Introduction to the media, political participation and empowerment
Political engagement Power within society can be diffuse; it may rest with many organisations and individuals as well as being formalised through social mechanisms for determining policy and governance. Yet, despite all multifarious mechanisms that permit anyone to exercise power, there may be a widespread sense of low self-efficacy regarding the political process. Empowerment is not only an abstract outcome of practical measures; it is a psychological state of mind. To exercise the right to have influence, to seek power, one must feel that any action will have the likelihood to determine the outcome of that action. And it is contextual, drawing on various notions of capital from wealth to cultural. The reason we posit that
media is so important is that as our connection to others, and to public institutions, becomes increasingly mediated, so the terms of engagement between citizen and broader society are defined by media. Problems have already been identified with the way that mass media coverage is ‘biased against hope’ (Richards 2007: 12-13); if empowerment is contingent upon hope that one can exercise power and influence through democratic processes, then this bias will lead to lower feelings of self-efficacy, reduced participation and low levels of engagement. These are all evident trends in the way that citizens relate to formal politics (Hay 2007). The blame for this can be levelled against a range of actors. Clearly the institutions of governance create frameworks for participation and set out the rules of engagement. As Bennett (2008: 4) argues, ‘we must not only prepare citizens for politics but also improve politics for citizens’, because telling people to participate in bad institutions is ‘mere propaganda’. Mass media report on, evaluate and critique the rules of engagement and the actions of both political and other relevant intuitions and their actors. But there is also the issue of public engagement, and the mechanisms afforded by new media for participating that sit within, alongside or even outside of the formal rules of engagement. Engagement is a necessary condition for assessing the degree of empowerment one possesses. Engagement is an equally nebulous concept given that it is difficult to measure beyond assessments based on the outcomes of engagement: knowledge and participation. Engagement, like empowerment, is cognitive; unlike empowerment it is not perceptual but involves wanting to consider a social issue using higher order thinking (Greene and Miller 1996). Being engaged in a topic is to consider the issues relating to the topic carefully, to actively seek information, have cognitive deliberations and discussions with other individuals, thus engagement can lead to a range of participatory activities which would include information seeking, deliberation and, possibly, some form of activism. While mass media may depress such forms of engagement, by fostering low self-efficacy (Richards 2007) and cynicism (Jackson 2011), it is argued that new pathways to engagement are facilitated through new technologies and new forms of communication. The Internet has become a ubiquitous part of life; it has impacted upon all forms of social, political and commercial communication and is argued to be altering social relations. We should not consider that there has to always be a dichotomy between Internet-based, or online, engagement and real-world, offline engagement; online and offline participation can be mutually exclusive, complementary or antagonistic. However there are clearly differing forms of engagement offered online that would require greater effort if performed offline. This also raises the debate about clicktivism, a practice dismissed as ephemeral and unimportant by some (Morozov 2010) and heralded by others as potentiating higher levels of civic engagement if the conditions are right (Lilleker 2014). Evidence suggests, particularly for young people who are most likely to be disengaged from traditional forms of civic and political engagement, that online forms of engagement can lead to patterns of participation that develop offline dimensions. Offline participatory activities would include engaging in campaigns
and leading campaign activities, being involved in and starting debates as well as seeking involvement in local and national politics (Gil de Zuniga et al. 2010). While emerging patterns of online youth civic engagement highlight the salience of broader socio-cultural factors – such as civic consumerism and the Zeitgeist of choice – the Internet allows for the development of innovative forms of user experience and personalised, emotionally and visually literate storytelling that has the potential to engage and empower younger citizens (Gerodimos 2012). If the argument is correct that these two spheres of political engagement are highly complementary and mutually supportive and that we are witnessing ‘the emergence of a hybrid participation that combines the virtual and real world realms of political engagement and action-a new digital democracy’ (Gil de Zuniga et al. 2010: 45) then new technologies must be potentially empowering. This is of course open to much debate and we return to those core questions posed earlier in this introduction. What are the conditions for empowerment, what levels of empowerment are and should be encouraged, what spaces are best for setting the conditions for empowerment and how do media contribute to empowerment? The works, which we introduce below, offer a range of insights and perspectives on empowerment conceptually and empirically, and explore the conditions for feeling and being empowered.