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Social Media and Political Change

In: Computers and Technology

Submitted By tkwegs
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Social Media’s role in Political changeced
In early 2011 revoulution seemed to sweep across much of the of oArab world. Long standing dictators were overthrown after unarmed and largely peaceful protest in Egypt, Tunisa and Libya. Protests seemed to have have also had profound effects in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Demonstrations have arisen in most other Arab states as well as Spain and Uganda. The role of social media in these uprisising has been dubbed the “Twitter revoulitons.”
Does social media, really deserve all those accolades? Revoultions have been overthrowing oppressive governments long before web 2.0. Iranians in overthrew the Shah in 1979, Filipinos overthrew President Marcos in 1986, and the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe crumbled one after another in 1989. This paper will explore the phenomenon of social media nad its role in promoting and prompting progressive political change, particularly in countries with oppressive leaders. Social media has been defined as “a group of internet based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, which allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content”. (Kaplan) “Web 2.0” is the name for internet platforms which allow for interactive participation by users thereof. It may be contrasted with Web 1.0 platforms, which simply provide content to users, without giving them the opportunity to interact with or modify that information online. This content is all considered user generated content. The OECd has specified there criteria for content to be classified as “user generated”: it should be available on a publicly accessible wegsite or aon a social networking site that is available to a select group; it entails a mininmal amount of creative effort, and it is “created outside of professional routines and practices”. This definition does exclude purely commercial websites. Emails and text messages are also excluded from the definition as they are not available via websites or social networking sites. Nevertheless, mass texting (or mass emailing) can operate similarly to social networking sites by facilitating the immediate distribution of information, including from social media sites, to many in a form that is easily re-transmittable. Kaplan and Haenlein categorise social media into four types. “Collaborative projects” arise where people work together to create content: Wikipedia is the most famous example of this type of social media.6 Wikipedia is an influential source of global information, partly because a Wikipedia entry on a subject will often be amongst the first retrieved by an internet search. Online collaboration platforms can also facilitate the creation of strategy documents by geographically separated persons with similar political goals. For example, editable Google docs were used to convey protest tactics and demands during the Egyptian revolution of early 2011.7
Virtual worlds, such as virtual games or virtual social worlds such as Second Life, are another type of social media. In the former, “players” must adhere to game rules and protocols. In the latter, players “essentially live a virtual life” and are constrained by little more than “basic physical laws such as gravity”.8 Virtual worlds are not particularly relevant to this article, though it is worth noting new gaming developments of relevance to human rights, such as new games designed to teach people about social justice.9
Blogs are the most rudimentary form of social media, involving the creation by a person (or a group) of web-based content communicating information on any topic of the author’s choice. Others may interact by commenting on the blog’s content. Blogs are mainly text-based, though they now often incorporate pictures and videos. Blogs are very important sites for dissident activity in States which control mainstream media, as they are a key way of communicating alternative messages and ideas, especially if the blogger can maintain anonymity. “Content communities” are sites where users can share content amongst themselves. For example, photos can be shared via Flickr and videos can be shared via YouTube.12 Such sites have been invaluable for the global exposure of a government’s brutality, such as the video of the killing of Neda Agha Soltan in the Iranian protests of 2009, which “went viral” in the sense that the link to that footage was shared swiftly and widely using other internet functions, such as Facebook, Twitter (both discussed directly below) or email.
Finally, there are “social networking” sites where people share information amongst communities. These sites are very versatile, enabling the sharing of text, pictures, videos, audio files and other applications. The two most famous sites are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook enables users to share information with an unlimited amount of “friends” (who must be approved by the user), whom one normally knows somehow in real life (though that is not essential). For groups, brands or companies, including those campaigning for a cause, it is more common to set up “pages” which attract an unlimited number of “fans” (who do not have to be approved). One can choose whether to have a completely open Facebook page, or whether to limit access to one’s friends. However, it is difficult to prevent one’s content from being subsequently shared by friends to their friends, and so on. Facebook’s penetration is extraordinary: it was reported as having 600 million “active” users in January 2011,13 that is one in ten people in the world regularly engaging with Facebook. There are other similar but less successful sites, such as MySpace, as well as more specialized platforms, such as Linked-In which focuses on creating professional networks. Twitter is a micro-blogging site, enabling the global sharing by users of “tweets”, text-based content of up to 140 characters. One can share a surprising amount of information in 140 characters, as one can include links to longer stories or other content, such as pictures, photos, videos and audio streams. One’s tweets are immediately visible to one’s “followers”. One can institute controls over the persons who can follow, or even “expel” followers by “blocking” them. However, anybody can ordinarily follow anybody, so, unlike one’s Facebook “friends” (but like a site’s Facebook “fans”), one may know very few of one’s followers. Furthermore, most tweets are public and searchable on the internet. Tweets can be easily distributed via the “retweet” function. Twitter is an extraordinary source of information, probably because it is linking vast numbers of people together who do not know each other: one can probably learn more from non-acquaintances than acquaintances. One may also search Twitter for information on a particular topic. Posts on a story may be grouped to facilitate searches for that story by the use of a “hashtag”: for example, stories about Tunisia were often tagged #Tunisia. In April 2011, Business Insider reported that there were 21 million “active” Twitter users. Social Media sites are all tend to be free. Anyone can create a Facebook or a Twitter account, up load a YouTube video without cost. Of course this access to social media is dependent upon ones access to the internet. Internet access is pretty much available anywhere and everywhere in the United States, but it is less available in the developing world. In Febuary 2011 US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that internet access now covers one third of the world’s population. (Clinton) Perhaps the most significant development in social media is the smartphone. Mobile phones with internet access built in cameras, video cameras and blogging tools are spreading world wide. Smartphones and other phones with internet connections will also become more common, especially as the earlier generations are discarded by upgrading Westerners. Therefore, more and more people are able to instantly upload pictures and video to the web. This is crucial because it makes censorship practically impossible. It is no longer possible for oppressive regimes to hide government brutatallity from the outside world. One prominent sceptic regarding the role of social media in progressive social and political change is the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. He argues in an article published in October 2010 that real social change is brought about by higth risk meaningful activism, like the sitins by black college students in North Carolina, in 1960, or the year-long Montgomery bus boycott organized by Martin Luther King n 1955. These movements according to gladwell were characterized by a strong group identity and cohesion with “strong ties”.
In contrast social media seems to promote weak ties and low risk, low effort activism. It is very easy to simply “like” something on Facebook, or retweet a story. “These actions may require little effort, yet might lull the protagonist into thinking they are doing something meaningful. (Gladwell)”

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