Social Media: Activism Reinvented

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sOCIAL Media has changed activism forever

Bring Back our Girls, The Iranian Green Movement, Black Lives Matter, Stop Kony 2012 all have one thing in common, they leveraged the power of social media and succeeded to varying degrees. The introduction of social media has pioneered a new form of activism in that we no longer have to go out and march to display resolve towards a particular issue because we can send out posts that leads to results.

As at January 2016, 1.5 billion people across the world actively use Facebook. This shows that social media networks cut across multitudes. As a result, citizen journalism has attained a new frontier and guaranteed more people a voice to speak out in the hope that it brings results. This standpoint is one agreed on by Alexandra Davidson, a scholar at the University of Melbourne where she speaks on the revolution that social media platforms have brought to the world asserting that “Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have become ‘world changing’ sources gaining respect and legitimacy in the provision of up-to-minute reports. With the increased availability of wireless connectivity and the introduction and rapid consumption of modern technology, smartphones have become a means of portable digital media production and data transfer systems. This has led to an increase in eyewitness reports and ‘citizen journalists’ creating a … society where everyone tells stories.” Davidson’s point is that because of the alliance between social media and the increased availability of internet, information is dispersed in faster fashion and thus easily accessible. The importance of citizen journalism was shown in the Iranian Green Movement of June 2009. Presidential elections had just been held in Iran and the results declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner while Iranians had reason to believe Mir Hossein Mousavi should have emerged victorious. Protests against the results broke out but were quelled by police raids across the country. Jared Keller in his article, Evaluating Iran’s Twitter Revolution enlightened us on the importance of citizen journalism saying, “Well-developed Twitter lists showed a constant stream of situation updates and links to photos and videos, all of which painted a portrait of the developing turmoil.” While Twitter did not lead to the overthrowing of the Iranian government, Twitter lists led the US government to convince Twitter to delay an upgrade that would have led to a breakdown in communications.

In a similar vein, the internet has led to democratization of news which has empowered lives. Empowerment in that information is now readily available because of social media; censorship no longer robs people of their right to know because social media is near impossible to censor. This school of thought is shared by Christopher Jones in his paper, Activism or Slacktivism? The Role of Social Media in Effecting Social Change where he argued that “Today citizen journalists document natural disasters faster than traditional media, presidential debates are moderated by YouTube.com users, lenders on Kiva.org can make personal loans to artisans in developing nations, and activists can gain support through e-petitions on Change.org. Social media has also expanded activism to new demographics such as the elderly or disabled (Mukherjee, 2010), and given voices to those in countries that have restrictive expression laws. Social networks are also effective methods for harnessing the power of these and other new volunteers and recruiting them to existing movements.” (Gonzalez-Bailon et al, 2011). The argument being put forward is due to social media, censorship has been cracked down on and documentation of issues has become easier. These ideas of social media alleviating censorship and enhancing the dissemination of information are relevant because more people now have access to information. It is now possible for me to go on my Twitter feed and post a picture or video which could inspire action. Before the age of social media, citizen journalists did not exist and most of what was being spread came from the likes of CNN and BBC. This was faulty because these organizations may have ulterior motives and not necessarily be interested in feeding the public a complete story. For instance, Jared Keller, while speaking on the Iranian Green Movement asserts that “Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching? — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection.” This shows that the large media houses may not necessarily be committed to telling the story but that through social media networks, citizen journalism has assured that stories come out even when the traditional media fail to report them. This suggests that social media is indeed powerful as it eliminates censorship and countries who want to continue to control their people know they must ban social media because of its power to inspire social change. This fear of the power social media possesses informs the decision of the Chinese to block websites like Facebook.

Social media connects like-minded people and aids the development of powerful ideas. In some ways, it acts as an informal thinktank as it offers and exposes users to a pluarity of ideas and concepts. Clay Shirky shows his support for this point of view when he insists that “As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” in his article, The Political Power of Social Media. The essence of Shirky’s argument is that because of social media, there are more opportunities to speak out and we have better chances of taking a united stance on political issues. This idea of employing social media to effectively take a stance on political issues was shown in the Ferguson protests of 2014. Twitter and Facebook were actively used to plan protest locations and websites were even set up to show possible protest locations. The Ferguson protests did not lead to the conviction of Darren Wilson however, they showed how the internet can be leveraged to efficaciously plan the actions of a large group of people who may not necessarily be able to meet face-to-face regularly. Social media connects people of similar interests, this can be argued to be the first step to making an impact, surrounding oneself with like-minded people. As such, social media must be regarded as a tool that can lead to powerful results.

Malcolm Gladwell is of opposition to my theories of the importance of social media in influencing social change. His argument being that social media activism does not lead to results in the same manner that offline activism has shown. In Gladwell’s piece Small Change, he claims that “The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.” Basically, Gladwell is asserting that if taking on a powerful group is the aim, there needs to be a hierarchy, one that social media activism cannot provide. I find Gladwell’s standpoint to be flawed because social media does not necessarily need a hierarchy to succeed. In Egypt during the Arab Spring, it can be confidently said that no clear hierarchy existed and Gladwell without doubt will admit that Hosni Mubarak’s government was indeed a powerful and well organized group. The idea that the Egyptian protests possessed no real leader is shared by Christos A. Frangonikolopoulos and Ioannis Chapsos in their assessment of the role social media played in the Arab Spring where they write that “Leaderless ‘social non-movements’, as mentioned above, operated and operate as mechanisms that make a virtue and philosophy out of their disorganized character in order to reject authoritarianism and drive change from below.” Basically they are saying that during the Arab Spring, leaderless movements played a key role in defining the result which was an eliminated Hosni Mubarak and this directly conflicts Gladwell’s standpoint.

Social media networks can be instrumental in driving societal change because of the fact that they reach much more people than traditional media, cannot be censored and tie like-minded people together. Across many countries, governments have acknowledged the power of social media while some have failed to do. The world has changed immensely and central to today’s world is social media in trying to bring about results as shown by case studies like The Iranian Green Movement. It is therefore vital that we leverage social media because it has and will continue to lead to results.

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