Does citizens’ use of social media platforms and digital technologies change the power structure of democratic countries?

That is a question–and a field of wider inquiry and research–that several dozen scholars from around the world addressed at a workshop co-organized by School of Information Studies (iSchool) Associate Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley earlier this month. She organized the event with Andrew Chadwick, professor of political science in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and it was held at Syracuse University’s Greenberg House in Washington, D.C.

Titled “Digital Media, Power, and Democracy in Election Campaigns: A Workshop,” the session drew 45 scholars from 17 countries to examine questions that are pertinent to a changing world of politics as impacted by social media use and digital communication. They presented insights and research on how using social media to conduct political conversations in democracies, and distributing those messages through digital information and communication technologies, may be creating changes to the power structure of governments.

The idea for a workshop that reviewed how social and digital platforms can impact democratic governments and their policy-making activities was an outgrowth of recent world events, such as the Arab Spring, and subsequent research on that topic, the professor noted. “In some ways, we have a better understanding of how digital technologies are affecting authoritarian regimes than we do democratic ones. We have some sense of how social media can be used in authoritarian countries to change power structures, but how does that work in democracies? We still don’t really understand the way people are using information and communication technologies in electoral processes and political democracies,” she explained.

In fact, Stromer-Galley says, the ways citizen activists are employing those platforms and tactics could potentially “be changing the ways we do democracy.” That’s because the technologies “provide the ability for the public to monitor and watch what the democratic-electing governments are doing.” But another question, she said, is whether that “is changing the effort or power that ordinary people have in shaping policy and participating in shifting public opinion on policy matters.”

Stromer-Galley said other questions being looked at in conjunction with the social-digital phenomenon include:

  • Whether newer forms of communications shift the balance of power between candidates, elite campaign professionals, and rank and file activists
  • What kinds of roles may be emerging for the growing practices of data analytics, dataveillance, and voter activation
  • To what extent the boundaries between parties and campaigns, and looser citizen activist networks and advocacy groups, are being blurred by the use of digital media
  • How the mid-2000s predictions about the loosening of communicative and organizational discipline in parties and campaigns may be proving out
  • Whether citizens’ and activists’ uses of digital media is playing a role in hastening the decline or even the “death” of political parties, a topic that has has been widely discussed in recent years.

In addition to starting to build a scholarly community surrounding these issues, the workshop helped organizers preview some of the best scholarship on the topic now circulating, Stromer-Galley said. She plans to organize that content for a special issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics. In the meantime, the professor will be developing a digital platform in order to share that research. She also wants to bring the workshop’s participating scholars together again in a few years to reexamine the issue and to assess how citizen communications practices may have made impact, she added. Her overarching goal “is to help the iSchool and Syracuse University to be a leader in research on the impact the use of digital technologies has on political systems.”

Stromer-Galley is an expert on human interaction through digital media. She has written extensively about political institutions’ use of the Internet for governance and campaigning, and has developed measures of influence, leadership, and discussion quality through social media.

She recently published a book, “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age,” which details the ways presidential campaigns have adapted to and adopted digital media in the United States across five election cycles.

Chadwick an internationally-recognized internet and politics scholar who also is the editor of the digital politics series at Oxford University Press. He founded the New Political Communication Unit at University Holloway in 2007, and since the late 1990s, has authored numerous publications about digital media and political communication.