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Beyond Blind Optimism

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Introduction

In Political Reflection Magazine, vol. 3, issue 3, Dr. Terry Tucker writes about the role social media played in the Arab Spring and the campaigns against SOPA/PIPA (Stop Online Piracy/Protect IP Act) and NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). His article consists primarily of a list of lessons learned from these highly disparate “events.” In the first paragraph he claims that they are only “seemingly unconnected,” and the text proceeds without mentioning the vast differences in context—the lessons learned from revolts and revolutions gets lumped in with lessons from political campaigns in democratic countries. The “lessons learned” are presented without clear references to analyses or descriptions of these cases, as if the conclusions were self-evident and independent of political context. Given the vast differences between these cases it is probable that Dr. Tucker attempts to draw generally applicable conclusions about the consequences of social media for political engagement rather than restricting his analysis to specific cases.

Dr. Tucker is very optimistic about the possibilities of social media, and his article echoes of the writings of Martin Hauben, Howard Rheingold and other earlier preachers of the revolutionary potential of new information and communication technologies (ICTs). The lingo is the same— revolution, regime change, and end of history. Another similarity with earlier cyber-optimists is how Dr. Tucker writes about social media as if it was a living entity possessing agency. Among other things, we can read about what social media “has done in the Middle East” (emphasis added). Cyber-optimism was a common position in the early years of the debate about the political consequences of ICTs, within and outside of academia, and the debate was plagued by opposition between optimists and pessimists for many years. Within the scholarly community a clear empirical turn in the research around ICTs and politics has pushed the debate forward toward a more realistic middle ground. In the wider debate, this development is still to come. Dr. Tucker’s piece illustrates all too well the unfortunate gap between the wider political debates around social media (in which we include Dr. Tucker’s article) and empirically grounded research. Recently, a growing interest in social media and online political engagement has arisen outside academia resulting in a widely read debate with little connection to the empirically grounded research in this field.

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Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 4 No. 1

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