A content analysis on Facebook group, New Political Forum : South African mobile participation in online public spheres

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This mini-dissertation aims to characterize mobile participation in the South African citizen-led Facebook Group, New Political Forum. It also investigates whether the participation on New Political Forum meets Poor's (20 05) criteria for an Online Public Sphere, as adapted from Habermasian concepts of the Public Sphere (Habermas, 1976). The study employed content analysis as its methodology to investigate a random sample drawn from all the posts and comments posted to New Political Forum on every other week day during the period 3 April to 3 May 2012. Three levels of coding were performed on the sampled data. The first level of coding used the Facebook API to determine whether the post and comments were posted via mobile applications or other platforms such as laptops and desktop computers. The second level coded the kind of social interaction which the post represented, according to six categories intended to characterise the way in which users used the group to initiate in debate and find information. Lastly the word count of each post was captured so as to establish its size. Findings revealed that 60% of all posts, and 54% of all comments in the sample were posted from mobile applications. This indicates that, during the period of study, although computers and laptops were playing a disproportionately important role (given limited access to these platforms in South Africa), participation via mobile applications nonetheless accounted for the bulk of participation. Regarding the social interactions on the site, during the month in question, 90% of posts either initiated debate or shared information with the group. Patterns of interaction via mobile applications were similar to the kinds of interaction which took place from other platforms. Posts from mobile applications nonetheless included fewer hyperlinks and pictures than other sources did. The major difference between mobile and other forms of participation related to the relative brevity of mobile posts. The mean word count of mobile posts was almost half the mean word count of posts from other platforms. Thus even though mobile posts were more frequently posted; they were very often shorter than the contributions from other sources. Applying Poor's (2005) Online Public Sphere it was found that New Political Forum does qualify to be considered an Online Public Sphere. This is because the group's history, focus and governance by committed volunteer administrators created a space for inclusive political debates and discussions where the identities of the members played a minimal role in influencing the reception of their ideas. It is suggested that information sharing should be added to Poor's criteria because of the role it plays in debate and opinion formation.

Includes bibliographical references.