Social Media Says No

It's not so good at building consensus that can replace one power structure with another.

by / September 26, 2011
Photo: Ron Rothbart. An Egyptian and his cat join others in Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for President Mubarak's resignation. Ron Rothbart

Chances are that when you log in to social media sites these days, it’s hardly to tell the world what you had for breakfast. Given the power social media wields to influence opinions, perhaps it is a tool for you too to chip in your bit. And while you are at it, note that you too have become part of a massive social media movement.

From the Arab spring -- that used social media extensively to demand political change in the authoritarian Arab world -- to the London riots where rioters used Twitter and Facebook to amplify unrest, 2011 could well be a year of a social media renaissance. In India and China, for example, social media is being actively used to rattle authorities, and in the U.S. state of Georgia, a digital rally through Twitter is trying to reverse a death sentence.

Since the Arab uprising, activists globally have championed the power of the Internet and mobile phone as a tool for free speech, resulting in social media suddenly blossoming into a massively powerful medium that can impact the world; not only positively, but at times, for ill.

“With the proliferation and penetration of the Internet -- while it was expected that social media would be an invaluable tool for citizen power, its extent has been surprising,” says Fadi Salem, fellow and program director at the Dubai School of Government.

Early this year Salem, along with fellow researchers, conducted a study on the use of social media. They noted that on a global level, the penetration the social media has been the fastest in the Arab countries over the past few years.

“Social networks not only enabled the connection and horizontal flow of information in the society, in countries where the media is controlled by the state. But wherever problems existed, and people had to discuss them, social media became a platform of choice ... It proved invaluable in networking and has allowed people to reach out to each other, to coordinate and to share matters of interest.”

Indeed the rapid rise of social media, driven by the past decade’s Internet boom, has brought with it change that few would have imagined even a few years back. Today, social media tools have become indispensable in the daily lives of many, merging their online and offline experience, and becoming one of the main methods of social connection and interaction around the world, between individuals, or with businesses and governments.

As David Parry, assistant professor emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas, says, “the technology of social media has changed the way people communicate, and that changes the way people influence opinions.”

In one of his blogs Parry also notes that the power of social media is such that it has also achieved the ability to synchronize beliefs and coordinate people and action in a way and on a scale not previously possible.

The Arab Spring is a poster boy for this phenomenon where Twitter, Hash Tags and FaceBook groups successfully mobilized protestors who rose up to take down dictators. These groups came from all backgrounds -- rich, middle-class, and poor -- and simply communicated with their mobile phones and Internet to organize mass movements.

Experts also say that social media has helped narrow the inequalities between social classes while educated and wealthier people with greater access to ICTs have learned to use social media for more development-related activities as opposed to entertainment.

Logically then, it could be safe to assume that social media and technology penetration leads to more democracy and social justice. The more access to ICT in a country, the less the economic disparity; the deeper the Internet penetration, the less political corruption.

Yet the question is how much of a responsible role does the medium play in shaping up the society? After all, while a force for good can indeed usher positive change, it can also be tainted by the motive of people using it.

For instance, social media’s ability to offer communication instantaneously and anonymously also helped rioters in London who were suspected to have used social media to arrange and encourage civil disobedience on a massive scale, without leaving a paper trail for anyone to follow.

Listen to what a London resident called "Alex" recounted in the height of the riots; “It became nearly impossible to tell who was tweeting speculation and who was tweeting fact. One person would report an entire flat complex on fire whereas two minutes later someone in the same location would comment on everything being calm and no trouble. I came to realize that Twitter, although a powerful tool for breaking news, is poor for retrieving factual relevant information in a time of crisis.”

Alex in fact even abandoned social media when he found such Tweets “very distressing and causing more harm than good.”

These incidents then drive experts like Parry to conclude that, “[even if] social media does not create unrest; it helps in amplifying the unrest that already exists,” disturbances too can spread like wildfire when it is shared across the wider network.

“Social media is very good at being anti-power because it is good at collecting people who are discontented. What it is not perhaps so good at is building slow, methodical consensus ... that can replace one power structure with another,” he adds.

“It is good at overthrowing power but the question is, is it good at replacing an alternative power?” he asked adding, “There isn’t enough proof of that.”

Parry even adds that a social movement empowered by the use of social media actually hinders the formation of stable power structures because, according to him, revolutions which utilize social media yield a different form of governance and power distribution that are often detrimental for establishing a stable democracy. Parry says while the movement in Egypt was more interested in getting rid of the Hosni Mubarak regime, it failed to replace it with an alternative.

“There was no part of the movement ready to take power once Mubarak was ousted,” wrote Parry in his blog. “No one person or group or even diverse group of people had the ability to negotiate with the government. Now this kind of frame for thinking about protests is not particular to social media, indeed you could have counter-power or anti-power via a range of media. But I do think that the speed and organizational structure of social media probably lends itself to being easily used as a force for anti-power, an easy way to organize a massive “no,” but deciding on the next step might be the more tricky part.”

Still says Salem, “Social media is an important tool in any society that need to transform: it can be a catalyst for creation of a critical mass to enable the movement.”

Besides, says Sunil Khilnani, a media professor at King’s College, London, the technology of social media -- as in any technology -- just defines its uses. How it is used will be shaped by the actual political and economic conditions present in the particular society.

Finally adds Khilnani, “[While] it is true that, social media can sometimes be a powerful tool in the hands of independent citizens, its uses can also be orchestrated by governments or by interests who control media channels and networks. So, it is neither a panacea nor a dire threat.”

 Indrajit Basu is the International Correspondent for Digital Communities

Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.