The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation

The Personalization of Politics was written in 2012 by W. Lance Bennett, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Washington, offers a framework for how collective action occurs and is incentivized through social media, particularly Twitter. Social movements like Occupy Wall Street, which reverberated throughout the world, was largely organized on Twitter.

Bennett argues that the social fragmentation and decline of group loyalties have given rise to an epoch of personalized politics, in which indiviudal action frames displaces collective action frames. He identifies the trend forming political participation aimed at parties, candidates, corporations, brands and transnational corporations (TNCs). Also, he mentions that identity politics (women, minorities and immigrants) amongst the new social movements is not at the the same scale relative to the ’60s, because it has joined more diverse mobilization causes against collective issues like economic inequality, environmental protection, and worker and human rights. This is the thesis of his argument that he uses to explain out specific political participation phenomena that have occurred over the past decade.  Bennett states that the pervasive use of social technology enables individuals to become important catalysts of collective action processes as they activate their own social networks (Bennett 22). Dense communication networks enable political organization that lacks or intentionally ignores clear central leaders and organizations, however, this is the nature of new social movements via social media, for better or worse. On the other hand, developing or adapting interactive media affordances also enables NGOs and social movement organizations to personalize the pathways to popular engagement with their issues (Bennett 22). With declining formal group identities, progressives are increasingly driven by lifestyle choices: Is my car environmentally friendly? Are my fashion, food, or electronic devices worker friendly? Are my favored cause organizations or candidates expressing my personal values? (Bennett 22). Bennett talks about neoliberal economic policies that dynamically altered the existent market forces in developing and developed countries which fundamentally shifted how individuals viewed these policies in their personal lives. He asserts that understadning this theoretical framework may be useful for understanding the shift to personalized politics and its relation to the rise of such oppositional offshoots like Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party-style protest networks. He notes that activist networks have reinvented themselves and promoted popular slogans like, “we are the 99%” as opposed to traditional caustic slogans like, “eat the rich”. He explains how these groups have been successful in their framing, “Indignados and Occupy protesters, who have triggered international discussions about growing inequality and other predations of the 1 percent against the 99 percent” (Bennett 26). Furthermore, he states that indignados and Occupy protesters that emerged following the global financial crisis in the first decade of the twenty-first century may echo some of the economic justice demands of leftist social movements, and in fact, they do. These new wave of protesters have a profound ability to dictate the culture. “Occupy, indignados, and media file sharers have become fixtures on the political landscape that increasingly pose challenges to states and related dominant cultural, political, and economic regimes” (Bennett 29).

I agree with Bennett’s major points and I think he did a fine job of explaining them, although I wish he would have focused less on the history of political initiatives and more on contemporay issues. In his final points, it was important that he stressed that this form of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) poltics is the essential ethos to view these emerging trends of participating. It is what prompted the Arab Spring Protests in the Middle East and North Africa, which reverberated through the West, which gave inspiration to occupy organizers to congregate in Zucotti Park in Wall Street Financial District to protest economic policies hurting the hoi polloi. inate activities. “Moving beyond off-the shelf communication technologies such as Facebook and Twitter, Occupy technology developers sought to build idea generators, take-action platforms, and a ‘global square’ virtual commons”(Bennett 30). Additionally, some social media-driven protest that come to mind, which he did not mention are #BlackLivesMatter (about police brutaility in the U.S.) and #BringOurGirlsBack (about Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnappings in Dapchi, Northern Nigeria). Both of which were engineered via Twitter, in fact, without Twitter it would not be possible. However, the only contention I have with this phenomenon is the lack of central organization. I think this can be both a blessing and a curse, but has proven to be a curse in many instances. Among social justice movements, which are bound to go awry at some point, who is responsible for the blame? For example, the #BlackLivesMatter protest have no central authority and are segmented throughout the states which allows for very different political identities, ideologies and protest stratetegies to mold in these parts of the country. They have been criticized for certain crass factions that employ heinous chants like, “Pigs in a blanket, Fry ’em like Bacon”, to oppose the police. This vile rhetoric is unproductive and provides ammunition for their gainsayers to chip away at the movement, but who will take responsibility for this? Who will quash these ineffective factions? Who will be the mediator?

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