In a digital world, Helen Margetts (University of Oxford) noted, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are where we acquire political information, discuss politics, and make decisions on whether to participate in politics and increasingly where we "do" politics. On the whole, Margetts observed, social media stimulates very small acts of political participation, drawing new people into politics. And tiny acts can scale up – the demonstrations on Egypt's Tahrir Square or PODEMOS in Spain began as huge numbers of very small acts. But social media as political force comes with caveats. Digital political action has destabilizing implications for traditional politics and parties. Policymakers need to develop new approaches to this turbulence. Researchers, too, need better access to data if they are to understand the phenomenon.
Arguing that technological innovations can only be understood in context, Armin Nassehi's keynote (University of Munich), that was delivered by Florian Süssenguth, highlighted that digitization has thrown us into a fourth industrial revolution, one that hybridizes industries that once seemed straightforward: Armed with data on traffic, user preferences, fuel economy, and artificial intelligence, companies are now selling mobility, not automobiles, for example. Yet proponents of the digital society often make claims they can't fulfill. "Complex systems can't be understood causally until after the fact," he warns.
Since 1997, surveys show public trust in the US media has dropped 21 points. As the public turns away from professional media to alternative information sources, it has had consequences including the rise of alternative information sources. Looking at the US as a case study, Deen Freelon (University of North Carolina) said that for people on the political right, Fox News and Breitbart are now preferred. For people on the left, political information is often sourced from so-called "digital marginalized communities" (DMCs): Social-media based phenomena like Black Twitter. While DMCs aren't primarily about replacing traditional journalism, they also perform journalistic functions – approximating media criticism, agenda-setting, op-eds, explainers, and political commentary. As part of a large-scale study of Twitter data, Freelon is hoping to understand the key differences between DMCs and whether DMCs are autonomous or reactive to mass media agendas.