seemed obvious that such information is of significance to anyone interested in the role of social media in process of polarization. Even looking at it through Facebook’s eyes, if people connecting with one another is politically and socially important—and this is Facebook’s fundamental vision and belief—then people disconnecting from one another is equally important.
Here, though, we find a huge blind spot: not only does Facebook not enable researchers to know about unfriending, it similarly does not enable individual users to know about it either (external developers sometimes produce tools that will notify you if you have been unfriended; Facebook breaks them as soon as it becomes aware of them). Looking into this further, I learnt that the technical means that Facebook makes available to the public for querying its database—it’s Application Programming Interface, or API—is extremely selective regarding the types of information rendered accessible. Specifically, activities defined as negative feedback, such as unfollowing, blocking, removing a Like, or unfriending, are impossible to study using tools provided by social media platforms themselves. Put simply, knowledge about a swathe of forms of digital political expression is unattainable using tools provided by Facebook and others for learning more about connectivity.
Another type of ignorance about the political implications of social media derives from the platforms’ opacity and refusal to answer quite simple questions about data they themselves voluntarily present to the public. A striking example of this is a web page (not a Facebook Page) that Facebook published for a decade, with a hiatus of a couple of years. On this page Facebook claimed to document the number of Facebook friendships formed across the lines of violent and protracted conflicts, such as between Indians and Pakistanis, and Israelis and Palestinians. The message of the page, which sat first at peace.facebook.com and later at Facebook.com/peace (for those interested in looking it up in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine), was that Facebook brings people together where national leaders fail to do so. Communication technologies are portrayed as enabling grassroots ties, an argument Facebook applies to itself and, for a decade, substantiated via its “World of Friends” page.
Given the huge research potential of data about such Facebook friendships, I started paying spzzecial attention to this page, keeping track of the numbers reported daily. It was then that I began to suspect their veracity. For example, the number of friendships formed between Facebook users in Israel and the Palestinian territories was recorded at 200,000 per day. Some cursory googling showed me that Israel has about 4.7m Facebook users, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip around 1.7m. So if Facebook’s numbers are right, every single Palestinian Facebook user makes an Israeli Facebook friend every 8.5 days, and every Israeli Facebook user makes a friend in the Palestinian territories at least once a month. Because I didn’t trust these numbers, I surveyed Israeli Facebook users and learnt that on average they make less than 6 Palestinian friends a year. For these and a number of other reasons I reached the conclusion that these potentially fascinating and hugely useful numbers are unreliable.
Wanting to know what Facebook had to say about this, I wrote to the press office and the research team. At no point did I get any answers (though the page was shut down in February 2019, which is perhaps a kind of answer). There can be no doubt, though, that Facebook could provide answers, both about friending and unfriending, without any impact on their users’ privacy. Imagine how fascinating—and, for researchers, important—it would be to know about patterns of unfriending among Democrats and Republicans in the US during and since the 2016 presidential campaign.
This is not to say that we are in a state of no knowledge, but researchers need to be creative—and in possession of significant research funds—in order to reach the knowledge that the platforms could provide with very little effort. I have commissioned surveys to gauge the extent of politically-motivated unfriending in Israel, as have other in the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Colombia, and elsewhere. A Twitter bot identification project in Israel is reliant on crowdsourced funding and the goodwill of Twitter users to let a researcher analyze following networks. A particularly creative project underway in Israel is inviting Facebook users to take screenshots of political ads they see in their feed, along with the “why you are seeing this” text in order to create a database in a way that does not fall foul of Facebook’s anti-scraping rules.
We need a clearer view of computer-mediated political activity. Such a view is currently obstructed by social media platforms’ data access policies, or by their refusal to explain data they are voluntarily publishing. Users and researchers lack the power to shift the position of some of the most powerful corporations in the world, and we are all worse off for that.
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.