[PAST EVENT] When More Is Less: Is the Global Diffusion of Social Media Clouding Our Vision of World Affairs?

March 13, 2013
Andrews Hall, Room 101
605 Jamestown Rd
Williamsburg, VA 23185Map this location
The global diffusion of social media in the post-Cold War era has enabled much faster flows of images and information within and across national borders. This is generally seen as having a positive effect on peace, democracy and harmony worldwide. It is now harder for dictators to suppress dissent and easier for citizens to mobilize social movements. And, journalists can compensate for under-funded foreign news bureaus by obtaining information from posts, tweets, and other transmissions via social media. But, when it comes to major events, especially in the non-Western world, there is also a big downside to our growing reliance on signals flowing in rapidly via social media. The initial burst of information tends to be transmitted by those who possess English language skills and have easy access to more social media outlets; it is their views that often disproportionately shape the first impressions among American audiences. Meanwhile, alternative views--especially of those without smartphones, Twitter accounts or foreign language skills (often a majority in non-Western countries)--do not surface as quickly and later get ignored.

This is a new and not fully acknowledged form of source bias, one which threatens to distort our deliberations over world affairs by relying too heavily on familiar narratives presented in a familiar language by familiar-looking actors. This new source bias played a role in the depiction of such events as the Russian military action in Georgia in 2008; the Iranian presidential elections in 2009; the unfolding of the "Arab Spring" since 2010; the Russian parliamentary elections of 2011; and the fatal assault and gang-rape of an Indian woman in 2012. In all these cases, social media helped to crystallize a uniform and over-simplified narrative of what was transpiring, without the benefit of deeper contexts, broader comparisons or contending interpretations. Ironically, the problem may be more serious now than during the Cold War, since the obvious and sharp divide across the Iron Curtain created incentives for some to dig deeper in search of alternative sources of information. Whatever one's ideological leanings or policy preferences, it is incumbent upon us to be more wary of the distortions that can result when different sets of images and perspectives are transmitted at different speeds by different groups in faraway lands.

Rudra Sil is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Sil held the Janice & Julian Bers Chair in the Social Sciences from 2000 to 2003, and received awards for distinguished teaching in 2001 and 2011. At Penn, he teaches undergraduate courses on "Third World" Politics and Russian Politics as well as graduate seminars on Comparative Politics and The Politics of Development. His research encompasses Russian and post-communist studies, Asian studies, comparative labor politics, theories of development and institutional change, qualitative methodology and the philosophy of the social sciences. He is author of Managing "Modernity": Work, Community, and Authority in Late-Industrializing Japan and Russia (2002) and coauthor, with Peter Katzenstein, of Beyond Paradigms: Analytic Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics (2010). His articles have appeared in such journals as Perspectives on Politics, Journal of Theoretical Politics, Post-Soviet Affairs, and Studies in Comparative International Development. He has also authored a dozen book chapters and co-edited several anthologies, including The Politics of Labor in a Global Age (2001) and World Order After Leninism (2006). He is currently working on a new book analyzing patterns of labor politics in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, China and Vietnam. Professor Sil holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

[[eastefanik, Beth Stefanik, Reves Center for International Studies Communications Manager]]