Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

The Politics of Facebook Friendship: The Influence of the Social Structuration of the SNS upon the Notion of the Political

Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

The Politics of Facebook Friendship: The Influence of the Social Structuration of the SNS upon the Notion of the Political

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

On 8 April 2010, four weeks before a British parliamentary election, the BBC News website reported that

Social networking website Facebook has been brought in to get unregistered voters into the polling booth. In a tie-up with the Electoral Commission, Facebook users who visit the site over the weekend will be asked if they have registered to vote. If they say 'No' they will be sent to a page linked to the Electoral Commission that lets them enter details online. (1)

It remains unclear whether the use of such a social networking site (SNS) as Facebook can promote participation in democratic processes. On the face of things such high profile political endeavours as Barack Obama's electioneering pages on Facebook would seem to suggest that such sites can foster democratic activity. There remain, however, significant questions as to whether the fundamental ideological perspectives underlying and advanced by these homogeneous media forms are themselves consistent with Western notions of democracy and socio-political engagement.

On 15 April 2010, immediately after the UK's first ever televised election debate featuring the leaders of the country's three main political parties, Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC News's Technology Correspondent, posted on his Twitter page the news that 36,483 people had posted a total of 184,396 messages onto the Twitter site in relation to (and during) that debate. (2) In an article on the BBC News website (14 April 2010) Cellan-Jones had pointed out that Facebook would meanwhile run "its own digital version of the leaders' debates" (3)--and that all three party leaders had "agreed to answer questions submitted by users." The morning after the first debate (16 April 2010), on the BBC's Breakfast news programme, Cellan-Jones added that Facebook had experienced a server overload as a result of online activity related to the debate: "Facebook had so many people [...] they couldn't quite cope." Yet Jones also suggested that this activity did not represent a step change in political participation--it had merely shifted extant offline debates onto these sites. It remains uncertain, however, whether the limitations and structures of these sites allow for the range and freedom of debate possible offline--or whether they offer a regulated imitation of and replacement for such participation practised in the non-virtual public sphere.

During the British general election campaign of April-May 2010, the company producing the yeast-based spread Marmite advertised its parallel Facebook sites for the Marmite Love Party and the Marmite Hate Party, complete with slogans ('Spread the Love' and 'Stop the Spread' respectively) and campaign statements, manifestos, pledges, and profiles of the party leaders --as well as links to the Marmite News Network which kept readers updated with the latest campaign news. (4) Users with strong positive or negative opinions on the product could log onto Facebook to register their vote for or against the spread. On 22 April 2010 BBC News Interactive reported that "the maker of Marmite is threatening legal action against the British National Party to stop it from using a jar of the spread in a party broadcast." (5) The yeast spread's spoof campaign had itself been hijacked by the anti-democratic extreme of British political opinion; the parody of democratic processes had become a tool for forces actively seeking to undermine those processes. This seems an appropriate, if absurd, model for the effects of hypermediation upon political processes.

If political participation through Facebook or other online activities is meaningful and empowering, then such activity would bias democratic processes in favour of those groups in society (the economically, technologically and educationally advantaged) who least need that empowerment. But if such participation is not empowering and merely offers an illusion of socio-political agency, then it in fact undermines the desire, and therefore the potential for, real empowerment and meaningful agency. …

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