Social media: information dissemination across boundaries and the potential impact on citizen behavior

Wednesday October 30 2019

By Aikande Kwayu, Banita Lal and Yogesh K. Dwivedi

Borders define boundaries that are used for separation and represent the edge/end of something, which denotes a limit, a division between at least two things.

When thinking about modern and almost-ubiquitous and somewhat intangible technology such as the internet, international ‘borders’ are not as visible as the real geographical borders separating one state from another.

One can therefore presume that there are thus no limits to what information people can access irrespective of temporal and spatial divisions.

However, in reality, there are existing ‘borders’ on the Internet due to various factors such as international regulations and standards on the internet and related technologies. As a result, different people see different things on web pages.

This becomes more apparent on social media. For example, if you log onto an Instagram account, it offers suggestions on people to follow or images and videos to view based on your previous activity, such as what you have been ‘liking’, ‘viewing’ or the pages that you have been visiting.

This is how algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) create borders: technologies that aim to provide some level of predictability when it comes to individuals’ online browsing history and preferences. Whether rightly or wrongly, sophisticated algorithms and AI categorise individuals in accordance to their preferences as dictated by their practices.

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On the other hand, information dissemination between citizens across spatial and temporal boundaries has increased awareness of political developments in different parts of the world.

On a wider scale, as awareness rises, it can be assumed that the Internet and social media activities of one country has the potential to impact the activities in other countries.

Citizens around the world have come to learn about the lives, politics and events occuring in other countries in real-time and in unscripted manners.

Although the global coverage of international cable news had opened people’s eyes across the world into what is happening in other parts of the world, the extent to which social media has exposed news and events in other places is unprecedented. Within one’s border there is the potential for increased learning from within and outside one’s geographical territory.

For instance, the role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and social media in the ‘Arab Spring’ movement did not only attract worldwide attention, but also emphasised new mass forms of socio-political protest that is facilitated by social media networks (Stepanova, 2011).

It is acknowledged that social interaction and news-seeking behaviours on social media lead to diverse networks, exposure to nonconforming political opinion and ultimately reconsidering and changing one’s political views.

Weeks et al (2017) add that: “individuals are becoming increasingly reliant on others in their online social networks for news recommendations and political information and that their knowledge, opinions, and behaviours are affected by the information stream and social dynamics within these sites” (p.214). The tendency for users to build and maintain friend networks creates a potential space for political persuasion to take place.

According to O’Keefe (2008), persuasion “involves changing persons’ mental states, usually as precursors to behavioural change. Of the various mental states that might be implicated in persuasion, attitude (understood as a person’s general evaluation of an object) has been the center of research attention” (p.32). Attitude change is therefore an important aspect of persuasion: various decisions are subject to changes in attitudes, including which political candidate/party to support.

It would be tempting to state that effects of persuasion tactics are predictable and that generalisations can be made. However, studies have found contradictory and inconsistent findings.

By learning from the experiences of others, social media may have an influence on election campaigns, processes and outcomes in other countries. Social media might trigger certain action by political parties.

It may act as a source of motivation or despair. For example, the loss of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to opposition in Budapest has been of much joy to candidates and supporters of parties across the world that wish to protect and maintain liberal democracy, as was the case when the President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan lost Istanbul to opposition.

Information regarding situations such as the above can be widely and easily spread across borders via social media. However, one cannot assume that awareness of the events in other countries will lead to certain actions in other countries: contextual factors have a role to play. In Tanzania, for example, voter registration took place in early October in preparation for the local government elections that are to take place in late-November. The turn-out for registration was low even with the enormous efforts from both the government and opposition parties.

The Regional Commissioners were tasked to ensure that people go to register. This was following the obvious low turn-out, which raised an alarm.

The government had to extend the deadline for three more days in order to provide further time for people to register. The question is, why do we see this level of apathy while in recent years we have seen increasing voter turn-out even in countries where voter turn-out had been low for decades?

There were vibrant discussions on Tanzania social media spaces– Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups - as to why citizens were not interested in registering. Some of the reasons given for this apparent apathy were the feelings of continuous unfair election outcomes, the recent bi-election campaign and outcomes that were deemed violent and forceful, political and bipartisan statements and increasing polarisation based on party politics. Thus, we learn that experiences and context clearly affect action or, in this instance, lack of action.

From the above observations, it is arguable that local politics and processes still matter and may have more impact than external influences. That does not mean that there is no external influence in citizens’ participation in elections brought by social media.

Nevertheless, the local politics and bipartisan party politics influence participation. Political culture (Almond and Verba, 1963) is categorized into three types: parochial, subject and participant.

Parochial and subject political cultures are correlated with little or forced participation in political processes.

These types of indifferent political culture are exacerbated by restrictions of political and civil freedom. The restrictions of political and civil freedoms have been recorded to be on the increase in recent years in Tanzania. It is in this connection, that we see reluctance in registering.

Thus, local politics and context has more correlations than external influences brought about by social media.

This observation is in alignment with the argument that social media is more effective for political change if there are existing political movements on the ground.

All in all, we can see that speedier and cheaper methods of information dissemination – and more widespread uptake and use of social media networks – provides more exposure to the political developments in many nations.

Thus, awareness amongst citizens across temporal and spatial borders rises and has the potential to influence individuals’ thinking, attitudes and behaviours via persuasion. Whilst this potential exists, ultimately any action or inaction also relies heavily on the contextual factors within a nation and the general mood of the population: citizens will not act or react to information dissemination irrespective of news on social media or any other platforms unless they feel able and capable to do so.

Aikande C. Kwayu is an honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin Madison.

Dr Banita Lal is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Management at Bedford-shire Business School, University of Bedfordshire.

Yogesh K. Dwivedi is a Professor of Dig-ital Marketing and Innovation Swansea University, Wales

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