Social Media and IR Theory: A Challenge to Realism

The Next Web via Flickr
The Next Web via Flickr

The 20th century has seen the development of several major schools of thought about the nature and processes of the international system. These paradigms have evolved to fit an increasingly complex arena of global relations. However, one of the most significant changes taking place in the modern day political arena, with the most potential to dramatically change the way international relations are played out, is the rise of the Internet and social media. Users from all over the world can now both keep monitor and contribute to debate and action from the local to global levels.

This series of articles seeks to fit this rise of potential mass participation through internet-based social media into the framework of the three main paradigms explaining the international arena: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism. This first article in the upcoming series will deal with Realism.

Realism is an IR theory that explains system level relations by characterizing all international relations as a constant struggle for survival and power between states in an anarchic system. Power is typically measured by military capabilities, territorial expansion, and/or economic growth. For Realists, power accumulation is a zero-sum game so that any gain in power by one state directly decreases the power and security of every other state in the system.

In Neoclassical Realism, the most prominent version of Realist thought today, a state’s actions at the system level are triggered by changes in the distribution of global power. Prominent Neoclassical Realist scholar Gideon Rose also highlights the theory’s structural focus in explaining the foreign policy decisions of individual states rather than predicting patterns of outcomes at the system level. Neoclassical Realism is a top to bottom theory that attributes political agency to individuals only to the extent to which a population can weigh in on the workings of its governments. In a democratic regime, Neoclassical Realism ascribes more sway to individuals in indirectly formulating foreign policy through the channels of domestic institutions. However, even in the most liberal democracy, Neoclassical Realism does not give room for widespread direct individual action or influence at the system level.

For this reason, the rise of social media as a tool of individual level political organization and action challenges the assumptions on which Neoclassical Realism bases itself. Because it severely limits the role of individuals and non-state actors in system level action, it cannot account for the increasing influence that internet-based advocacy communities such as Avaaz and Amnesty International have on shaping policies at all political levels. These types of NGO’s use the internet to widely share information about a large range of issues. They then organize support for a protest or suggested policy route to deal with the issue by circulating internet petitions and raising funds for public shaming campaigns in order to pressure politicians and institutions at all levels to listen to this outpouring of public opinion.

One often cited criticism of this branch of online political organization is the pitfall of “clicktivism”. This is why organizations such as Avaaz combine support-gaining online petitions and fundraising with more direct action, in the form of shaming campaigns, lobbying, and lawsuits, in order to physically push for change. Other examples of political organization through social media can be seen in the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the past summer’s protests in Turkey and Brazil, which used Twitter and Facebook to organize mass demonstrations against the governments in power.

While these examples of effective use of social media political organization were directed at the domestic level, with the further development of internet networks and the growth of mass participation in online political activism, it is not unrealistic to think that new and existing forms of social media will give birth to and fuel protests and demonstrations of systemic issues as we started to see with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Social media as a political tool is beginning to connect like-minded people and give them voice and potential for direct significant action in spheres of politics where individuals have traditionally been shut out of the decision making process. This shift of power away from the Realist focus on the state unit and its intrinsic institutions poses a direct challenge to the theory’s ability to provide an explanation for today’s international relations.

Neoclassical Realism, like its ancestor strands of Realist theory, does not give significant room for action and influence by non-state actors at the system level. Despite the varied aims of non-state actors, they have all increasingly been turning to social media and the Internet in order to effectively organize their followings, disseminate information, and publicize their actions in the various fields they operate in. These non-state actors are becoming increasingly implicated in the development of relations and decision-making at the system level. If Realism wants to maintain its dominating relevance to the study of international relations, it will need to further develop in order to fit the expanding role of non-state actors and the digital ties between them and other organizations, individuals across the globe, and more traditional unitary actors, into the Realist theoretical framework.