Same Recipe But Different Ingredients? Challenges and Methodologies in Comparative Internet/Politics Research
Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 20 Dec 2018
Date Written: August 22, 2012
This paper was generated by puzzles in how to account for both national context and catalyst in understanding online activism. We find ourselves trapped between the rock of national political communication context and the hard place of the seemingly quixotic nature of online movements. While some online movements have flourished in unlikely places, others have failed to coalesce or simply withered away in systems in which the internet apparently could have ushered in a new era of connected citizenship. Traditional research designs that were executed to compare systems were not proving helpful as, in the end, we found it more useful to think about types of crises rather than types of countries.
In this paper, we present evidence from the study of online mobilization in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia to suggest ways of conceptualizing and investigating online activism that can navigate the space between theories that address the universal properties of online communication and the specific context in which it occurs. We suggest that ‘context’ is far more than a national political and media system; rather, context relates to the nature of issues and institutions in a way that is not readily captured by national norms alone. As such, this paper discusses how British activists concerned with disability rights used online mobilization more innovatively than their American counterparts, despite a stronger tradition of online activism and disability rights in general in the United States. At the same time, this paper considers how the internet became a part of health issue campaigns in Russia, despite simultaneously failing to augment more traditional political institutions such as political parties. Crucially, we found popular ‘outrage’ connected to (perceived) violations of fundamental rights to be a precursor of online mobilization that transcended the boundaries between democratic and non-democratic regimes.
While we can suggest useful ways to measure and observe how citizens migrate from giving voice to taking action online in very different contexts, we leave open for now the conviction that citizens are being permanently ‘rewired’ by their online activity. What is clear, however, is that citizens in very different contexts are being both enraged and engaged – sometimes at amazing speed – by the online sphere in ways in which both political scientists and governments will find fundamentally changes the nature of political engagement. The challenge is in anticipating how, why, when, and where online engagement will flow with ‘politics as usual’ in a range of regimes and when it will lead to challenge to powerful elites and institutions. Without making non-useful distinctions between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ activism, we hope we can provide ways to identify markers for when online discourse can turn to effective challenge to a political establishment.
Keywords: internet, comparative research, activism, crisis
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