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The Incomplete Political Economy of Social Media

6 Apr 2017
Filming venue:

Oxford Internet Institute, 1 St Giles, OX1 3JS

In February 2016 the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India ruled that Facebook’s plan to introduce a free service to underprivileged Indians via a partnership with one mobile company and a handful of commercial application services violated network neutrality, the principal that digital services should not favor one source of content over another.

So “Free Basics,” as Facebook had re-dubbed its ostensibly philanthropic effort, “,” died quickly in a powers struggle among a powerful American social media company, resentful Indian technology developers, overwhelmed regulators, sensitive nationalistic politicians, highly organized public interest activists, and rival mobile service providers. It was a remarkable tale of ideological hubris on the part of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the ambitions of Indian citizens and companies who grew to resent the efforts and claims that Facebook made on behalf of poorer Indians. (Bhatia 2016)

This story demonstrates the vast complexity of the political economy of social media. Issues such as neocolonialism, cultural imperialism, competition policy, political corruption, digital activism, class struggle, and the ideological foundations of Silicon Valley work to affect how social media work in our lives across the globe.

We think we understand social media. After all, we seem to increasingly live in and through them. The record of social media and their effects in global society and politics seems well documented. Since the rise of Facebook midway through the first decade of the 21st century tyrants and tycoons have waxed anxiously about its influence over its more than 1.8 billion users. Twitter, although used by far fewer, has been credited with outsized influence on politics and culture. The fall of Myspace, with its youthful exuberance and inflated market capitalization serves as a cautionary tale about poor investments and fleeting communities, and stands as the greatest financial blunder in Rupert Murdoch’s long career.

But what are we to make of these technological tools and their influence on our lives? How shall we assess the role of regulation and the need for more? How empowered are these 1.8 billion users? How powerful is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg relative to Rupert Murdoch, among others? And have scholars fully grasped the trajectory of ideologically driven technological change that almost instantly has captured the attention of billions across the globe?

Siva Vaidhyanathan

The University of Virginia and The Center for Media and Citizenship

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He also teaches in the University of Virginia School of Law. Vaidhyanathan is the author of The Googlization of Everything And Why We Should Worry (University of California Press, 2011), Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001) and The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (Basic Books, 2004). He also co-edited (with Carolyn de la Pena) collection, Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

Vaidhyanathan has written for many periodicals, including American Scholar, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times Magazine, MSNBC.COM,,, Columbia Journalism Review, BookForum,, the Washington Post, and The Nation. He is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and to MSNBC.COM and has appeared in a segment of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. In March 2002, Library Journal cited Vaidhyanathan among its “Movers & Shakers” in the library field. In the feature story, Vaidhyanathan lauded librarians for being “on the front lines of copyright battles” and for being “the custodians of our information and cultural commons.” In November 2004 the Chronicle of Higher Education called Vaidhyanathan “one of academe’s best-known scholars of intellectual property and its role in contemporary culture.” He has testified as an expert before the U.S. Copyright Office on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

After five years as a professional journalist, Vaidhyanathan earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He has taught previously at Wesleyan University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Columbia University, New York University, and Universiteit van Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter at @sivavaid

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