Eugenia Sephera in the book Understanding New Media discusses how Web 2.0, which includes social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, democratizes politics and has become an alternative to mainstream media.
Journalism holds a political function which is to help shape public opinion and make governments accountable for their actions (Habermas, 1996, cited in Sephera, 2012). But there is a sense that journalism has failed to fulfill this political function. The demand of capitalism and consumerism to bring in the needed revenues has prompted media organizations to focus more on the business side of journalism.
Social media has taken over this role. People, who now have control in social media, are able to carry out the same political function of disseminating information, influencing public opinion, and being watchdogs on key actors in governance.
“In this manner, Web 2.0 takes over the role of the public sphere for communication, deliberation and communal thinking, and in this manner democratizing politics; here we should also place the role of Web 2.0 in enabling direct political action, bypassing traditional political institutions and changing the face of protest and activism” (Sephera, 2012, page 95).
The growing demand for transparency and accountability has led to heightened citizenship participation. More and more take their concerns to the internet. People have ceased being mere receivers; they are equally sources and messengers. They utilize social media in a manner that compensates for what is missing and fundamental in the way issues are being managed and people mobilized for action. They create in social media an active campaign for action that triggers both consciousness and curiosity of people in their immediate network. Soon, this creates a web that branches out and becomes interconnected.
And the extent to which social media has democratized journalism can well be gleaned from an understanding of the social impact theory.
Social impact theory is defined as any form of influence on a person that affects feelings, thoughts or behavior (Latane, 1981, cited in Szamrej & Latane, 1990). It explains the malleability of people’s opinions and choices, based on perception of what is the consensus. Latane’s theory “characterizes how the many ways in which individuals affect each other are subject to the constraints of time and space, and specifically, how impact is moderated by the strength, immediacy, and number of other people in the social environment” (Szamrej & Latane, 1990, page 364).
The same theory assisted in the development of a mathematical model that computes the implication on public perception and response. “One part of the theory deals with how much impact is experienced by an individual as a function of the strength, immediacy, and number of sources of impact. According to the theory, impact is a multiplicative function of three classes of factors: i = f (SIN), where i denotes the magnitude of impact, f denotes a function, S the strength of the sources (e.g. their authority of power or persuasion), I the immediacy of the sources (e.g. their closeness in space or time), and N the number of sources. The theory more closely specifies the relationship of the number of sources with the magnitude of impact, and the relationship turns out to be a power function.” (Szamrej & Latane, 1990, page 364).
This mathematical model was used in the computer simulation of scenarios to determine their implications on public opinion. It sought to assess the impact on people when they, as an individual, are the subject of a message, and when they are collectively, together with others, treated as a target. Social impact theory suggests that when one shares being a target with others, the impact is diffused or divided. The same theory, however, also explains its application to attitude change wherein “peripheral persuasion” comes to play. This refers to the credibility, attractiveness, immediacy by relation or location, and the number of sources that are aiming for a change in opinion (Szamrej & Latane, 1990).
In social media, you build your own network and your own network is connected to sub networks developed by members of your immediate network. The feature of social media that allows people to share posts and reinforce the same with additional remarks further expands the coverage of an original message. With the post having a tracker that indicates the number of shares, people are able to generate an idea of the relevance, applicability and credibility of the message. Because the same also connotes number of people in consensus over one post, there is a higher propensity for people to be interested in it – at first be curious about it then eventually take shared ownership over it.