Viral Engagement: Fast, Cheap, and Broad, but Good for Democracy?

632 words | 3 page(s)

Concise Summary
Viral engagements in the early days of social media provide examples of political engagement. The authors of this study sought to first of all understanding the mobilization and dissemination of viral videos as a form of political communication, but also to determine the value of viral engagement to democratic and social justice principles. The authors relate the current debate in relation to whether viral engagement is good for democracy and social justice by rooting each side in a theoretical construct. On one hand, they position the viral engagement as possibly the digital mob behavior first described by Gustav Le Bon; on the other hand, viral engagement can be a cybernetic system of sensors that help to serve and further the goals of democracy and social justice, by remaining informing and in turn informing others, The study of the phenomena reveals complex interrelationships of smaller networks as accelerating the movement of information from the fringe to the fore, where those with less exposure or information about an issue may hear about it. Four very different, but contemporary, case studies are provided in order to understand the dynamics of the expansion of a message through networks. One of the structural principles of viral engagement that is related is that these posts and messages represent a successful “ask”, or an attempt to engage followers and the public. Most such activities fail, however there is significantly more potential today to make such asks, and failure is not costly and bears little risk. The authors conclude there is still insufficient evidence to decide on viral engagement, however in leading up to this uncertain point, they provide considerable examples of both positive and negative potential. While public deliberation and exposure to new points of view are promising, the result is not always engagement based on substance. Word count: 300

Personal response
Shallow and low cost slacktivism results in shallow and low value democracy. There are structural aspects that need to be in place in a population in order for democracy to align with social justice, and to meet the democratic test of popularity. Given the case studies in the article, and the lack of engagement which is driving the so called viral engagement, there should be real concern about style over substance. The impact of technology on society has been increased windows on one another’s worlds. One would hope that this would increase the level of understanding in society, promoting support between groups, however there is the flip side to this- increase exposure can lead to harassment, bullying and verbal attacks, including attempted viral engagement that is contrary to democratic principles and social justice. The problem with viral engagement is therefore that it may represent the total understanding of the person extending or disseminating the message. It may not be based in facts, or in any depth or structural knowledge of the matter. This has a great potential for harm, even when people mean well. Take for example the ubiquitous posts that urge users to post Amen to a tragic picture; such posts are implicated in like farming and other abuses, including providing access to personal information or creating channels for commercial use. In this case, the potential for viral engagement of a social justice related matter is being abused for selfish gain. As a society, we need to count on more than formed opinions which portray an over-simplified understanding of problems, but to do this we need to do something that has not yet been accomplished- to use new forms of media and technology to ensure an intelligent and informed society makes decisions and determinations based on accurate information and knowledge.

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  • Fung, A., & Shkabatur, J. (2013). Viral engagement: fast, cheap, and broad, but good for democracy?. Max Weber Programme for Post-doctoral studies, European University Institute.

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