The “political power” of digital media has been hotly debated in academic circles as well as in the public sphere. In connection with the often cited examples of the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados and Occupy Wall Street, social media have been described as pivotal tools in sparking, driving and sustaining collective action. Around the world, public interest in the alleged potential of digital media to mobilize and activate previously apathetic or disaffected citizens has surged. At the same time, it is obvious that digital media also bring a whole range of problems concerning privacy: the surveillance, manipulation and exploitation of users. What is the utility of digital media in expanding and enriching the possibilities for democratic participation in civic and political life? What are the practices and configurations invented by motivated citizens who manage to employ digital media to make their voices heard and their causes attended to? What are the limitations and distortions implicit in such practices? The presentation addresses these questions through comparative analysis of a set of qualitative case studies of grassroots initiatives employing digital media in two distinct social contexts – in Bulgaria and in Canada.
Maria Bakardjieva is Professor at the Department of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary, Canada.