The diffusion and integration of digital media in social and political life are said to be creating new forms of political organization and new opportunities for political participation (Castells 2009). This chapter is a comparative study of how and why people get involved in different offline and online participatory environments in the United States and Spain. Researchers have differentiated forms of participation in digital milieus according to their architectures, which enable more or less participation (Jackson and Lilleker 2009; Chadwick 2009a; Chapter 2). Digital environments contain varied structures for communicative interaction. Although web 1.0 involves a fixed content transmitted from a sender to a receiver, web 2.0 is distinguished by the role the receiver plays in the co-production of content. That is, web 1.0 is characterized by closed architecture (Lessig 2006), whereas web 2.0 is widely regarded as having a participatory architecture (O’Reilly 2007). In addition, researchers have developed theories connecting participation with resources such as experience, time, money, and civic skills (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). Modes of participation have been further distinguished by the attitudinal factors that motivate certain forms of participation but not others (Dalton 2008; Marsh, O’Toole, and Jones 2007). From a comparative perspective, research indicates the existence of differences in the categories of individuals and of attitudes motivating different forms of participation across systems (Dalton 2008). This chapter seeks to contribute to this line of research by examining the role the political context plays in shaping the forms of participation and the resources and attitudinal motivations behind them. We expect macro-level differences between the United States and Spain in political communication structures to have an impact on micro-level participatory practices in the two countries.
This book has dealt with two research questions: how does digital media use influence political engagement, and which contextual variables may condition this relationship? The evidence analyzed across the fifteen cases considered in this book suggests that engagement with digital environments is having an effect on users and that contextual features play a significant role in shaping digital politics.
The cases presented in this volume have isolated evidence for both cross-national generalizations and system-level effects, indicating that the role of a particular variable depends on its interaction with institutional elements, media systems, and the digital divide in a political system. In addition, the cases provide evidence that digital media create political opportunity structures in political systems, which in turn depend on contextual factors. We first consider the evidence linking digital media use to higher levels of political engagement, and we then move to the question of the role of contextual features of political systems and their immediate environments in shaping the development of digital politics in a polity.
Political Engagement around the World
The most sustained empirical observation throughout the analyses carried out in this volume is that, despite all the nuances, there is evidence of a positive and significant effect of digital media on political engagement, regardless of the political context under consideration. In particular, the research assembled here shows that internet use is positively associated with a variety of forms of political engagement – both behavioral and attitudinal. Jorba and Bimber’s as well as Chadwick’s review of the literature show that this is consistent with the preponderance of previous research regarding digital media. This has been confirmed throughout the book, ranging from electoral turnout in the 2008 U.S. elections to critical evaluations of the current regime in China. That this finding holds up independent of themethodology used and the context involved demonstrates its robustness.
Research from the United States and United Kingdom over the past fifteen years shows an increasingly positive relationship between internet use and levels of political engagement. Although the effect might be small at times, more evolutionary than revolutionary, and require certain conditions, it is rarely contested that digital media have an impact on civic and political involvement (Boulianne 2009; Prior 2007; Jensen, Danziger, and Venkatesh 2007; Owen 2006). However, the mechanisms by which internet use makes political engagement more probable remain somewhat elusive. In addition, whether this effect can be observed in other, non Anglo-Saxon political systems is still largely an open question. This question is particularly important given recent events in the Islamic world, where mixed results in citizen-led revolutions have provoked different opinions regarding the consequences of digital media use for democratic politics (Morozov 2011; Zhuo, Wellman, and Yu 2011). To better understand the role of digital media in connecting individuals to the political system, the contributors of this volume examine different aspects of this relationship with a variety of data sources and methodological approaches in a number of diverse contexts.
First, the book analyzes different paths through which digital media are affecting political involvement among citizens. We argue that these paths are both direct and indirect. Digital media have opened new modes of engagement that previously did not exist and that can be used by citizens to express their political views and convey their interests. This book considers a wide variety of different political contexts and political activities available online, and it considers the impact of these activities both on political systems and, most important for our concerns, on citizens. Thus, this volume analyzes online involvement as a direct consequence of digital media use on the way citizens relate to their political environments and the indirect effects that result from internet use via changes in resources, attitudes, and traditional patterns of behavior.
In the summer of 2009, a judicial case related to the death of a government official in Hubei Province came to national prominence through internet forums. A female pedicure worker, Deng Yujiao, refused the request for sexual service from Deng Guida, the director of a local township office. She stabbed him several times while trying to fend him off, which resulted in his death. Deng turned herself in to the police and was initially charged with murder. This case was quickly picked up on the internet and accumulated more than 4 million posts across different websites (Wines 2009). Internet users were angered by her treatment in this case. For Chinese netizens, this case exemplifies their impotence in the face of corrupt and immoral officials, social injustice, and the lack of respect in the society. Deng Yujiaowas hailed as a national hero who resisted the abuse of power that is widely perceived in China. National outcry on the internet even caused several street demonstrations. After a failed attempt to play down the incident online, Chinese authorities were pressured to drop the murder charges, grant her bail, and charge her with intentional assault. She was found guilty but was eventually released without sentencing as a result of her “mental state.”
The Deng Yujiao incident is one of many examples in which internet news and online discussions influence government policies and decisions and politicians’ behavior in China (see Chase and Mulvenon 2002; Yang 2003; Zheng and Wu 2005; Tai 2006). These kinds of cases are becoming more and more frequent, and they point to two related trends: attention to the increasing dynamism in Chinese civil society and increasing demands for individual and collective rights. In fact, demands that have received positive responses from the Chinese government span corruption cases, disputes regarding class stratification, and some moral issues and concerns related to abuses of power. As those critiques are not a direct threat to the regime itself, they can often produce a favorable response. Yang (2003) notes that the emerging rights consciousness is accompanied by a tendency toward the loosening of political control in certain areas, which leaves more room for political activity among individuals and organizations. Some members of the current regime have challenged the government's censorship powers on the basis of a reading of the constitution that regards its speech protections as an individual right.
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