New media takes citizens’ engagement in political discourse to new levelPolitical leaders find it easier to communicate their ideas to a wider audience through social media, which has ‘democratised’ discourse but also fuelled polarisation.
When the Arab Spring erupted in the 2010s in the Arab World, it was claimed that new media—the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube—had a significant role to play in it. The movement ignited when a 26-year-old vegetable seller in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest against police harassment on December 17, 2010. Though he died on January 4, 2011, the incident went viral on new media and eventually forced the longtime rulers of Tunisia to step down from power.
Later, the movement spread to countries like Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. These countries also witnessed political upheavals, resulting in a change in their political leadership.
In June 2019, a political movement took place in Hong Kong. The movement gained impetus through the new media when the then government planned to allow extraditions to mainland China. When the protests escalated, the bill with such provision was withdrawn in September 2019. However, the protests continued.
Similarly, in 2020, a protest against the KP Sharma Oli government took place in Kathmandu, alleging the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. This moment too erupted through the new media with the hashtag, Enough is Enough, on Twitter.
Not only the political movements, but the new media has also had a role to play in elections as well. After Barack Obama won the presidential election by a wide margin in 2008, British newspaper The Guardian wrote: “Obama’s victory means that the future elections will be fought with the use of new media.” President Obama had won the election against the veteran Republican politician John McCain.
After the local elections and before the November polls, many of the leaders of Nepal also questioned the role of the new media in the elections. Kiran Chapagain, who assisted the National Election Commission to formulate the policy on the use of social media in electoral management during the November 20 elections, said that social media or the new media has a huge impact on the election process.
“Had the Election Commission not formulated the policy on the use of social media during the election, the new and emerging parties might not have gained the votes they managed to garner,” Chapagain told the Post. “Though we do not have any methodological research on the topic, we can say that new media has a direct impact on political discourses.”
Of late, most of the political discourses take place in the new media. Political leaders find it easier to communicate their ideas to a wider audience through them. But there are equal chances of polarisation in society due to the information disseminated via such media since there is no regulatory mechanism for social media, Chapagain said.
With the evolution of the new media, there are more alternative choices for sources of information for people; people don’t have to depend solely on traditional media for information. However, since new media don’t have a rigorous editorial mechanism in place to vet information before it’s published, they are more likely to mislead people, experts say.
P Kharel, a senior journalist and professor, says that digital media could now be termed as the mainstream of journalism whereas social media is the new media.
“Though there has been a quick growth of digital journalism throughout the world including in Nepal, they have to get registered in the press council to operate,” Kharel told the Post. “Even though we have no research on this issue yet, social media can be considered as new media.”
When more and more people are relying on social platforms to keep up to date on the latest happenings, the new media have emerged as a vital component of society.
In recent years, political organisations and leaders seem to be ahead of others when it comes to making maximum use of the new media to get their message across to the populace. Political party leaders are known to spend the majority of their time promoting content on social media and soliciting feedback. In addition, the candidates made significant investments in new media throughout the November 20 election campaign.
Meanwhile, mainstream journalists have come to rely heavily on new media content for the latest happenings. These developments have had a significant impact on the nature and quality of news content, as well as the style of political reporting, which has become more heavily suffused with infotainment and quotes, experts say.
Social media has become an all-pervasive force in politics, changing the communication dynamics between politicians and the general public. They have created more opportunities for real-time political discourses and debates.
“New media can deliver information to individuals, directly, without the intervention of editorial or institutional gatekeepers,” Yubaraj Ghimire, a senior journalist, told the Post. “As a result, the new media have increased the level of unpredictability in the political communication process.”
New media allows for the creation of ‘digital public squares’ where people can freely express themselves. They have created new avenues for engagement, allowing the public to connect with the government in new ways and contribute to the flow of political information.
The media serve as watchdogs, scrutinising government actions. They set the agenda for public debate and provide a platform for political expression. They also facilitate community building by assisting people in identifying common causes, forming civic groups, and working toward societal solutions.
Because of the diversity of content disseminated by new media, opportunities have arisen, such as the ability for more voices to be heard. However, the dubious quality of much of this information raises some serious concerns for democratic debates, experts say.
Some people compare new media with citizen journalism. Since not all events at the local level reach the mass media, the concept of citizen journalism was developed to report events at the local level to the mass media. However, the citizen journalist was never a regular or a professional journalist.
Senior journalist Ghimire says that there are significant differences between the concept of citizen journalism and new media.
“In citizen journalism, the news sent by the citizen is edited before being disseminated,” Ghimire said. “In the new media, there is no editing or gatekeeping for the information disseminated, which could be problematic in many instances.”