Ventriloquist Democracy: Exploring the Democratic Potential of Online Populist Movements

Emil Krastrup Husted

Student thesis: Master thesis

Abstract

The last decade has witnessed a rapid upsurge of public protests, transpiring across the globe. From the Global Justice Movement and the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, these movements seem to signal a novel way for ordinary citizens to participate in politics. Instead of participating through conventional means, these movements allow citizens to influence politics while bypassing traditional institutions of liberal democracy. By utilizing the vast potential of Web 2.0 applications, such as Facebook and Twitter, these movements are today capable of unifying thousands of citizens around political causes in no time. Accordingly, a circle of scholars have suggested than we broaden our perception of democracy to include this kind of participation. In fact, the conventional knowledge, provided by this circle of scholars, even claims that these movements embody the very future of participatory politics and, hence, democracy as a whole. This thesis sets out to explore and challenge the conventional knowledge. By employing Occupy Wall Street on Facebook (OWS) as a case, the thesis shows how Ernesto Laclau’s concept of ‘populism’ can be applied to this kind of online movement, which henceforth is referred to as an ‘online populist movement’. The concept of populism is, furthermore, used to show how such movements’ internal discourse can become undemocratic when mediated by Facebook as a medium. The thesis’ over-all claim is that populist movements are (and have always been) an important way for citizens to participate in democracy. However, when these movements substitute their offline activities for purely online undertakings, their democratic potential is lost. This claim is based on two separate analyses. The first analysis, which is a qualitative content analysis of nearly 1400 posts at the movement’s Facebook page, shows how the populism of OWS has risen concomitantly with the movement’s transformation from a predominantly offline movement to a purely online movement. Following this transformation, OWS’ internal dialogue has likewise moved online. The thesis’ second analysis sets out to analyze the democratic potential of this dialogue. By extracting the normative requirements of three alternative theories of democracy (deliberative, agonistic and cosmopolitan democracy), the thesis embarks on a virtual ethnography. Through this ethnography, the thesis explores how members of OWS react to 12 critical comments based on these alternative theories of democracy. The conclusion of the thesis is that OWS on Facebook is capable of sustaining none of the requirements for democratic dialogue, as proposed by the three theories. In the end, however, this might be a consequence of Facebook’s technological affordances, rather than of OWS itself. With this conclusion, the thesis encourages the reader to reconsider the role we, as a society, ascribe to Web 2.0 in relation to the future of democracy.

EducationsMSocSc in Political Communication and Managment, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
LanguageEnglish
Publication date2014
Number of pages109