Il rapporto tra media e potere all’epoca di Twitter. The relationship between media and politics in the Twitter age

Il rapporto tra media e politica sta cambiando? I social media hanno avuto davvero un impatto nella primavera araba?
Abbiamo affrontato questi argomenti con il Prof. Philip N. Howard, professore alla School of Public Policy presso la Central European University, fellow del Tow Center for Digital Journalism alla Columbia University e professore alla University of Washington.

Is the relationship between media and politics changing? Did social media really impact on the Arab Springs?
We faced these issues with Prof. Philip N. Howard professor in the School of Public Policy at Central European University, fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and professor at the University of Washington.

Q: You wrote Democracy’s Fourth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring.
Evgeny Morozov wrote The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Which are the main differences between the two central concepts behind of your books?

Our books make very different arguments. In “Democracy’s Fourth Wave?” we argue that digital media was key to the success of popular uprisings during the Arab Spring. There are many stages to the rise and fall of modern social movements, and new information technologies have become party of the narrative at each stage. Morozov argues that we should not be excited about how people use social media to creatively solve collective action problems. From my point of view our arguments are also built differently. Morozov is a masterful storyteller but anecdotal evidence isn’t always the strongest kind of evidence to marshal. My book may have a more academic tone, but it makes an argument marshalling large amounts of evidence, analyzed in a comparative context.

Q: Some Governments look scared about social media and they try to limit or to control the access to them like China and, most recently, Turkey. Is this control really effective or it is unrealistic in the long term?

There are only a few examples of how authoritarian regimes have successfully used social media for extensive social control, and you are right to identify China and Turkey here. Russia has also developed a social media strategy that puts a large number of its young, nationalist bloggers online to represent Russian interests. Authoritarian governments with financial resources put some of those resources into buying the hardware for surveilling and censoring their citizens. Those without try to develop their own regime propaganda online. Neither strategy seems to work long term. When Turkey cracked down on Twitter, huge numbers of Turkish citizens went online to learn about how to get around censorship. And when the government lifted the ban, large numbers of Turks started using Twitter because the censorship had been in the news for so long.

Q: Is the web getting citizens really more influential and able to reshape the political agenda in the democratic countries?

There are a growing number of cases of digital activism, and the Digital Activism Research Project ( has done a good job documenting these trends. There are a few very high profile examples of digital activism campaigns that have been enormously successful. And there are several political movements that started online that have moved offline and become political parties. In Italy, the opposition to Berlusconi was drummed out of access to broadcast media during his tenure. But civic leaders and average Italians were able to use the internet to continue their political conversations and consume news from international outlets.

Q: How the Web is changing the way in which journalists cover political news in your opinion?

One of the upsides is that journalists have been very creative in using the internet for research purposes and finding more diverse sources. In authoritarian regimes journalists who cannot publish their investigations in print are often able to publish online. Unfortunately the internet has also challenged many news organizations. When national news agencies don’t want to cover a story (such as Bouazzizi’s self immolation in Tunisia), the public can keep a story alive. Some news agencies have become very dependent on social media and unattributed photos as sources.

Q: How the relationship between journalism and politics has changed since the Watergate in your opinion?

This is a big question. Watergate was a unique moment in history. But let me answer by pointing out one important way news production has not changed. The really big, important stories still depend very much on whistleblowers. These days we talk about Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. But since Watergate we have been very dependent on a few good people deciding that the political corruption they are involved in–in many forms–has gone overboard. These whistleblowers are still very important to pushing our political conversations forward. In some ways, the internet has made whistleblowing a different kind of business, but it is still a valuable part of political life.

About Prof. Philip N. Howard

Philip N. Howard is a writer and professor.

His forthcoming book is The Internet of Things:  Citizenship and Power in the Pax Technica (Yale University Press).

He is the author, most recently, of Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring and The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (both from Oxford University Press).

He directs the Center for Media and Communication Studies and is a professor in the School of Public Policy at Central European University, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and a professor at the University of Washington.

He blogs at and tweets from @pnhoward.



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