At a local gathering, a group of people was asked if they blogged, they shook their heads in disagreement. They were then asked if they changed their Facebook statuses or shared videos, articles etc on social media; to this, they enthusiastically agreed in unison. Not many of them knew that using social media – albeit for status updates, moderate sharing of website links and videos – is micro-blogging, which makes them all bloggers. The social media cloud in now so powerful that a teenager in a small town can address a huge audience; but it all comes down to the message one intends to convey.
The Iranian elections in 2009 are often reported as a case study, being the first global event where the world witnessed the potential of social media as a propaganda jukebox and a platform for cyber-activism. The day the election results were announced, anonymous Twitter handles were created; these became the main source of information from Iran to the rest of the world. These anonymous users asked the global audience to change their current location to Tehran, their display pictures to green (Pakola fan, anyone?) and share every news item that contained the hash-tag #iranelections. Not surprisingly, the US State Department asked Twitter to suspend it’s scheduled down time maintenance that would have disrupted the ensuing drama. So did a revolution take place? None whatsoever. You can blame the fake Twitter ids for painting the wrong picture, the global digital divide that kept a significant population out of the loop, or the Iranian residents who were indifferent to the so-called ‘green revolution’. Whoever you blame, the fact remains that the revolution never came.
A couple of revolutions did, however, take place two years later. They triggered a domino effect in the Arab world, with autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt crumbling down, and the setting off of uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Jordan and many more. Mainstream news channels like Al Jazeera, field reporters, journalists and activists on ground took up social media tools to create awareness and spread the word. The impact (of social media) became such that the revolution in Egypt was being dubbed as the revolution of the Facebook generation. So we must ask ourselves: Is it inevitable for social media to be responsible for future revolutions in the modern world?
Online activism can be divided into three main categories: Awareness/advocacy, organization/mobilization, and action/reaction. This article will try to expose some of the myths of social media activism, based on the aforementioned categories.
Social or free media empowers ordinary, non-partisan individuals to publicize issues that otherwise don’t make it to the mainstream media (local and international) for numerous reasons. Alternate and social media allow issues such as child abuse, gender-based violence, bureaucratic transgressions etc – which the mainstream media is reluctant to address – to receive the attention they deserve.
Here it would be appropriate to mention Take Back the Tech, an initiative taken to use technology to create awareness about woman issues, and educate woman on how to protect their online presence. The campaign encourages woman to use technology for their benefit, and highlights cases where technology was misused for gender violence. Though the campaign is mainly advocated on social media and mostly covers technology review and issues, all persons involved sit together from time to time to brainstorm ideas and execute a strategy.
What doesn’t work?
Misinformation coming from an unidentified source, no matter how exhilarating or seemingly-correct, can create confusion and damage the cause. How many times have we received and/or forwarded text messages or e-mails that eventually turned out to be a hoax?
Author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell made waves and enemies with his article in The New Yorker. Though he was widely criticized by cyber-activists for his theory, he made some valid points. According to Gladwell, acquaintances that we make online are weak compared to the bonds of friends and family in the real life. He also opined that, when online, people put their minimum at stake, to accomplish goals that are achieved putting in minimum efforts.
Fund raisers, donations, relief efforts serving the common goal with little or no risk involved. A recent flood relief effort organized by Pakistani civilians and NGOs is an example of successful mobilization using social media.
What doesn’t work?
Since social media gives every user an equal opportunity to speak, it is a double-edged sword. “So how do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”
As there is no defined leadership structure or hierarchy, it can be quite difficult to reach consensus and prioritize goals. Also, since there are no defined rules of engagement, social networks can be the eyes and ears of the enemy.
Exhibit: Wael Ghonim, a prominent Egyptian internet activist and currently the Marketing Head of Google Middle East and North Africa, gives much credit to social media; but in Egypt’s case, the country was already united behind a common goal: Get rid of Mubarak.
Conditions, cultures and traditions vary from one nation to another. In the past, to highlight the importance of their dedication to a cause, activists marched on the streets and caused traffic on busy roads. Now, there are other, more civilized yet radical ways to advocate a cause. Some activists turn to hacktivism to propagate their political stance; they take down websites by uploading Trojan viruses and send out mass e-mails (e-mail bombs) to create annoyance and disruption.
Setting up of websites, e-petitions, blog posts, podcasts, Facebook pages and live coverage of events on Twitter etc often works. However, their effectiveness varies in various circumstances. Some issues garner more attention than others – irrespective of their importance.
What doesn’t work?
Relying solely on social media for numbers is not a good idea. When the former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharaf, was asked why he thought he was popular among the Pakistanis, he credited his 300,000-plus fans on Facebook. However, when it came to on-ground support, hardly a thousand gathered to demonstrate their support for him.
At the end of the day
Social media is an excellent tool to raise awareness and promote social causes. But when it comes to toppling down an autocratic regime, one has to do more than merely check-in a protest via Foursquare.
- Is social media destroying the world? I don’t think so (techi.com)
- How to Survive a Social Media Apocalypse (blogs.constantcontact.com)
- Why Your Employees Should Be Involved in Social Media (lockergnome.com)
- How to Cultivate a Company-Wide Social Media Culture (hubspot.com)
- Which Of These 3 Social Media Profiles Are You? (readwriteweb.com)