Social Media and IR: Reconsidering Liberalism

Following November’s article about social media as a political tool and its position in a realist interpretation of International Relations, this article will address at how the recent development of rising global participation in social media political activism works within the liberal viewpoint. These developments have changed the way the liberal framework applies to international relations, empowering citizens and transnational networks in relation to traditionally dominant state actors.

Anonymous (raincoaster via Flickr)
Anonymous (raincoaster via Flickr)


Liberalism is a theory of international relations developed from the liberal model for domestic government, which was then applied to explain cooperation between actors at the system level. This ideology, famously articulated by philosopher Immanuel Kant in his essay Perpetual Peace, does not see the anarchy of international relations as a simple security dilemma. Rather, it argues that mutually beneficial cooperation can arise at the systemic level, even without an overarching institution to impose it. A good example of this is free trade: broadly beneficial arrangements can emerge through co-operation between states with a non-zero sum outcome.

Despite the idealism characteristic of the Wilsonian brand of liberalism that dominated the post-WWI international order and its failure in the collapse of the League of Nations, the Kantian Liberal idea of Democratic Peace Theory has remained influential in international relations. Democratic Peace Theory has provided a logical and normative basis for the Western states’ 20th century foreign policies of pushing for liberal democratic institutions around the world, at both the unit and system levels. Another key feature of liberal thinking is its willingness to expand the range of meaningful players considered in international relations beyond just states. Modern liberal theories include international institutions (IOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as the traditional state actors.

Liberal theory has of course evolved greatly over time. The dominant brand of liberalism today is analytical liberalism, developed in the post-Cold War context. Analytical liberalism has styled itself as a re-interpretation of classical liberalism less geared towards normative ideas. Instead, it uses aspects of classical liberal theory in a focused attempt to describe, explain and predict events in international relations. Analytical liberalism constructs a model to explain the formation of state actors’ preferences through rational choice theory at the domestic or sub-state level, which they then pursue in various ways at the anarchic system level.

This model credits individuals with a significant input in foreign policy through lobbying and domestic democratic institutions, which is denied them in realist thinking. However, analytical liberalism focuses on input in international relations at the domestic level. Groups of citizens may lobby and influence preference formation in a state’s foreign policy, but analytical liberalism removes them from the process of achieving these preferences. It also provides no link between individual-level organization and either IOs or NGOs.

Social media-based political activism both reveals these gaps in analytical liberalism and can help remedy them. Transnational online advocacy groups, such as Avaaz and Amnesty International (as discussed in the first article of this series) function purely as a vehicle for individual-level organization. Individuals write petitions on issues that they are passionate about and circulate information within the communities in order to create the preferences that the organizations will pursue, as described in the analytical liberal model. However, they are also involved in choosing what methods the organizations will use to achieve their goals, and the targets of these actions in order to pursue preferences. For example, Anonymous, an activist group known for launching vigilante-justice attacks against large corporations and governments, decides both on targets and on what form of activism, harassment or cyber-attack to launch. This goes beyond the description of analytical liberalism to show how individuals, using social media as a tool, can be involved in the pursuit of interests even at the system level. Additionally, outside of the scope of analytical liberalism, these communities show how social media can connect individuals and their influence to non-state actors at the system level, not just the domestic institutions of their home states.

Social media and Internet political organization do not pose the same fundamental challenge to the assumptions underlying liberal thinking, like they do to the Realist paradigm. The new adoption of Internet and social media as tools in political organization have pointed out the gaps within the analytical liberal model of international relations; an update of this paradigm would have to include a description and explanation for the rising potential for powerful individual-level influence at the system level.