Pluralism and Social Media: Cultivating a New Outlook?

Social media has been gaining traction as a tool to promote and foster pluralistic values. From bringing the world closer to our fingertips to individuals and universities using social media tools to raise awareness around diversity and pluralism, social media is a great marketing tool.

Often media cynics and critics point to the apathy, cynicism and quiescence that social media promotes. However, media also promotes active citizenship and participation. Gamson et al (1992) examine media images and the social construction of reality and note that messages provide many voices that can be read in a plethora of ways. They claim that the under-determined nature of media discourse offers competing constructions of reality and media usage and that many digital users can find and construct meaning in media messages. Others view technology as a tool that has increased cultural pluralism.

Using a more recent example, we can see the role of social media in fostering political change and civic pluralism in the Middle East. Norton (1999) preemptively asked the question, “ What are the prospects for the transformation of authoritarian governments and what role will new media and civic pluralism play in inspiring or shaping political reform?” Decades later we see that though social media in itself is not an antidote to authoritarianism, it has certainly played a role in increasing awareness of repressive governments and allowing citizens to have a platform in which to voice their concerns. One can recall the recent example of Egyptians using Facebook as a social media tool to demand change. Furthermore, autocratic governments typically have control and censorship over print media sources, radio and television; social media is not at the peril of censorship. Also, information from the government typically flows downward, whereas social media spreads laterally (Norton, 1999).

In a study that looked at ethnic media in the United States, authors Viswanath and Arora (2001) found that ethnic mass media has helped to foster pluralistic values. The authors found that ethnic newspapers helped add to the pluralistic values in US society. For example, newspapers that advertised and explained various religious celebrations can increase knowledge of particular religious traditions. In relation to social media such as the Internet, the authors note that geographical barriers become less important, allowing distant groups to obtain information from and about these places. Interestingly, the authors found that intra-group pluralistic values were fostered through social media. Using the Indian culture as illustrative, the Indian media’s focus on feminism and gender issues has become a focal point of conversation. In this regard, controversial topics, or topics often silenced, are breaking barriers in various cultures with the help of social media.

One example of using social media to foster pluralistic values is found in a post by Contributing Scholar Mark Randall James here on State of Formation. In this post, James talks about how “interpretweeting” (a comment on scripture that is 140 words or less. It is not a link but an observation or thought) has the ability to foster pluralistic values by sharing scripture, thus evoking conversations around religious traditions and beliefs. James admits to feeling hesitant in using Twitter, and terse communication, as a platform in posting about and on Scripture but recognizes that “much of the profound wisdom of the ancient world, including much of the wisdom of Scripture, was expressed in sentences less than 140 characters long.” James also understands that we live in a technological age, “with little time for reflection or wisdom” and thus connects to his main point, “For if wisdom was expressed in a very few words long before the information age, why can’t the 140 characters of a tweet also be used in pursuit of wisdom?” Another example of social media and its contribution to pluralism is Harvard University’sPluralism Project which not only hosts a website with further information but also actively tweets about its projects and other studies and projects that also look at pluralistic values.

These two examples show that social media is becoming an increasingly popular avenue to speak about diversity and pluralism. Twitter has millions of users, which demonstrates that in the technological age, social media is becoming the most widely accessible and best used tool to promote perspectives and viewpoints, and certainly individuals and groups are using it to foster pluralistic values through dialogue and attention-grabbing techniques.

Gamson, W. A., Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Sasson, T. (1992). Media images and the social construction of reality. Annual review of sociology,18(1), 373-393.

Norton, A. R. (1999). The new media, civic pluralism, and the slowly retreating state. New Media in the Muslim World: the emerging public sphere, 19-28.

Viswanath, K., & Arora, P. (2001). Ethnic media in the United States: An essay on their role in integration, assimilation, and social control. Mass Communication & Society, 3(1), 39-56.


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