Book Review: Young People, ICTs and Democracy
Olsson, Tobias and Dahlgren, Peter (Eds.). Young People, ICTs and Democracy: Theories, Policies, Identities, and Websites. Göteborg, Sweden: Nordicom, 2010. Pp. 250. ISBN 978-91-89471-87-0 (paper) $99.50.
On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his goods, harassment and humiliation by municipal officials. His desperate act sparked protests and riots by Tunisians fed up with the social, economic and political injustices in their country. Cell phone videos of those early protests appeared on YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites, and were subsequently broadcast across the Arab world by satellite news channels like Al Jazeera. The images of the protests became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution, which led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years in power.
The success of the Tunisian Revolution sparked the Arab Spring, a series of demonstrations in other Arab countries, most notably a revolution in Egypt that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. The Egyptian Revolution’s success relied on coupling techniques of civil unrest with the organizing power of the Internet. A Facebook page set up by a young Google executive became the driving force behind the protests, and tweets by activists on the ground helped protestors prepare for and react to violent responses from authorities.
In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell had argued in The New Yorker that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” Four months later, activists in Tunisia and Egypt proved him wrong. Their revolutions indicated a sea change in the relationship between young people, social media and democracy.
The essays in Tobias Olsson and Peter Dahlgren’s Young People, ICTs and Democracy were all written well before the advent of the Arab Spring; and while its title might imply a discussion of the Internet’s power in organizing young people, the book does not offer such reflections. As the editors write in their introduction, “The reader expecting discussions about how the Web 2.0 will turn the world around will be disappointed. What this book offers instead is a set of theoretically and empirically well grounded analyses of questions concerning the ways in which the internet […] interplays (or not) with young people’s civic engagement and participation, and the implications of this more generally for democracy.”
As a member of the so-called “net generation,” I often hear how people my age and younger are disenfranchised from political processes. The contributions in Young People, ICTs and Democracy offer research analyses that both contradict and confirm this notion. While I believe you cannot discuss young people’s civic engagement on the Web without referring to major events like the Arab Spring or Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (the book refers to it only in the introduction), and while one might argue that the volume has been overtaken by major events since its publication, it does offer valuable insights.
The volume is neatly organized in four major sections: theories, policies, identities and websites. Each section contains three research papers of about 15 pages in length that grew out of presentations at a symposium the editors organized in Malmö, Sweden, in April 2007.
In the opening chapter, Natalie Fenton acknowledges the Internet as a tool for social change and challenges the notion that young people are politically disengaged. She characterizes the nature of politics exhibited online by new social movements (NSMs) as “marked by protest rather than political project,” transnational and high-speed, “resulting in ever more complex networks of oppositional activism.” She cites the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 as an example. (The revolutions in the Arab world in 2011 embodied these characteristics even more.)
Fenton says online participation is about engaging people offline. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which I have studied, comes to mind, but is not referenced. Fenton argues that we need “to move away from the notion of participative, deliberative democracy being realizable only through the traditional political structures of the nation state,” and argues for a re-imagination of democracy where we need to “take on board anti-essentialist, antagonistic, radical plurality.”
Janelle Ward, in chapter 2, picks up on the notion that it’s not young people who are disconnected from politics, but political institutions that are disconnected from young people. She argues that expanding the definition of the political reveals new forms of civic engagement. She does so by studying young people as “citizen-consumers” who, in the age of globalization, view purchasing as a political act. She defines three types of citizen-consumers and evaluates their level of political engagement by studying three commercial/activist websites that target such youth. Ward comes to the conclusion that new social movements don’t make traditional politics irrelevant. Instead, she argues NSMs need to find a way to work in the established system.
Addressing those youth who are disengaged from traditional politics, Stephen Coleman, in chapter 4, asks how the Internet can lead to their reengagement. He argues there exists a dichotomy between increasing citizens’ autonomy and the urge of political parties to manage their constituents. He finds that few governments show interest in promoting peer-to-peer interactivity online and rather promote managed feedback. This sort of managed e-participation leads to vertical rather than horizontal communication, a major turn-off for young citizens. “Whereas e-participation enables people to act in accordance with policies that have been already been determined by others,” Coleman says, “the function of meaningful e-democracy is to engage people in the framing of policies and the determination of outcomes.”
The three chapters mentioned above are among the most enriching in the volume. Others that spark curiosity include Maria Bakardjieva’s attempt in chapter 7 to illustrate how young citizenship may be cultivated in everyday usages of the Internet; Ingegerd Rydin and Ulrika Sjöberg’s study of how Swedish immigrant girls use the Internet to manage and shape their identities and citizenship (chapter 8); Asli Telli Aydemir and Bilge Selen Apak’s study of the 2007 elections in Turkey, where a youth ICT campaign helped lower the age one can be elected to parliament to 25 (chapter 9); and Ulf Buskqvist’s study of how media, political and social websites addressed young citizens during the 2004 Swedish parliamentary elections (chapter 10).
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and the events of the Arab Spring have shown (1) that youth are not disengaged from the political sphere, (2) that they are dissatisfied with traditional politics, and (3) that information communication technologies have the power to engage young people, organize them on the ground, and shape democracy. While the research in Young People, ICTs and Democracy doesn’t refer to these events, it offers some fundamental principles that can help understand them.