Social Media and Political Awareness Under Authoritarian Regimes

Social Media and Political Awareness Under Authoritarian Regimes

How do people under authoritarian regimes become politically aware? Does social media influence political awareness? And does social media really help to undermine authoritarian regimes? These are the questions raised in an article in the British Journal of Political Science. Authors Ora John Reuter and David Szankonyi examine the role of social media and political awareness under authoritarian regimes and provide some fascinating analysis.

The authors led a survey of 1,600 adults conducted following the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections. Their study is particularly interesting because although social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are growing in ubiquity around the world, some non-democratic regimes such as Russia and China have heavily state influenced social media platforms such as vKontakte and Odnoklassniki in Russia. 

The authors reviewed the relevant literature across political science on the influence of social media on political awareness, noting an unsurprising muddle of contradictions. Much of the “disharmony” in the literature draws form the inability for any causal relationships between the use of social or “new media” and political change. 

What the authors find is that the usage of Facebook and Twitter were “primed” by opposition activists with information about electoral fraud and manipulation. National social media networks were far less likely to have had content primed on issues relating to electoral fraud. Also influencing the ability to prime or politicize a social network, the authors indicated a distinction in the level of regional press freedoms and the availability of “inputs” that were able to be included on a social media network.

The results found that users of Facebook and Twitter were significantly more likely to have higher levels of political awareness about fraud during the elections than were users who did not use Facebook and Twitter. The others controlled for a variety of factors including age, sex, political affiliation, whether an individual voted during the elections, location of the voter and more. While not statistically significant, the level of regional freedom corresponded to political awareness on social networks as well. 

The general themes of the article hint at a complicated relationship between social networks broadly and political awareness specifically. The paper adds important insight into a complicated field of study and nuanced discussions about social networks and political change and awareness under authoritarian regimes. In short, it is not simply the physical or technical infrastructure that is necessary for a social network to influence political awareness by rather a combination of open (free as opposed to state controlled) social networks and adequate priming by political activists. This also suggests that the creation and maintenance of controlled domestic social networks can serve as a strong mechanism for authoritarian regimes to limit political awareness than they would be able to do with non-domestically developed platforms. 

The paper is a good read and offers solid data driven insight that has been lacking into the discussion. If you wish to read the paper it can be found here.