The Internet, social networking Web sites and political participation research: Assumptions and contradictory evidence
Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of academic studies addressing the relationship between the Internet and politics, with an increasing number of publications focusing on the impact of such a medium on political participation. Within this specific sub-field research has produced contrasting evidence and generated an intense academic debate. Some scholars stressed the positive impact of the Internet on political participation (i.e., optimists), while others minimised its mobilising power, emphasising its tendency to reinforce existing participatory trends (i.e., normalisers) or highlighting its limited or even negative influence on political participation (i.e., pessimists). Similar findings also emerged in relation to social networking Web sites (SNSs), digital platforms that have been the subject of much research in recent years. This paper discusses how two assumptions characterising many studies focusing on the Internet, SNSs and political participation have contributed to the contradictory findings produced by optimists, pessimists and normalisers. The first assumption is the consideration of political participation as an activity aimed exclusively at affecting governments’ actions, either directly or indirectly. This conceptualisation has arguably prevented scholars from grasping the multidimensional nature of political participation and from assessing how the influence of the Internet on this phenomenon can vary according to the different types of political activity. The second assumption is the perception of the Internet as a homogeneous platform and an over-generalised notion of Internet usage. This, in turn, has led researchers to concentrate on the online/off-line distinction and to overlook the impact of different digital tools and various usage practices. This paper argues for a shift in the ways political participation, Internet and SNSs usage are conceptualised and operationalised in academia. It suggests moving away from the polarised debate between optimists, pessimists and normalisers, and adopting a more differential approach through which examining the effects of digital technologies on political participation.